NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (2024)

With how rapid and widespread NFL rosters are turned over every year, everyone's always in a make-or-break season. But there are some players more under the microscope than others, for a variety of different reasons.

Let's break down those in serious make-or-break scenarios by situation before their critical 2024 seasons begin.

Former early picks in danger of being busts

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (1)

Kaiir Elam

BUF • CB • #5

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The Bills have beaten the Chiefs in Arrowhead in three-consecutive regular seasons, but we all know how Kansas City has haunted Buffalo in the playoffs, ending the Bills' season three separate times since the 2020 campaign.

Part of said haunting is the Chiefs decision to move up in the 2022 draft, ahead of Buffalo, to select eventual All-Pro slot cornerback Trent McDuffie. The Bills ultimately selected Elam a few picks later, and the former Florida corner has been a wildly roller-coaster, without many impressive highs, since joining the team.

Troubled by injuries, general inconsistency in coverage and penalty-inducing grabbiness, it's been a real challenge for Elam to even stay on the field through his first two seasons in Buffalo, yet he hauled in two picks as a rookie -- one in the end zone on a pass thrown by Patrick Mahomes -- and has two career playoff interceptions.

The Bills hired a new cornerbacks coach from the collegiate ranks -- Jahmile Addae -- which could signal a fresh start for Elam. With Tre'Davious White now residing in Los Angeles, the Bills need Elam to finally play like a former first-round selection.

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (3)

Rashod Bateman

BAL • WR • #7

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On paper, the Ravens desperately needed receiver help when Bateman was drafted in 2021. But that was when Baltimore wasn't too keen on throwing the football under Greg Roman.

Add a litany of injuries, and you have an exquisite recipe for disappointment, which is precisely what Bateman has been through three seasons with the Ravens. His career-high in catches is 46, which came as a rookie. Same with his 515 yards. He tested as a slightly above-average athlete and was a production machine at a young age at Minnesota.

While new offensive coordinator Todd Monken was believed to be hired to usher in a new, more progressive, pass-happier philosophy in Baltimore, mostly due to plenty of leads held by the Ravens in the second half a season ago, Lamar Jackson only averaged one more attempt per contest compared to 2022. Yet, his completion rate jumped, as did his yards-per-attempt average.

With 2023 first-round pick Zay Flowers and perennial stud tight end Mark Andrews now the primary options in Baltimore, the typical first-round pick pressure has been alleviated from Bateman. But Baltimore needs to see more than 350-500 yards for him in Year 4, or his bust status will be cemented.

Veterans on their last legs

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (5)

Tyler Lockett

SEA • WR • #16

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Lockett can still ball, as evidenced by his nearly 80 grabs and 900 yards in 2023 with Geno Smith and the Seahawks in 2023. But he'll be 32 years old in September, which is right around the age that even the established big producers at the receiver position typically plummet if they haven't already.

Lockett's 894-yard season last year was his first non-1,000-yard campaign since 2017 in Seattle. And he only forced two missed tackles on those 79 receptions, his lowest mark in that YAC category since 2019. Jaxon Smith-Njigba was likely drafted to, eventually, be a Lockett replacement. The ultra-reliable wideout signed a revised two-year deal that does technically keep him in the Pacific Northwest through 2025, but his camp number is north of $30M in 2025, and he can be released after the upcoming season with $17M in savings. After such a steady, productive, and at times, ridiculously efficient tenure with the Seahawks, here's to hoping Lockett can play well in what is likely his last season in Seattle.

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (7)

Jordan Poyer

MIA • FS • #21

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Poyer went from seventh-round pick to low-level free-agent add by the Bills in 2017 to an All-Pro. Incredible development in what has become an illustrious career. He and Micah Hyde were the heart and soul of Buffalo's four-straight AFC East winning defenses from 2020-2023. Altogether in Buffalo, Poyer snagged 22 interceptions in seven seasons and eclipsed at least 90 tackles in six of those years.

Injuries followed him with the Bills, however, and appeared to finally catch up to him in 2023, when he didn't have a pick in 16 games and had to transition to a role in which he played closer to the line of scrimmage more than he had previously in Buffalo.

That's not to say Poyer looked totally washed. He still hit 100 tackles and defended four passes. He now joins a very much reconstructed Miami defense -- on a one-year deal -- that'll be asked to stop Josh Allen and Co. inside the division.

Players who dipped after playing well early and are now in a prove-it year

Jahan Dotson

WAS • WR • #1

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As a rookie, playing opposite Terry McLaurin, who's always seemingly on a cusp of being widely accepted as a superstar, Dotson caught 35 passes for 523 yards with a whopping seven touchdowns on under 55% of Washington's offensive snaps. In his sophom*ore season in the nation's capitol, Dotson played more than 82% of the snaps and only saw a minor uptick in receptions (49) with fewer yards (508) and four scores.

Now, any young receiver should be exuding confidence after 11 touchdowns in his first two NFL campaigns. But Dotson was clearly less efficient as an offensive weapon in his second season.

Do I think the Commanders would automatically trade him if he doesn't erupt in Year 3? No. But if he hovers around 45-50 snags with 500-ish yards and a few scores with Jayden Daniels throwing him the football in what truly marks a new era in franchise history, then he's unlikely to be in the team's long-term plans after the 2024 season.

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (11)

Jeremy Chinn

WAS • SAF • #11

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Chinn finished second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting back in 2020, when Chase Young won the award. And, heck, Young could've been included in this piece, too.

But I'll focus on Chinn because he's another Commanders player who's produced at high level in the NFL and boasts the talent to be a foundational piece of Washington's defensive unit for a long time. He also could be on this third team in three years if he doesn't return to his early form in 2024.

Chinn, now 26, is playing on a one-year deal for less than $5 million this season, and it comes after a nightmarish 2023 in which he appeared on 27.1% of Carolina's defensive snaps without serious injuries keeping him off the field. Remember, Chinn is a serious specimen for the safety spot -- 6-foot-3 and 221-pounds with elite 4.45 speed and a 41-inch vertical. He has the built-in-a-lab size and athleticism to be half-safety, half-linebacker when more is being asked from the safety position than ever before.

His new head coach, Dan Quinn, had a front-row seat to Kam Chancellor in Seattle, and Donovan Wilson and Markquese Bell became two quality, hard-hitting safeties in Dallas. Chinn should blossom under Quinn's watch.

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (13)

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Fifth-year option players who could sign a huge extension or play on a different team next year

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (14)

Jaycee Horn

CAR • CB • #8

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What are we to make of Horn through three NFL seasons? He didn't even play 150 snaps in his first professional season before injury struck. Then, in a mostly healthy 2022, he snagged three picks, knocked away seven other throws and didn't allow a touchdown in his coverage area.

But before he could genuinely build on the breakout second season, Horn injured his hamstring in Week 1 of 2023 and didn't play again until Week 13 (!), which indicates how nagging that injury can be, particularly for a skill-position player. When he's been able to stay on the field, Horn, and his 6-1, 200-pound frame that comes with freaky explosiveness, make him one of the most capable young man-to-man boundary corners in football.

It's just that the former first-round pick has hardly been able to stay on the field. With the Panthers hiring a brand-new coaching staff ahead of the 2024 season, one with no ties to Horn, he enters a vital season for his future in Carolina. Because lockdown corners are hard to come by, if Horn stays off the injury list and excels, there's a chance he'll either sign an extension or get a lucrative new deal with the Panthers next March.

If he again doesn't have a clean bill of health, there'll be plenty of trade rumors before his enters his fifth-year option season in 2025.

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (16)

Zaven Collins

ARI • LB • #25

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Collins wasn't deployed properly -- based on his collegiate film and usage -- until Jonathan Gannon took the reins in Arizona last season. Before that, Collins was almost strictly deployed as a classic off-ball linebacker at nearly 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. As a rookie, he was sent after the quarterback a mere 16 times. In Year 2, just 127 times. This is a strapping, do-everything outside linebacker who registered a pressure on 27 of his 117 pass-rushing opportunities in his final two seasons at Tulsa.

Gannon utilized Collins with his collegiate film in mind -- he was asked to rush the passer 272 times (more than double his previous career high in the NFL), and he rewarded the Cardinals with 30 pressures. But even the uptick in production that came with somewhat of a position move last year did not mean Collins became a star, someone bound to earn a mega second contract with the team that drafted him.

Is an extension with the Cardinals possible? Absolutely. And it'll likely come with more pass-rushing effectiveness in Gannon's scheme in 2024. However, if Collins remains an average coverage linebacker and run-stopper without the outside-rushing speciality, he'll be a prime low-to-mid level free-agent add for another club in the 2025 offseason, as the Cardinals declined to exercise his fifth-year option.

NFL players entering a make-or-break 2024 season: Multiple first-rounders, former All-Pro WR headline list (2024)

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