The NFL can be notoriously fickle. The risk of injury, the lack of guaranteed money, and the ever-changing game can alter the trajectory of a career very quickly. For some players, it leaves them in a position where they have to prove themselves again in order to re-establish themselves as top-tier stars.
Here are 15 players who are looking to do just that in 2018. They may have had off-field issues, a lot of injuries, are entering a contract year, or any combination thereof. Either way, all eyes will be on them this coming season, and it’s up to them to respond.
1) Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
There’s so much good about Beckham, but we haven’t seen enough of it in the last year or so. He hasn’t stayed healthy. He’s gotten involved in off-field distractions. He hasn’t produced to the standards he’s capable of even when healthy. Now entering a contract year, he needs to prove to the Giants and everyone else that he can let his football do the talking. So far, he’s reportedly off to a good start.
How do you define an NFL playmaker? There isn’t a strict definition, but for us, we’re talking about players who can do the remarkable any time they’re on the field. It can be a quarterback who can improvise or uncork a 50-yard touchdown in the blink of an eye. It can be a running back who can use power, speed, or elusiveness to create something out of nothing. It can be a wide receiver who does the seemingly impossible while making a catch. It can even be a defensive player capable of that game-changing strip sack or a defensive back who can end an opposing possession just like that. These are the biggest game-changers, the guys who can make the biggest plays.
Here are the 20 best playmakers in the NFL.
20) Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
The only thing that has held Zeke back has been his suspension. Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards per game for the second consecutive season, though his mark of 98.3 was lower than his stellar 108.7 yards per game as a rookie in 2016. He has 12 career 100-yard rushing games and is very often rushing for at least 80 yards in a game. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie and had a big play of 60 yards. Expect him to continue breaking big plays and consistently ranking among the league’s best rushers in 2018.
Ezekiel Elliott has a chance to reclaim his spot as one of the best running backs in football if he plays a full season in 2018, but the NFL Network is going to make him earn it. The Cowboys star is clearly feeling up to the challenge.
When NFL Network released its annual list of the league’s top 100 players a year ago, Elliott checked in at No. 7. He tumbled all the way down to No. 54 this year, but he insists he is not sweating it.
“It is what it is. I missed six games,” Elliott said, per Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. “I know the player I am. You guys know the player I am. Every player in the league knows the player I am. I don’t really need verification from a Top 100 list.”
Elliott, of course, was suspended for six games last season stemming from his role in an alleged domestic violence incident. With no restrictions on how much he can play this season, he expects his ranking to shoot back up a year from now.
“It should be,” he said.
The NFL Network’s Top 100 list is always controversial, and one player already expressed his frustration over where he was ranked. Elliott should have plenty of motivation to bounce back in 2018, and his low ranking can only help.
- Ezekiel Elliott
Dez Bryant may no longer be a member of the Dallas Cowboys, but he still has Ezekiel Elliott in his corner.
Elliott took a break from tweeting about the Eastern Conference Finals to express his support for Dez.
Doubt 88 all you want. He gone ball regardless #ThrowUpTheX
— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) May 16, 2018
“Doubt 88 all you want. He gone ball regardless,” Elliott said of Bryant.
Not a ton of Cowboys talked about Bryant after the Cowboys released him in the offseason, perhaps because they were told not to. But Elliott has supported him all along, calling the move “tough” last month.
Bryant remains a free agent following his release by the Cowboys and seems to indicate that is by intention. His former teammate Jason Witten thinks Dez will end up signing with one NFC North team.
Ezekiel Elliott knows that losing Dez Bryant was not easy.
The Dallas Cowboys running back spoke about the team’s decision to release Bryant, who had been with the franchise for eight years.
Ezekiel Elliott to @JJT_Journalist on Dez Bryant being released: “That was tough. Dez is someone that we are all very close with. He was a leader on our team. He was one of our better players. It’s just the nature of the game. It’s a business, and it just shows you that.”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 23, 2018
“That was tough. Dez is someone that we are all very close with. He was a leader on our team. He was one of our better players. It’s just the nature of the game. It’s a business, and it just shows you that,” Elliott told Jean-Jacques Taylor, according to Jon Machota.
Bryant’s release was somewhat anticipated given some of Stephen Jones’ comments about the wide receiver. It’s also clear that Dallas preferred to just move on from Dez because they didn’t even offer him the chance to take a pay cut.
Finding a receiver to replace Bryant won’t be easy, but signing Allen Hurns and adding someone via the draft could help.
It’s safe to say Ezekiel Elliott wants Richard Sherman to join him on the Dallas Cowboys.
Sherman had posted to Twitter thanking everyone for his support after his release along with a message to many fans telling him to sign with their team.
Thank you to everyone for the kind words. This is just another chapter in the journey. This will be an ongoing process and I am excited to take on this challenge. To the fans urging me to join your team, I am humbled but I can only look at the teams that have reached out.
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) March 10, 2018
Elliott decided to go a step further than the fans, openly calling on Sherman to join the Cowboys to win a Super Bowl.
Come over here and get another ring. https://t.co/MKBry2TbwU
— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) March 10, 2018
The bad news for Sherman is that, at this point, he doesn’t appear to have a visit with Dallas on his schedule, though Elliott may be able to greet him if he joins up with an NFC rival.
Jerry Jones has been outspoken about how excessive he believes Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was since Roger Goodell handed it down, and the Dallas Cowboys owner is not changing his stance with the league looking to hit his wallet hard.
While speaking with reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine over the weekend, Jones was asked if Elliott has learned anything from the suspension and some of the mistakes the running back made last offseason. The 75-year-old took the opportunity to once again voice how unfair he thinks the six-game ban was.
“He’s paid the most level of punishment that I’ve seen for what he did,” Jones said, via Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News. “So he’s done that. That would make any of us cognizant of the fact that you have serious accountability for any situation that you get into.
“…And it’s costly, and it’s certainly cost him. It’s cost him. So he’s smart, he is smart. And so we should have every reason to believe that that will be a constant reminder when you’re making decisions. I think that’s the case.”
It was originally reported that Goodell planned to fine Jones millions of dollars, but in reality the league and its owners will be seeking to have Jones reimburse them for legal fees they incurred as a result of Elliott’s appeal and the Cowboys publicly supporting Elliott. Jones, of course, plans to contest the fine (or whatever you want to call it).
The Cowboys say they are not planning to watch Elliott more closely this offseason, so it’s no surprise that Jones is still calling more attention to the suspension than the mistakes the former Ohio State star has made.