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Make-or-break candidates: Players at a crossroads entering 2023 NFL season

With each day, we move a step closer to the start of the 2023 NFL season. For some, it could be a career-defining year.

The stakes are as high as ever for a handful of notable players. Some are clinging to past glory, while others are out to prove they're worth big-time money in 2024 and beyond.

Below, I've identified 12 of the most prominent individuals who must deliver in 2023.

Ryan Tannehill
Tennessee Titans · QB

Tannehill has been waiting at the intersection since his three-interception outing against the Bengals in the Divisional Round of the 2021 playoffs. 

Since that forgettable performance, Tannehill has missed five contests due to injury and he’s done little to inspire confidence he can be the man to lead Tennessee to the promised land. Tennessee attempted to prepare for a future without Tannehill by drafting Liberty's Malik Willis in Round 3 of the 2022 draft. However, just as it became clear Willis wasn't close to being ready to handle the duties of a starter, ownership made a change in the front office, firing general manager Jon Robinson, who was replaced by Ran Carthon this offseason

Having no attachment to Willis, Carthon spent a second-round pick on Kentucky quarterback Will Levis in the 2023 draft, positioning him as Tannehill's potential successor. With Tannehill entering the final year of his deal, it seems it is only a matter of time before the Titans initiate a passing of the torch at quarterback. The soon-to-be 35-year-old is playing for his NFL future in 2023.

Kirk Cousins
Minnesota Vikings · QB

Cousins has carved out a remarkable career for himself. He entered the NFL as an afterthought, a fourth-round pick selected by Washington the same year it selected Robert Griffin III second overall.

Eleven years later, Cousins is a four-time Pro Bowler around whom the Vikings have built a contender. But Cousins is entering the final year of his contract. Minnesota hasn't made any drastic moves to prepare for a future without him, preserving his chances of earning another deal that could put him in line to retire with the Vikings. He's maintained a consistent level of play, completing 65.9 percent of his passes for 4,547 yards and a 29:14 TD-INT ratio in 2022 for a team that won 13 games and the NFC North title.

However, Minnesota's Super Wild Card Weekend exit from the playoffs was followed by the departure of several veteran playmakers this offseason. The team has moved on from Adam Thielen, Za'Darius Smith, Eric Kendricks and Dalvin Cook, among others. Danielle Hunter could be next. Will it be Cousins’ turn in 2024? If the Vikings decide they like what they have in fifth-round pick Jaren Hall, perhaps the team will turn the page. If they don't wish to go in a different direction under center, Cousins might get one more deal with the franchise that made waves by fully guaranteeing his first deal in Minnesota.

Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

It feels like Thomas has been at a crossroads for two years now. After setting the single-season record for receptions in 2019, Thomas has played in just 10 games over three injury-plagued campaigns. New Orleans is giving Thomas another chance in 2023, retaining him on a one-year, incentive-laden contract this offseason.

It's likely time to produce or move on for Thomas, who should have a better chance of succeeding now that Derek Carr is at quarterback. But none of that matters if Thomas can't stay healthy.

Baker Mayfield
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

Mayfield is now playing for his fourth different team since last summer. The decline has been steep for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, a player once billed as the savior of the Cleveland Browns. 

Mayfield could turn it all around with a productive season in Tampa. The task won't be easy, though. He arrives in Florida as the successor to the greatest quarterback of all time. Mayfield will team up with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Rachaad White. The weapons, while not quite as deep and diverse as the set with whom Brady won a title, won't be the issue. It will come down to whether the Buccaneers can protect Mayfield well enough to allow him to make plays. From there, it's about Mayfield avoiding the same pitfalls -- inaccuracy, turnovers -- that doomed him in Cleveland and Carolina.

Mayfield still has the same moxie that once convinced former Browns GM John Dorsey to spend the first overall pick on him. He'll need to prove he's good enough to be worth a multi-year deal, or else his descent could continue, and Kyle Trask will be there to take the snaps.

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

Things seem bleak in Nashville. Tennessee's roster lacks proven threats outside of Henry offensively, Ryan Tannehill is entering the final year of his deal, and Henry isn't getting any younger. The dreaded 30-year-old wall looms, and the Titans have run up enough miles on Henry's odometer to elicit a massive penalty from the dealership when it's time to turn in their lease. 

Speaking of the lease, there's only one year left on Henry's contract. He's set to make $10.5 million in base salary in 2023, and the Titans might not be too interested in handing him a similar salary in 2024, not after Henry turns 30 in January. He showed small signs of decline early in 2022 before rediscovering his form, a product of both persistence and stubborn usage (Henry led the NFL with 349 carries, the third time he's topped the charts in his career).

The Titans have indisputably extracted the most from Henry in his time in Tennessee. That time might be nearing its end, even if he produces another 1,500-yard season.

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

Dallas had a good year in 2022. The Cowboys won a playoff game and nearly cleared the Divisional Round hurdle that has haunted them since the Clinton administration. 

Prescott, meanwhile, had an OK year, completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 2,860 yards and a 23:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The latter statistic, though, signaled a legitimate concern. His league-high 15 interceptions were the most he’s thrown in a single season, and came in a year in which he missed five games. His passing yards paled in comparison to 2021, falling from 278.1 per game to 238.3. If Dallas is going to get over the hump and back into the Super Bowl, it needs more reliable play from its quarterback.

Prescott could be nearing a contractual crossroads, too. He's carrying a $26.8 million cap number in 2023, but the number for 2024 balloons to $59.45 million. It's safe to expect Dallas will want to rework his deal to lower the latter number.

Russell Wilson
Denver Broncos · QB

The 2023 season will be a massively important one for Wilson after a first-year flop in Denver.

Wilson's failures contributed to a disastrous 2022 season for the Broncos, who fired head coach Nathaniel Hackett before he finished his first season on the job. The team traded valuable draft capital this offseason for coach Sean Payton, who is tasked with fixing everything that went awry last year, especially Wilson’s performance.

Given the contract the Broncos gave Wilson before last season, it seems highly unlikely he’s going anywhere anytime soon, even if he can’t recapture his previous form. But 2023 remains a make-or-break season for him, because if he struggles again and the Broncos don't turn things around, the team is bound to consider other options at quarterback. 

Chase Young
Washington Commanders · DE

The last two seasons of Young's career have not gone according to plan.

After earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020, the injury-plagued Young has appeared in just 12 games. He's recorded 1.5 sacks in that span. Washington simply isn't getting close to a quality return on its investment. The Commanders declined Young's fifth-year option this offseason, setting up a make-or-break year for a player once seen as a promising face of the NFL's edge-rushing future.

He recently said he feels good, but he's not yet at full game speed. Eventually, he'll reach that point. And when he does, he'll encounter an intriguing opportunity that can produce drastically different outcomes: Succeed, and he'll be able to command a pretty penny. Fall short, and he'll be searching for another opportunity at a rate much lower than the one many once anticipated.

Josh Jacobs
Las Vegas Raiders · RB

Jacobs has had quite a year. Last August, there was speculation about whether the Raiders wanted to trade him after declining his fifth-year option -- something head coach Josh McDaniels said the team had no desire to do. By the end of the year, Jacobs had proven himself so valuable that the Raiders franchise-tagged him.

Jacobs led the NFL in rushing yards (1,653) and scored 12 rushing touchdowns in 2022, but he has yet to receive a lucrative extension offer to his liking (July 17 is the deadline for tagged players to sign a multi-year extension). If nothing changes on that front, he’ll have another chance to prove he is an essential part of the Raiders' future playing on a one-year tender in 2023.

Running back continues to be devalued in the pass-happy NFL, but if he produces another top-tier season in ‘23, the Raiders might have a tough time justifying not paying him. On the other hand, if he doesn't find as much success, the Raiders might have no problem moving on and leaving Jacobs to enter a market that hasn't been friendly to the position.

AJ Dillon
Green Bay Packers · RB

Dillon has rushed 750-plus yards and at least five touchdowns in each of the last two seasons. But he's the RB2 in Green Bay, stuck behind Aaron Jones as a traditional power back who carries value as a goal-line and short-yardage runner, but isn't used on every down.

He recently said he’s focused on playing free heading into a contract year. An interesting opportunity could await him in 2023 -- with Aaron Rodgers no longer around, the Packers might lean more on their running game.

Dillon could help himself a lot by finishing with double-digit touchdowns and becoming a more reliable back capable of turning short-yardage situations into big gains. If he can do that, the Packers -- or another team -- will have to seriously consider paying big bucks to secure his services.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

This one is simple: Tagovailoa needs to stay on the field.

When healthy, Tagovailoa has proven he's good enough to lead a high-powered Dolphins offense to great success. He had the league’s best passer rating in 2022 (105.5) but he missed five games due to concussions and has never started more than 13 games in a season. He acknowledged he considered retirement after the ’22 campaign.

The Dolphins have done nothing but indicate Tagovailoa is their guy, picking up his fifth-year option back in March. It's Tua or bust in 2023 for the Dolphins, but if he is unable to stay on the field, Miami might have to consider another route.

Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · RB

Ekeler made headlines by requesting permission to explore trade options this offseason, citing his desire for a better deal. The Chargers eventually agreed to revise his contract, including $1.75 million in added incentives.

After back-to-back seasons in which he rushed for 900-plus yards, broke 600 receiving yards and scored at least 18 touchdowns, Ekeler is in the final year of his deal. He might never fetch elite money because of the reality of his position and the way teams value it. But he could earn a good deal by posting an even better season in 2023.

He's certainly positioned to do so in an offense filled with talent at key positions. For Ekeler, it will come down to health and consistency. A year from now, he might be counting his new dollars, perhaps while wearing a new uniform.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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