Ten offensive players to keep an eye on were. The focus now turns to the other side of the ball.
Every season, a different set of players face a crossroads or have something to prove for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons are related to age, contract or salary cap concerns, injury, poor performance or off the field issues.
Ten defensive players to keep an eye on during the 2023 season fitting into one of those categories are below.
Young's career got off to a fast start. He was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2020. Young wasn't nearly as effective in his second year before tearing the ACL and patellar tendon in his right knee nine games into season. He only had 1.5 sacks in 2021 when he got hurt. The 2020 second overall pick missed 22 games before returning to action in Week 16 of the 2022 season.
The Commanders were more comfortable with the prospect of Young becoming an unrestricted free agent next offseason than picking up his fully guaranteed $17.452 million fifth year option for 2024. Young recently declared that he finally feels explosive again. Should Young regain the form from his rookie season, the Commander could be faced with a franchise tag decision between him and fellow defensive end Montez Sweat, who is also in his contract year.
It's been a challenge for Adams since he dramatically reset the safety market during the 2021 preseason with a four-year, $70 million contract extension (worth up to $72 million through incentives and salary escalators) averaging $17.5 million per year. Adams didn't measure up to a 2020 season, where he set an NFL record for defensive backs with 9.5 sacks and also earned second team All-Pro honors, in 2021. His 2021 season was cut short after 12 games because of a torn labrum in his left shoulder. A torn left quad tendon in the first half of the season opener ended Adams' 2022 campaign.
If Adams can't return to being the defensive weapon he described himself as prior to his big payday, 2023 could be his last season in Seattle. Adams' salary cap number jumps to $23.61 million in 2024, which is the highest among safeties. Seattle would pick up $9.39 million of cap room by parting ways with Adams next offseason.
White asked for a trade during the early part of the offseason because of the lack of a contract extension. The Buccaneers held their ground on White's trade request and a new deal. He is scheduled to make $11.706 million this season on his fifth-year option.
White reportedly wants to be among the NFL's highest-paid off-ball linebackers. The latest relevant data point to White is the four-year, $72 million contract averaging $18 million per year Tremaine Edmunds received from the Bears in March during free agency. Edmunds has $50 million in guarantees, of which $36.8 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
White being named September's NFC Defensive Player of the Month wasn't indicative of the type of 2022 season he had. Cleaning up the missed tackles and lapses in coverage while continuing to make splash plays could result in a contract averaging more than Edmunds' $18 million per year. White doesn't have to worry about the Buccaneers designating him as a franchise player. The last off-ball linebacker to get a franchise tag was David Harris by the Jets in 2011.
Jackson's debut season with the Chargers left a lot to be desired. The Chargers signed Jackson to a five-year, $82.5 million contract with $40 million of guarantees in 2022 free agency to shore up the secondary. Ankle surgery during the latter part of the preseason that caused Jackson to miss two games came as a surprise.
Jackson didn't resemble the player who earned Pro Bowl and second team All-Pro honors in 2021 before rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee during a Week 7 contest against the Seahawks. Opposing quarterbacks completed 73.1% of passes (19 of 26 attempts) averaging 19.5 yards per catch when targeting Jackson for a 154.6 passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. He gave up four touchdowns in five games after allowing just three over 17 games in 2021.
Jackson could find himself on the chopping block after the season without improved play. The guarantees in Jackson's contract run out after this season. The Chargers would pick up $4.375 million of 2024 cap room by releasing Jackson conventionally. His 2024 cap number is $19.375 million while his dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on the roster, is $15 million. Also, $14.375 million of 2024 cap space would be gained by releasing Jackson with a Post June 1 Designation.
Queen had his best season as a pro in 2022. He formed arguably the NFL's best linebacker duo after a midseason trade with the Bears for Roquan Smith. It wasn't enough for the Ravens to pick up Queen's fully guaranteed $12.722 million fifth-year option for 2024. Queens' fate in Baltimore may have been sealed once the Ravens gave Smith a five-year, $100 million contract in January to set the market for off-ball linebackers. It's uncommon for teams to make a significant investment in two off-ball linebackers.
Arizona's previous regime never really figured out how to best utilize Simmons' tremendous athleticism. The eighth overall pick in the 2020 draft didn't make his mark at linebacker before spending most of his time last season playing multiple positions in the secondary. The new regime of general manager Monti Ossenfort and head coach Jonathan Gannon passed on Simmons' fifth year in 2024 with him switching to safety. The early returns haven't been promising as Simmons struggled in Arizona's second preseason game against the Chiefs.
Davenport didn't live up to his potential after the Saints traded two first-round picks to move up to take him 14th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. That was partially because of injury. Davenport played 63 of a possible 82 games during his five seasons with the Saints. He had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 11 games during the 2021 season. While playing on a $9.553 million fifth-year option last year, he only had one-half sack in 15 games but 34 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits), according to PFF.
Davenport was the beneficiary of a relatively weak group of edge rushers in free agency. He signed a lucrative one-year deal for $13 million where $10 million was fully guaranteed with the Vikings. Another season like Davenport had in 2022 will put him right back in the one-year "prove it" deal territory, but for a lot less money.
An inconsistent 2022 season prompted the Lions to make cornerback a priority in free agency. Okudah became expendable after Emmanuel Moseley and Cam Sutton were signed. He was traded to the Falcons for a 2023 fifth-round pick in April a couple weeks before the 2023 NFL Draft. The Lions converting $1.5 million of Okudah's fully guaranteed $5,182,072 2023 salary into signing bonus to facilitate the trade precluded the Falcons from exercising his fully guaranteed $11.514 million 2024 fifth-year option. It speaks volumes that the return for 2020's third overall pick was just a fifth-round pick. Okudah is expected to start for the Falcons once he returns from the right ankle injury he suffered in training camp, which should be early in the regular season.
Knee injuries have derailed Kinlaw's career. He has been limited to 10 games over the last two seasons because of a right ACL tear during the 2021 season. The 49ers signing Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract in free agency killed any chance of Kinlaw's fully guaranteed $10.455 million fifth-year option being picked up, which was declined. The addition of Hargrave relegates Kinlaw to a rotational defensive lineman after starting 22 of the 24 games he's played in his three NFL seasons.
Fulton has flashed the ability to be a No. 1 cornerback. The biggest issue with Fulton has been availability. He has missed 20 of a possible 50 regular-season games during his three NFL seasons because of injury. An inability to stay healthy this season will likely make signing a one year "prove it" deal the most attractive option for Fulton next offseason. The best one-year deal a cornerback received in free agency this year was Emmanuel Moseley's worth $6 million with the Lions.