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10 NFL players with the most to prove in 2024: Deshaun Watson, Daniel Jones, Russell Wilson and more

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• It’s time for Deshaun Watson to live up to his contract: Watson has earned an overall game grade above 75.0 just one time since 2021. From 2017 to 2021, the Clemson product had 25 such games, and he posted eight such games in 2020 alone.

• The last ride for Daniel Jones: New York reportedly did extensive research on the top quarterbacks in the 2024 class but opted instead to find Jones a premier target in Malik Nabers. The fact that Joe Schoen and company performed that work doesn’t seem like an illusion, though. If Jones struggles in a second consecutive season, his time starting in New York — let alone anywhere — might be up.

• Get a head start on fantasy football: Use PFF’s fantasy football mock draft simulator to create real live mock draft simulations to prepare for your live draft!

Superstars are beginning to cash in, and mandatory minicamps will start in just a few days. The NFL offseason is already progressing faster than we realize.

For some players, that means the clock is ticking to get acclimated to a new franchise or learn a new playbook. For others, the idea of becoming a free agent after 2025 is steadily creeping in.

Here are 10 players whose immediate futures and long-term outlooks depend heavily on their performance in 2024.

QB Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns

Since the Browns traded for Watson in a March 2022 blockbuster, the former star has been anything but in Cleveland. Watson has played just 769 snaps in two years in the AFC North, with 2022 and 2023 serving as his worst-graded seasons. More specifically, Watson has earned an overall game grade above 75.0 just one time since 2021. From 2017 to 2021, the Clemson product had 25 such games, and he posted eight such games in 2020 alone.

Watson hasn’t come close to living up to the profile of the five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed deal he received when landing with the Browns. Beyond that, Cleveland has shown the ability to succeed without its typical starter. If Watson has another bad season in 2024, the Browns might have to cut the cord (although carrying over $138 million in dead cap for the next two years prevents an outright release).

QB Russell Wilson, Pittsburgh Steelers

Wilson will get a fresh start in the Steel City, and he needs one badly. The 35-year-old has experienced a drop in production since 2020, finishing with a passing grade under 73.0 in each of the last three seasons. His time in Denver was especially acrimonious, as he was basically being benched by the end of the 2023 season.

Despite Wilson’s age, there are a few positive trends. Wilson’s turnover-worthy play rate has never been higher than 3% since 2017, meaning he’s kept the ball out of harm’s way. Likewise, Wilson graded as a very effective runner, with his 80.3 rushing grade good for eighth-best among non-running backs with 25 or more carries last year.

Wilson signed just a one-year deal, and Justin Fields will assuredly be ready to step in if the former Super Bowl champ falters. So, this year could be his last to prove he deserves a starting gig. 

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WR Calvin Ridley, Tennessee Titans

Ridley signed a lucrative four-year, $92 million deal with the Titans this offseason, but his stock has taken a definitive slide since 2021. After missing all of the 2022 season due to a suspension for violating the NFL’s gambling policy, Ridley didn’t look like a dynamic wideout last year, finishing with a 72.2 receiving grade — 38th among 56 receivers with at least 75 targets — and dropping 8.4% of passes thrown his way.

Still just 29, Ridley seems to have plenty left in the tank in terms of longevity. After all, it’s not out of the question to expect him to look like the stellar version of himself we saw in 2020, especially playing next to DeAndre Hopkins. But if Ridley’s 2024 looks like his 2023 did, more questions will swirl about his long-term skill and worth.

QB Daniel Jones, New York Giants

Jones looked like an efficient, occasionally game-breaking quarterback during the 2022 season, helping propel the Giants to their first playoff win since 2012. However, in 2023, an injury-riddled Jones put up a career-low 63.0 overall grade, finishing with more than double the number of turnover-worthy plays (nine) than big-time throws (four).

New York reportedly did extensive research on the top quarterbacks in the 2024 class but opted instead to find Jones a premier target in Malik Nabers. The fact that Joe Schoen and company performed that work doesn’t seem like an illusion, though. If Jones struggles in a second consecutive season, his time starting in New York — let alone anywhere — might be up.

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CB Jeff Okudah, Houston Texans

Okudah was a clear-cut CB1 during the 2020 draft, even regarded by some analysts as the best corner prospect in several classes. Yet Okudah has been anything but exceptional since he entered the league, never finishing with an overall grade above 60.0. The Lions shipped Okudah to Atlanta, where he hardly fared much better in a one-year stint.

The Texans inked Okudah to a one-year, $4.75 million deal this offseason, seeking cornerback depth next to burgeoning stud Derek Stingley Jr. Okudah has an opportunity to claim the CB2 role if he fends off rookie Kamari Lassiter — but if not, it’s hard to envision Okudah earning another opportunity to regularly contribute on defense anywhere.

T Jedrick Wills Jr., Cleveland Browns

It’s been tough to determine just how good Wills is compared to his potential. For one, he’s had major difficulty staying on the field, missing most of 2023 with a knee injury. Likewise, in his second year, Wills played just 763 snaps due to an ankle injury and contracting COVID-19. In terms of on-field production, Wills has been solid in pass protection for most of his tenure, finishing with a pass-blocking efficiency of at least 96.0 in three of four seasons.

With Wills’ rookie contract set to expire after this year, will the former 10th overall pick play to his ceiling before hitting the open market? And, even if he doesn’t, how will teams view his age — still only 25 — with starting experience? Overall, Wills’ success in 2024 could alter not just his own career outlook but the Browns’ future, too.

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EDGE Josh Uche, New England Patriots

Uche was sensational in 2022, amassing 56 pressures on only 285 pass-rush snaps. Despite having a similar workload last year, Uche mustered just 37 pressures, while his total number of defensive stops dropped from 19 to 6.

The four-year pro has been harangued by injuries throughout his career, but he has been good in two of his four seasons (2020 and 2022). The other two haven’t gone according to plan. Now on a one-year deal, Uche needs to prove he’s more than a flash in a pan if he wants to hang around as a bona fide starter.

CB Eric Stokes, Green Bay Packers

Stokes was solid as a rookie but has faded from memory since, largely because he’s played just 587 defensive snaps in two seasons. Plus, Stokes hasn’t been good when he has played: he allowed a catch on over 80% of targets in coverage across 2022-23.

The Packers upgraded their defense in several departments, but cornerback wasn’t really one of them. As such, Stokes should get one last shot to prove he’s worthy of top-tier playing time before his rookie deal ends.

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T Ikem Ekwonu, Carolina Panthers

The NC State product definitely hasn’t been as bad as Evan Neal, who went one pick below him in the 2022 NFL Draft, but he hasn’t been a superstar, either. Ekwonu has posted mediocre pass-blocking grades through two seasons, with neither 2022 nor 2023 finishing with above a 67.5 in that department. Then again, Ekwonu improved his run-blocking last year, bumping it from 64.0 grade to 77.0.

Year 3 is pivotal for any first-round pick, with the fifth-year option decision looming the ensuing summer. As of now, it would be hard to envision Carolina picking up Ekwonu’s option, but a year playing with an improved offense overall could spell better things for the tackle.

QB Bryce Young, Carolina Panthers

He’s played only 16 NFL games, but it already feels like the cave of perception is collapsing on Young, who was not nearly as good as his rookie counterparts in 2023. His 52.3 passing grade was the lowest among the 25 quarterbacks to drop back 400 or more times.

Most alarmingly, Young contributed to more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws. In fact, Young’s 22 turnover-worthy plays as an NFL rookie were just three shy of how many he accrued during his entire career at Alabama.

With Young having to learn a new playbook and still just entering Year 2, some might view this as a bit premature for him having a lot at stake. But the NFL accelerator doesn’t slow for many, especially someone as highly scrutinized as Young. If C.J. Stroud continues to play like an MVP and Anthony Richardson and Will Levis make strides while Young doesn’t, the magnifying glass will only move closer on Young and the Panthers. Meanwhile, if Young looks much more like the Heisman victor of the past, he should be on a far less worrisome track.

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