As an acronym, "NFL" is frequently referred to as shorthand for "No Fun League," which encapsulates the league's tendency to crack down on post-touchdown celebrations, among other such frivolities. One other popular extrapolation of the NFL acronym is "Not For Long," indicative of the idea that the league operates at a break-neck pace, and puts a lot of pressure on coaches and players to meet expectations within very quick time frames.
"What have you done for me lately?" This is a battle cry of sorts in the modern NFL, and serves as justification for dozens of personnel moves every off-season, as teams trim salaries and cut veteran fat on the basis of declining production or up-and-coming talent.
In that light, there are clearly a lot of players league-wide that have a lot to prove heading into the 2010 season. You could find multiple players in need of strong seasons on every team, and a very large number of them would be quarterbacks. These are the five players - non-quarterbacks, mind you - league-wide that your humble narrator believes have the most to prove next season.
1. Shawne Merriman, outside linebacker, San Diego Chargers. Merriman was once one of the most feared pass rushers in the league, having accumulated 39.5 sacks over his first three seasons after being a first-round pick in 2005 out of Maryland. Sure, there was that small hiccup with steroid allegations and the birth of the "Merriman Rule" (preventing players that tested positive for PEDs from winning post-season awards or earning a Pro Bowl invite) during that time frame, but there's no question that from '05 through '07, Merriman was the best pass rusher in the business.
Then he tore his PCL and LCL prior to the '08 season, and despite trying briefly to play on it, he missed the entire season. Before coming back in 2009, he endured the Tila Tequila incident, making national headlines for his arrest and subsequent charges, including battery and false imprisonment. Those charges were dismissed, and the lingering impact of the incident is minimal, but it highlighted a strange season for Merriman. Returning from that knee surgery and also dealing with a foot injury, Merriman recorded just four sacks in 2009, a down year for San Diego's entire defensive unit.
Merriman is not just looking to re-gain his former Pro Bowl form, but he's looking for his first lucrative contract extension, as well. He's stated his desire to stay in San Diego, and as a restricted free agent, the Chargers made sure they'd keep him, giving him a first- and third-round tender earlier this year. But with 2009 first-round pick Larry English waiting in the wings, the Chargers are at least prepared for the possibility that Merriman won't return to his pre-injury form.
2. Osi Umenyiora, defensive end, New York Giants. Umenyiora was on top of the world in 2007, when his 13 sacks paced the Giants and spearheaded their surprising run - aided by their ferocious pass rush - to a Super Bowl win over New England. But he actually arrived as a premier pass-rusher in 2005, when his 14.5-sack season earned him All-Pro recognition and helped him land a six-year, $41 million contract extension.
Like Merriman, Umenyiora lost his 2008 season when, in a pre-season game against that other New York team, he tore his lateral meniscus and damaged cartilage in his left knee, which required season-ending surgery. During his year of rehabilitation, Justin Tuck emerged as one of the league's best defensive ends, picking up 12 sacks in helping lead the Giants to a 12-4 season and an NFC East crown. What's more, 2006 first-round pick Mathias Kiwanuka performed admirably alongside Tuck, accruing eight sacks.
Upon Umenyiora's return to the lineup in 2009, most expected the Giants to once again field one of the best pass rushes in the league. On paper, Umenyiora's seven sacks coming off of knee surgery might seem like a good total to ease him back into the elite pass-rusher category, but it doesn't tell the whole story: the Giants' defense struggled mightily after the loss of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and despite the fact that Umenyiora led the team in sacks, he was demoted to the second team behind Tuck and Kiwanuka, used predominantly as a pass-rushing specialist on passing downs. Umenyiora wasn't pleased, openly complaining about his role as the Giants missed the playoffs.
New York has a new defensive coordinator in Perry Fewell, but in spring workouts and heading into training camp, Umenyiora is still running with the twos, with Tuck and Kiwanuka taking starting reps. Umenyiora will still have a role in New York, and will be given an opportunity to unseat Kiwanuka (who himself is reportedly considering a training camp holdout), but he's still seen fit to threaten to retire and openly compare himself to Kiwanuka, calling his teammate "a good football player, no question about that, no argument here. Been to Hawaii, though? You have to be of a certain pedigree to get over there."
Some teammate. Add in the fact that the Giants drafted South Florida end Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round this year, and Umenyiora's suddenly in a very crowded end position, with nothing guaranteed to him. He's got a lot to earn back with the Giants this season, starting with his role as a starter.
3. Roy Williams, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys. Williams was widely regarded as one of the best young receivers in the game, once upon a time. Drafted four spots after Larry Fitzgerald in 2004, Williams scored 23 touchdowns in his first three seasons and earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2006 catching passes from Jon Kitna on a 3-13 team. His future was considered very, very bright.
Jerry Jones came calling in 2008, trading first-, third- and sixth-round picks to the Lions to secure Williams' services. Teamed up with Terrell Owens, the Cowboys suddenly had one of the most formidable receiving duos in the league. Adjusting to a new offense mid-season, however, proved too formidable a task for Williams, who caught just 19 passes in his first ten games with Dallas.
With Owens out of the picture entering the 2009 season, Williams was thought to be the man that would become Tony Romo's go-to target at receiver (Jason Witten had already sewn that role up from a general perspective). Though he did score a respectable seven touchdowns last season, Williams was once again a disappointment, catching just 38 passes while watching Miles Austin (81 catches, 1,320 yards, 11 touchdowns) emerge as Romo's receiver of choice and one of the most productive receivers in the game. At best, he was No. 3 in the pecking order, and he might be sliding further down the list in the very near future.
Williams promises that he's working harder than ever to fulfill his promise in his home state, but the team used a first-round pick on Dez Bryant, giving him Michael Irvin's magical No. 88 in the process. Williams is an afterthought at the moment in Dallas' explosive offense, but he's still got the talent to become a factor once more.
4. Antonio Bryant, wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals. Last year, Cincinnati was the surprise winner of the AFC North, and hosted a playoff game for the first time since 2005. In improving their win total by six, the Bengals fielded an excellent defense and a bruising rushing attack, but it's no secret that the team was hamstrung by a very weak passing attack. Despite featuring talent like Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals ranked No. 26 in the league in passing offense, rating behind offensive juggernauts such as Kansas City and Tampa Bay.
In attempting to fix their passing attack, the team used the NFL Draft to add talent like tight end Jermaine Gresham and slot receiver Jordan Shipley, but rookies are rookies, and expecting players so young to solve a huge issue could backfire. Prior to bringing in those rookies, however, the team handed a four-year, $28 million deal to veteran receiver Antonio Bryant (29) in one of the more intriguing free agent signings of the off-season.
Bryant's place on this list is somewhat unique, in that he's the only player here that will be suiting up for a new team. But he's faced many of the same problems that these players have faced during his career; he's talked his way out of jobs in Dallas and San Francisco after clashing with Bill Parcells and Mike Nolan, respectively, and also failed a drug test and filed a lawsuit against the league in 2007 when he wasn't on any NFL roster. He resuscitated his career in 2008, with an 83-catch, seven-TD season in Tampa Bay, but struggled a year later with a knee injury he couldn't shake and inconsistent quarterback play.
Now that he's with Cincinnati, he's continued to rest his knee (he dealt with complications from surgery to repair a torn meniscus) in spring workouts; to say that the Bengals took a risk handing $7 million per season to a still-dinged up Bryant is an understatement. If Bryant can make plays for Palmer and help revive what was once one of the league's most exciting aerial attacks, the risk will have been worth it. But that's a fairly enormous "if."
5. Marshawn Lynch, running back, Buffalo Bills. Despite playing for one of the league's most anemic offenses early in his NFL career, Lynch, a 2007 first-round pick out of California, quickly established himself as one of the league's most dependable young running backs in Buffalo. Consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career helped earn him a Pro Bowl berth in 2008 (albeit as an injury replacement), and his 16 total touchdowns in that two-year time frame were eight more than the next Bill on the list, veteran receiver Lee Evans.
But Lynch couldn't keep his nose clean off the field. Even before getting drafted into the NFL, Lynch was accused of sexual assault by his former girlfriend, though an arrest was never made, charges were never filed, and the matter wasn't pursued. After his arrival in Buffalo, Lynch was involved in a hit-and-run incident in which he struck a pedestrian with his vehicle and fled the scene. He would later accept a plea deal, pay a $100 fine and have his license suspended. Less than a year later, Lynch was arrested and charged with felony possession of a concealed firearm. Reports indicated that policemen smelled marijuana at the scene, as well, though drug charges were never pursued. The felony was later reduced to three misdemeanors (he pleaded guilty to one) and was sentenced to three years' probation and 80 hours of community service. The league suspended Lynch for the first three games of the 2009 season on the grounds of violating the league's personal conduct policy.
Upon his return to the lineup last year, Lynch was highly ineffective, rushing for just 450 yards and two scores; he eventually lost his starting job to former understudy Fred Jackson. With a new regime in Buffalo, highlighted by GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, Lynch refused to report to spring practices until mid-June, openly seeking a trade in the process. This happened after Jackson put up 2,516 all-purpose yards - good for the fourth-highest total in NFL history - and after the new regime spent the No. 9 overall pick on Clemson superstar tailback C.J. Spiller.
Still just 24, Lynch is a very distinct third in the pecking order at running back in Buffalo, but Gailey insists he'll find ways to use all three of his talented running backs. Under contract for two more years (a third is voidable), Lynch isn't just playing to re-establish himself as one of the better young backs in the league; he's playing for his next contract, as well.