The NFL is getting younger. Football is a brutally tough sport; its players have always had notoriously short careers; and thanks to the current CBA’s rookie wage scale, the league’s middle class is shrinking. Teams are opting more and more frequently to roll with less proven first-contract guys over more experienced—and far more expensive—veterans. That makes it harder than ever for those players on their second or third contracts to grab and hold roster spots, and a season or two of subpar play is often reason enough for teams to move on.
That reality is surely on the minds of these eight veterans—each of whom are in major need of a renaissance after subpar performances in 2018. Here are a few of this year’s biggest bounce-back candidates.
OLB Clay Matthews, Rams
Matthews signed a two-year, $9.2 million contract with the Rams in March to end an illustrious decade-long run with the Packers that included six Pro Bowls, a franchise-record 83.5 sacks, and a Super Bowl win. But, after posting a career-low 3.5 sacks in 16 games last season, the 33-year-old pass rusher is showing signs of age and heads into what could be a pivotal season for his career: Matthews’s contract contains $5.5 million in guarantees, but another underwhelming performance could precipitate a short stay with the Rams. If released after this year, Matthews would cost the team just $2 million in dead cap in 2020 while saving the team $3.75 million.
It’s not hard to see the former Packer rebounding in L.A. this year, though. His sack numbers dipped last year, but he notched a 26 percent pass-rush win rate, which was 27th among 91 qualifying pass rushers, per ESPN. Playing in a rotation with Dante Fowler and Samson Ebukam should keep Matthews fresh throughout the year, and it never hurts to line up next to all-world interior defender Aaron Donald, who should garner the lion’s share of the attention from opposing offensive lines. Plus, Matthews—who played in an off-ball linebacker role for the Packers in both 2014 and 2015—brings versatility to Wade Phillips’s hybrid scheme. Matthews expects to play at outside linebacker on base defense looks (first and second down) while moving all around the team’s defensive front on third-down situations. If Phillips can scheme up creative ways to free up Matthews on blitzes and stunts, his sack numbers will climb in 2019.
WR Demaryius Thomas and OLB Jamie Collins, Patriots
Both Collins and Thomas head into this season as boom-or-bust propositions for the defending champs. The 31-year-old Thomas is not even a lock to make the team as he works to rehab the Achilles tendon he tore last December. If he can get somewhere close to full speed by September, though, Thomas has potential as a solid intermediate threat and possession receiver for Tom Brady and brings a history of production to the team’s wide-open and talent-deficient pass-catching corps. In theory, Thomas can give New England a bridge option for the role the team likely has in mind long term for rookie N’Keal Harry, who’s certain to go through some growing pains early on as he learns the Patriots’ intricate scheme. Thomas is never going to be as explosive as he was earlier in his career, but he still knows how to use his size to take advantage of smaller defensive backs and has experience. Still, Thomas’s play has declined in the past two years. He’s now on the wrong side of 30 and coming off a major injury, so the 10-year pro needs to impress early on if he expects to extend his career.
Collins, meanwhile, is hoping a second tour in New England can jump-start his stalled career. The 29-year-old defender was a second-round pick by the Patriots in 2013 and rose to All-Pro status as a do-it-all playmaker for the team before being traded to Cleveland midway through the 2016 season. Collins’s play slipped after the Browns gave him a four-year, $50 million deal in 2017, which led to his release in March, but he remains a good fit—in theory—for New England’s hybrid defense. Collins became a star in Bill Belichick’s ever-morphing scheme in a hybrid role between off-ball linebacker and edge rusher; he has a chance to be productive if the team can draw on his combination of athleticism and versatility and deploy him in a similar style.
OLB Pernell McPhee, Ravens
McPhee quickly outplayed his draft slot as a fifth-rounder for the Ravens in 2011 and posted 17.0 sacks in his first four seasons in Baltimore before parlaying that performance into a five-year, $38.75 million contract with the Bears in 2015. Knee and shoulder injuries limited his tenure in Chicago to just three years, though, and after playing an insignificant role in Washington in 2018, the powerful 6-foot-3, 265-pound outside linebacker is looking for a late-career resurgence on a one-year pact with the team that drafted him. One advantage he has is that the Ravens are weak at the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthew Judon.
After losing stalwart pass rusher Terrell Suggs and the dynamic Za’Darius Smith in free agency, McPhee will compete for a roster spot and meaningful snaps with the likes of Tim Williams, Tyus Bowser, and rookie third-rounder Jaylon Ferguson. McPhee, 30, hasn’t played a full season since his last stint with the Ravens, but he’s a savvy, physical edge presence who could step back up into a big role.
WR Randall Cobb, Cowboys
At 28, Cobb checks in as the youngest player on this list. The former Packer must prove that he’s still got plenty of gas in the tank on a one-year, $5 million deal in Dallas. Green Bay let the eight-year vet walk in free agency after 38 catches, 383 yards, and two touchdowns in nine games last year—a season marred by concussion and hamstring injuries. Cobb’s performance dwindled even when he was on the field, as he notched career lows in receptions per game (4.2), yards per game (42.6), and yards per target (6.3) while watching his catch rate drop to 62.3 percent—second worst of his career.
But there’s plenty of reason to believe Cobb can resuscitate his career with the Cowboys, who lost Cole Beasley (who recorded 87 targets in 2018) to the Bills in free agency. And so far, the chemistry between Cobb and Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott has reportedly been strong. With the team’s receiver depth chart muddled after clear-cut no. 1 Amari Cooper, the Cowboys could lean hard on a veteran player like Cobb to master the necessary nuances of the passing game and provide Prescott with a security blanket and playmaker over the middle. Age and injury have robbed Cobb of some of the elusiveness he displayed early in his career, but the former college quarterback is a savvy route runner who understands defensive coverage schemes and how to exploit them. That could be the edge he needs to bounce back in Dallas.
DE Vinny Curry, Eagles
Curry notched 47 regular-season pressures in a career year in 2017 then added another 15 clutch pressures during the team’s Super Bowl run. That performance wasn’t enough to stop the team from making him a cap casualty a few months later, though, and Curry signed a three-year, $23 million free-agent pact with the Buccaneers. That marriage lasted just one year; Curry underwhelmed for Tampa Bay in 2018 and registered just 24 pressures in 12 games, according to Pro Football Focus, and the team released him in February.
Now back with the Eagles on a one-year deal, Curry has the chance to play the role of an efficient rotational pass rusher behind starters Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett. Curry has already shown in the past that he’s an excellent fit for Jim Schwartz’s defensive scheme. If he can stay healthy in 2019, he’s got a strong chance for a late-career surge.
OT Riley Reiff, Vikings
The Vikings signed Reiff to a five-year, $58.8 million deal with the hope that he’d help fix their offensive line. Instead, he just joined the list of potential liabilities in that group. Reiff struggled badly at left tackle in 2018 and matched Mike Remmers for a team-high 42 pressures allowed, which tied for 10th-worst among all linemen leaguewide, according to Pro Football Focus. In the team’s Week 3 loss to the Bills, Reiff allowed 12 pressures. It got so bad last year that the Vikings mulled moving Reiff inside to guard.
Now 30, Reiff heads into a critical season with the team. The veteran tackle will carry a $13.2 million cap hit in 2020, and a release after June 1 next summer would free up $9 million in space for Minnesota. Anything less than a stellar performance this season could spell the end of Reiff’s time with the Vikings.
QB Joe Flacco, Broncos
Flacco looked well on his way to a much-needed renaissance early last season by tossing eight touchdowns and just two interceptions in the team’s first four games as he registered a 96.9 passer rating and led the team to a 3-1 start. But things began to unravel from there: Baltimore lost four of its next five games and Flacco tossed four touchdowns and four picks while watching his passer rating dip to 73.7 in that stretch. He suffered a hip injury in the Week 9 loss to the Steelers, then Lamar Jackson took over and held on to the starting job (even when Flacco recovered), and then the Ravens traded their former longtime starter to the Broncos in March for a fourth-round pick.
Now in Denver, Flacco finds himself in a new, yet similar situation: Looking to extend his career as a starter while holding off his team’s highly drafted rookie quarterback. Granted, Jackson was a first-round pick and Drew Lock was a second-rounder, but the 34-year-old veteran certainly can’t rest on his laurels in Denver. Flacco must prove that he can take care of the ball, push it downfield, and stay healthy at the helm of the Broncos’ new-look offense under coordinator Rich Scangarello. On one hand, Flacco’s 83.1 passer rating and 6.6 yards per attempt average through his past 99 starts doesn’t bode well for his chances this year. On the other hand, maybe he just needed a move to higher elevation.
Von Miller said Joe Flacco threw the ball 80 yards today vs the defense, and it was across the field. He rolled one way and threw it deep all the way to the other side of the field.— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) June 4, 2019