Make-Or-Break Year

Make-Or-Break Year: Titans WR Corey Davis

We recently profiled Bengals receiver John Ross as a make-or-break player as he enters the final year of his rookie deal, and today we’ll look at one of his draftmates, Titans WR Corey Davis. Like Ross, Davis saw his fifth-year option declined earlier this year, which puts him on track for unrestricted free agency following the 2020 season.

Davis, the No. 5 overall pick of the 2017 draft, entered the league after a dominant collegiate career with Western Michigan. Over his sophomore to senior seasons, Davis averaged 88 catches for 1,448 receiving yards and 15 TDs, and while his level of competition in the MAC was not what it might have been in a Power Five conference, that type of production is tough to ignore. And when it comes packaged in a 6-3, 209-lb physical specimen, it’s easy to see why Tennessee pulled the trigger.

Unfortunately for Davis and the Titans, the 25-year-old has been unable to replicate that production in the pros. The all-time NCAA leader in receiving yards has just 1,867 yards in his first three NFL seasons, and after scoring 52 total TDs through the air in college – good for second-most in NCAA history – Davis has found paydirt just six times with Tennessee.

Though he has never suffered a major injury, a variety of smaller ailments may have prevented him from reaching his potential. He was unable to participate in drills during the 2017 scouting combine due to an ankle injury, and his rookie season was hampered by a hamstring injury. He managed to stay healthy in 2018, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that he posted career highs in receptions (65) yards (891) and receiving TDs (four). He led the team in all three categories, and though his catch rate was not particularly impressive – those 65 catches came on 112 targets – he appeared to be poised for a breakout.

Last season, however, Davis battled hip issues and saw rookie A.J. Brown emerge as the team’s leading receiver. Davis finished with just 43 catches for 601 yards and two scores, so Tennessee really had no choice but to decline the fifth-year option. That option would have been guaranteed for injury only but would have been worth nearly $16MM, so the Titans could not take that chance.

Given his pedigree, Davis will almost surely get another NFL opportunity in 2021 even if he continues to underwhelm in 2020. But a disappointing effort this season will likely lead to a one-year, prove-it deal next year, whereas a strong campaign could secure him a multi-year payday with a great deal of guaranteed money.

Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith recently sung Davis’ praises, saying, “[t]here were some huge explosive plays (last year) that Corey was the unsung hero to. He’s a big part of this offense and I think he’ll take another step.”

A full season with the resurgent Ryan Tannehill could help, though Davis did not perform any better last season with Tannehill under center than he did with Marcus Mariota. The Titans did not select a receiver in this year’s draft, so Davis will continue to start opposite Brown, with Adam Humphries in the slot. If he’s not careful, this could be his last year as an unquestioned starter, so it will be incumbent upon him to make the most of that opportunity and start realizing all of the promise that made him a top-five pick three years ago.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Make-Or-Break Year: Texans CB Gareon Conley

Before last year’s trade deadline, the Texans swung a deal for former Raiders first-round pick Gareon Conley. The deal gave Conley a change of scenery and an opportunity to turn his pro career around. With fellow former Ohio State first-rounder Bradley Roby and veteran Johnathan Joseph out of action, Conley would have the chance to see significant reps, especially since second-round rookie Lonnie Johnson was greener than expected.

[RELATED: Texans Call Off Timmy Jernigan Deal]

Johnson didn’t improve much, but the Texans still turned down Conley’s fifth-year option for 2021, which would have paid him $10.24MM, guaranteed for injury only. Now, he’s in limbo with one year and $1.89MM on his deal.

Conley has an awful lot riding on his 2020 season. With a big showing, Conley could secure the bag – either with the Texans or another club. If he doesn’t performed, he’ll be viewed as a low-risk pickup, the kind of player that nets a cheap base salary on a one-year prove-it deal.

Conley didn’t quite cut it in Oakland, so you could be forgiven for overlooking his natural skillset and quietly solid second half with Houston. The Raiders shipped Conley out after he failed to make plays consistently in their zone scheme. But, with the Texans, Conley broke up eleven would-be passes – two less than team leader Johnathan Joseph in five fewer games.

The big-game talent has been there all along – Conley was a first-round pick for a reason and, if not for his strange pre-draft saga, he might have been a Top 10 choice. The Ohio State product was also surprisingly solid in coverage with the Raiders, even though he didn’t quite gel with the team. Conley boasts the highest forced incompletion rate of any cornerback in the NFL over the past four years, as noted by Pro Football Focus (Twitter link). That stat comes with a small asterisk since Conley has only been on the field for two years, but the fact remains that he’s a quality stopper.

If Conley can stave off Johnson for the CB2 job opposite Roby, the stage is set for him to break out and cash in next spring.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Make-Or-Break Year: Bengals WR John Ross

In 2017, the Bengals had the No. 9 overall pick and two clear top needs. First, there was the defensive end position, where they were hoping to upgrade from Michael Johnson after another so-so season. They were also out to find a young and athletic wide receiver to help take the pressure off of A.J. Green. John Ross, who wowed scouts with a 4.22-second 40-yard-dash time, fit the bill at WR, though many figured the Bengals would trade down to take him.

[RELATED: Bengals Rejected Trades For William Jackson III]

Instead, they stood pat and used their top pick to take Ross. At the time, many said that it was a reach – the Washington product’s speed was undeniably impressive, but his medical history was extensive. In 2015, he tore his ACL and missed the entire season. And, after his impressive combine showing, he underwent labrum surgery. In short, evaluators loved him, but most viewed him as a one-contract player rather than a long-term investment.

So far, Ross hasn’t done much to prove the critics wrong. In three pro seasons, Ross has played a grand total of 24 games. At times, when healthy and on the field, he’s dazzled. Ross looked like a monster in the making after is Week 1 performance against the Seahawks last year, going off for seven catches, 158 yards, and two scores. In Week 2 against the 49ers, he topped 100 yards once again, and he did it with just four receptions. After that, Ross missed all of October and November due to injury and did not post another 100-yard game.

As expected, the Bengals declined Ross’ fifth-year option in May, turning down a one-year, $15.68MM add-on that would have guaranteed his 2021 season for injury. Even more concerning for Ross’ Cincinnati future, the club used the first pick of the second round to select Tee Higgins, who is fresh off of a ~1,200-yard season at Clemson. The Bengals haven’t quite written Ross off, but they’re not planning around him either.

With one year left on Ross’ original rookie contract, the story on him is roughly the same as it was three years ago – Ross has the speed and skills to dominate the league, but he has not been able to stay healthy and put it all on display. Ross can cash in as a free agent (with the Bengals or one of the league’s other 31 teams) if he turns in a full and productive season, but he’ll also have to maintain his place in the pecking order. If the majority of Joe Burrow‘s targets go to Green, Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, Ross won’t have much of an opportunity to showcase himself.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Make-Or-Break Year: Dolphins WR DeVante Parker

Can a player be on the verge of a “make-or-break year” right after signing an extension with their team? In the case of Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker – yes. 

Parker is under contract with Miami through the 2020 season thanks to a new deal inked in March, but little is assured for the fifth-year pro. Initially, Parker was set to play out the 2019 season on his fifth-year option, which would have paid him $9.4MM. Instead, the Dolphins were poised to rip up that contract after another disappointing year, so they were able to leverage Parker into a lower-risk pact. Parker’s restructured deal guarantees him just $4.5MM in 2019 with a non-guaranteed $5MM in 2020.

In other words, the Dolphins stand to have a solid value in Parker if he is able to turn things around and live up to his billing as the No. 14 overall pick in the 2015 draft. Meanwhile, if he gets injured and/or underwhelms like he did in 2018, the Dolphins can walk and focus their resources elsewhere in 2020.

As the Dolphins enter a rebuilding season, they want to know what they have in Parker, a player who entered the league with tons of hype and wound up as the third WR selected in his draft class. The 26-year-old reportedly had a solid spring and new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick may prove to be a better fit for his style than longtime starter Ryan Tannehill.

To date, Parker’s best season came in 2016, when he finished with 56 catches for 744 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll have to top that if he wants to continue to ply his craft in South Beach beyond this season.

If he falters, the Dolphins can decline his $5MM option for 2020 and walk away with no fiscal penalty.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.