Rob Gronkowski spent the end of his seventh NFL season on the sideline watching his teammates lift the Lombardi Trophy. It wasn’t the first time the Patriots have had to win without him; he’s missed 24 games the past five seasons.
Now, entering his age-28 season, Gronkowski nears a crossroad. He’s shown off superhuman healing in the past, overcoming a torn ACL in 2013 to earn first-team All-Pro honors the following two seasons. He was slower to recover from an early-season hamstring injury last fall, though, and the third back surgery of his career closed out his 2016 in disappointing fashion while raising major question marks about his durability.
That leaves Gronk on the precipice of the biggest season since joining the league as an injury-prone rookie in 2010. He’ll have to prove he can recover from the injuries that derailed his last season while performing at the level that has made him a likely Hall of Famer. If he returns to form, his Patriots could field one of the greatest offenses in league history. If not, they’ll be limited to just “pretty good.”
So far, he appears to be right on track to produce in 2017.
“Definitely no doubts [about returning to full health],” Gronkowski told reporters after official team activities Tuesday. “I just know that all the hard work you put in is what you’re going to get out of it. I love to put in the work. [I] love the challenge sometimes. It is what it was and now I’m good to go.”
The Patriot superstar isn’t the only player with a weight on his shoulders this fall. Athletes ranging from rookies to longtime veterans will stake their professional reputations on their 2017 performances. Here’s a look at the players who will be under the biggest microscopes for each team.
Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer
This fall may be Palmer’s last gasp, and he’ll try to put a disappointing season in his rear view as he takes aim at the Lombardi Trophy. His 2016 stats dropped across the board as he regressed back to his career mean after his best season in 2015. David Johnson is a proven commodity who can help take some pressure from his shoulders, but the franchise’s inability to significantly upgrade its receiving corps may mean it takes another outlier year from Palmer to get the Cardinals back to the postseason.
Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones
A major factor in the Falcons’ run to Super Bowl 51 was the heightened play of the defense. Jones’ performance as a rookie was a major part of that. The explosive linebacker showcased a preternatural nose for the ball and sideline-to-sideline tackling skills to give Atlanta the buttress that supported a championship unit. The question now is how the young player will respond after the team suffered the most devastating loss in NFL history.
Baltimore Ravens: Breshad Perriman
Baltimore placed high expectations on the former Central Florida wideout when it selected him with the 26th pick of the 2015 NFL draft, and Perriman has yet to meet them. Injury robbed him of his entire rookie season, and he made just one start last fall. While he showed flashes of competence as a deep threat for an offense with few legitimate targets, he’ll have to up his catch rate (50 percent in 2016) to become the No. 1 receiver on which the Ravens have wagered.
Buffalo Bills: Sammy Watkins
The trade up to get Watkins in the 2014 draft has failed to pay off for the Bills. When healthy, the former Clemson wideout is an explosive mismatch waiting to happen. Unfortunately, he’s missed 11 games the past two seasons, leading Buffalo to decline the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. That means free agency is looming, and a big 2017 could lead to a massive payday.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton
Last season, the 2015 NFL MVP had a worse passer rating than players like Case Keenum, Blake Bortles, and Trevor Siemian. Part of that can be attributed to lackluster blocking and a receiving corps that often failed to provide much support, but the Panthers have taken steps to address that. Carolina overpaid for left tackle Ryan Kalil, signed useful wideout Russell Shepard, and drafted playmakers Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to help Newton regain his Super Bowl swagger.
Chicago Bears: Mike Glennon
Glennon, who threw 11 passes the past two seasons, was rewarded for being a free agent in 2017 with a three-year deal worth up to $45 million this offseason. Weeks later, the Bears curiously traded up in the draft to select quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Glennon will have the inside track at the starting job this fall, but if he can’t shine early and often, he may not get another chance to establish himself as a bonafide starting quarterback.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Ogbuehi
In this case, Ogbuehi represents a Bengals offensive line forced to rebuild after the departures of Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth in free agency. The third-year veteran was a first-round pick in 2015, but he has started only 12 games in two seasons and struggled to adjust to NFL defenses as the team’s right tackle last fall. He’ll move to the left side to protect Andy Dalton’s blindside, while swing tackle Jake Fisher likely moves into Ogbuehi’s old role.
Cleveland Browns: Jabrill Peppers
Peppers played no fewer than 11 positions at Michigan, but the Browns will rely on him primarily as a safety and return specialist in his rookie season. The rangy athlete will have to prove he’s not just a jack-of-all-trades but a master in coverage to earn his place in the league beyond gadget plays. Cleveland used a first-round pick on Peppers this spring in the hopes he can redeem an inconsistent Browns secondary.
Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant
Bryant is supposed to be a part of the Cowboys’ latest superstar triumvirate, joining Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in one of the NFC’s most explosive offenses. Instead, he had a second straight quiet season, playing in 13 games but gaining fewer than 800 yards through the air. Bryant has yet to regain the form that made him one of the league’s elite receivers during a three-year stretch from 2012 to 2014. An injury-free season could be the key in restoring his full value.
Denver Broncos: Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch
The Broncos held pat when it came to quarterbacks for 2017, rolling with the perfectly cromulent Siemian and 2016 first-round draft pick Lynch behind center. Siemian outshined Lynch last season, but the second-year passer has the higher ceiling and will be gunning for the starting spot. No matter who wins the job, he’ll have the tall task of making the Denver offense even half as good as its visionary defense.
Detroit Lions: Ricky Wagner
Matthew Stafford cobbled together an MVP-caliber season before a broken finger limited his accuracy and throwing strength late in the season. More impressively, he did so behind a middling line that got him sacked on more than 6 percent of his dropbacks. Detroit invested $47.5 million to pry Wagner from Baltimore to serve as the team’s right tackle and protect the still-growing quarterback. He’ll be even more important now that left tackle Taylor Decker’s 2017 is in jeopardy after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Green Bay Packers: Martellus Bennett
Bennett has landed in a tight end’s dream for the second season in a row, trading Tom Brady for Aaron Rodgers in his quest to play with the league’s best quarterbacks. His 2016 season was an unqualified success as he played through ankle injuries to play an important role for a Super Bowl champion. As a rare free-agent splurging for Green Bay, he’ll be counted on to be a significant upgrade from Jared Cook.
Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins
Hopkins suffered a down year where his receiving output dropped from 1,521 yards to 954, a disappointing performance in his penultimate season before free agency. Of course, he also had to suffer through 14 Brock Osweiler starts in that span. His situation may not be much better in 2017. Either Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson will be in charge of slinging the ball his way. If Hopkins truly is an otherworldly talent, he’ll bounce back. If he’s just a good wideout, he might not.
Indianapolis Colts: Donte Moncrief
Andrew Luck needs all the support he can get, but Moncrief has been frustratingly inconsistent in his three seasons as a pro. A 733-yard sophomore campaign in 2015 set him up for a breakout last fall, but his receiving output, yards-per-catch, and catch rate all dropped in a disappointing year. Indianapolis’ success won’t hinge on him, but Moncrief’s impending free agency will put some newfound importance on his performance.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette
Fournette was one of the most hyped tailback recruits of all time, and his early LSU career validated that after he gained nearly 3,000 yards in his first two seasons with the Tigers. His final season wasn’t as prolific; injuries limited him to just seven games and his least productive season in the NCAA. That didn’t prevent the Jaguars from making him the No. 4 overall pick — and now he has to live up to the standard set by last year’s No. 4 overall pick: Ezekiel Elliott.
Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith
Smith’s low-risk, low-reward quarterbacking led Kansas City to an AFC West title last season but also led to frustrating moments and a lack of big plays. The Chiefs traded up to the No. 10 overall pick to select his replacement, Patrick Mahomes II, but the Texas Tech product isn’t likely to make a major impact as a rookie. That gives Smith at least one year to boost his stock and either state his case as Kansas City’s veteran leader or audition for another QB-needy team.
Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Bosa
Los Angeles’ middling defense threatens to hold back an explosive offense, but Bosa could change all that. The 2016 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year played only 12 games, but he still tallied 10.5 sacks thanks to his aggressive blend of speed and power on the edge. If he and Melvin Ingram can provide a consistent pass rush, the Chargers could be 2017’s most improved team.
Los Angeles Rams: Todd Gurley
The Rams’ inability to throw the ball contributed to a sophomore slump for the ages from the team’s talented running back. Gurley went from superstar to subpar after gaining just 3.2 yards per carry last fall. If Jared Goff is going to make strides in his second season, he’ll need Gurley to be the kind of presence who can take some pressure from the team’s passing game.
Miami Dolphins: Jay Ajayi
Ajayi made a name for himself by running for more than 1,200 yards last season, but nearly half that output came in just three games. He’ll have to demonstrate that he can be a consistent threat, especially after gaining 45 yards or fewer six times last season. That includes a woeful 33-yard performance against the Steelers in the postseason.
Minnesota Vikings: Sam Bradford
Bradford was handed the starting job in Minnesota after Teddy Bridgewater’s catastrophic knee injury, and the veteran quarterback failed to disappoint. His 99.3 passer rating for 2016 was by far the highest of his career as he proved to be a risk-averse option behind center. However, Bridgewater is progressing, and if he returns to full strength, this year could be Bradford’s audition for a starting job elsewhere. First, he’ll have to convince everyone that last season’s performance was no outlier.
New England Patriots: Gronkowski
Gronkowski’s second season-ending injury in four seasons raised questions about his future with the Patriots. Head coach Bill Belichick has been notorious in his sell-high strategy when it came to standouts like Richard Seymour and Chandler Jones in the past. But Gronk, a lab experiment designed to test what happens when you put the brain of a golden retriever into the body of a perfect NFL specimen, means more to the team than Seymour or Jones had. New England can win without him, but having him return to form could elevate the Pats offense to legendary.
New Orleans Saints: Michael Thomas
Thomas’ 1,137 receiving yards his rookie season was enough to make Brandin Cooks expendable. Now he’ll assume the team’s top wideout role. Having Drew Brees throw to him is a luxury, but he’ll have to show he can handle the defensive pressure that comes with being the Saints’ top offensive threat.
New York Giants: Paul Perkins
The Giants’ passing game is in good hands with Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., and the new additions of Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram. However, their run game has struggled to develop a featured back since Ahmad Bradshaw left town. In 2017, that role will fall on one of two young backs — either Perkins or rookie Wayne Gallman. Perkins’ promising 2016, in which he gained 456 yards despite just one start, could be the foundation for a breakout sophomore season.
New York Jets: Christian Hackenberg
The Jets invested a second-round pick in Hackenberg last spring, only to give him a redshirt season as the team burned through a disappointing depth chart of bad quarterbacks. New York didn’t really address the issue this offseason, adding only journeyman passer Josh McCown to the mix. That will give the Penn State product the chance to earn a starting role this season — though early reports from Jets practices haven’t been encouraging.
An unofficially bad day for the Jets QBs. Josh McCown was 12 for 22, Bryce Petty was 7 for 12, Christian Hackenberg was 5 for 11.— Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) June 6, 2017
Oakland Raiders: Marshawn Lynch
Lynch’s retirement lasted only one season before the Raiders convinced him to take his cleats down from the telephone line and come home to the Bay Area. He’ll be part of a running back rotation in Oakland, but expecting the Beast Mode of days passed may be a mistake. His last season in the pros was his worst as he gained just 413 yards on a middling 3.8 yards per touch. He’ll be 31 this season and will have to prove a year off has him closer to his Pro Bowl 2014 season than 2015.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz
Wentz showcased the skills that made him the No. 2 overall pick last year, and the Eagles rewarded his occasional brilliance by adding playmakers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith to a depleted receiving corps. Now he’ll have to avoid a second-year slump to solidify his status as Philadelphia’s franchise quarterback.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ryan Shazier
The Steelers have invested heavily in their defense in recent drafts, but no pick has paid off more than Shazier, who was invited to his first Pro Bowl last winter. His continued development will be the key for a young unit that stands in the shadow of some of the greatest defenses in NFL history.
San Francisco 49ers: Kyle Juszczyk
With a roster as solid as pumice, the 49ers were aggressive in free agency; perhaps a bit too much so. Pierre Garcon got a potential $47.5 million deal to play through age 35 with the team, but his contract wasn’t nearly as eyebrow-raising as Juszczyk’s, which simultaneously created and set the high-level fullback market at $21 million over four years. At that cost, the Harvard grad will have to be more than just a complementary blocker — but he could be the perfect weapon against small-ball defenses in the second level.
Seattle Seahawks: Earl Thomas
Thomas’ Week 13 broken tibia dealt the Seahawks a blow from which they could not recover. Seattle went from allowing 16.2 points per game with its All-Pro safety on the field to 23.3 once he was shut down for the season. The club went 3-3 to finish the season in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. His return to full strength will be a focal point for the 2017 squad’s Super Bowl hopes.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin
Martin suffered his worst season as a pro in 2016, gaining just 2.9 yards per carry during an injury-riddled campaign. Despite his struggles, the Buccaneers have kept him as their top option in the backfield, passing on free agents and a draft class loaded with tailback talent. That puts a lot of pressure squarely on Martin’s shoulders — if Tampa is going to earn its first playoff berth since 2007, it needs the burly back to produce. First, he’ll have to sit out a four-game suspension related to the drug policy issues that helped send him to rehab last winter.
Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis
Davis earned the Titans’ high expectations after rising all the way to the No. 5 pick in the 2017 NFL draft. He’ll be counted on to lead Tennessee’s aerial attack and will have the opportunity to work as the team’s top wideout from day one. Davis was a small-school standout who tore up stronger competition when given the chance, but he’ll have to overcome the offseason ankle surgery that kept him from fully participating in pre-draft workouts.
Washington: Terrelle Pryor
Pryor bet big on himself after his best year as an NFL wide receiver, but he still earned little interest on the free agent market. He’ll have to prove himself again in 2017 after settling on a one-year, $6 million deal with Washington. If he can ride the QB upgrade from Cody Kessler (et al.) to Kirk Cousins into another 1,000-yard season, he’ll be in line for a lucrative long-term contract next spring.