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Make-or-break candidates: Tee Higgins, Dak Prescott among players at crossroads in 2024 NFL season

With each new day, we move a step closer to the start of the 2024 NFL season. For certain guys, it could be a career-defining campaign.

That's right: The stakes are as high as ever for a handful of notable individuals. Some are clinging to past glory, while others are out to prove they're worth big-time money in 2025 and beyond.

Below, I've identified 10 of the most prominent players who must deliver in 2024.

Tee Higgins
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Of the nine players who received franchise/transition tags in 2024, Higgins is the only one who's yet to sign a long-term extension. Higgins and the Bengals have until the July 15 deadline to work out a multi-year agreement, but it sure seems like he’s going to be playing on the tag this season. The topic has already inspired debate regarding Higgins’ motivations if he’s dinged up at some point in the coming campaign, and whether he’ll take it easy to protect his long-term health over risking injury to help the Bengals. Detractors might point to Higgins’ output in 2023, when he set career lows in games played (12), receptions (42), receiving yards (656) and receiving touchdowns (five), but that cannot be discussed without also noting Higgins spent a large chunk of the year without a healthy Joe Burrow. Now that Burrow is back, everything is on the line for Higgins, who can earn plenty of money with a big season ... or damage his earning power by failing to produce.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

Tua said on Tuesday that he’s feeling “antsy” about his ongoing contract talks, which don’t appear to be near the finish line. I think Tagovailoa eventually will receive an extension from the Dolphins, but the 26-year-old quarterback needs a big 2024 for more than monetary reasons. He has to prove to the doubters that he is as good as his 2023 numbers suggest, that he’s not just a product of Mike McDaniel’s system and that he is indeed the long-term face of the franchise. Tagovailoa cleared a significant hurdle last season by staying healthy for all 17 games (and a playoff contest), which was a great step toward silencing the haters and giving Miami reason to believe in him. But he needs to do it again -- and in even greater fashion -- to truly eliminate any lingering doubt. 

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

The Cowboys have set the tone for the 2024 season by standing pat on Prescott’s existing contract. It appears they will let him play out the final year of his deal. With a no-tag clause in Dak's contract, that places the 30-year-old quarterback on a course for unrestricted free agency in 2025. This means 2024 is the deciding season for Prescott and the Cowboys’ future, which is also, naturally, tied to head coach Mike McCarthy’s future. We don’t have to dance around the fact the Cowboys have continued to fall short of expectations, including in 2023, when they regained the NFC East throne ... then were promptly upset by the Packers on Super Wild Card Weekend. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Prescott credit for a very good '23 campaign, in which he played like a prime MVP candidate until Dallas flopped in a Week 15 loss at Buffalo. That defeat shouldn’t have wiped out everything good Prescott accomplished last year, but that seems to be the way some people reacted. If Dak doesn’t match or exceed his 2023 output, we’re going to see a lot of air time spent on his suddenly uncertain future.

Deshaun Watson
Cleveland Browns · QB

The Browns are living in a land of déjà vu. A year ago at this time, it seemed like their outlook depended heavily (if not solely) on the performance of Watson. The quarterback struggled with injuries and eventually underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in November. Joe Flacco memorably came off the couch to help Cleveland make the playoffs, but now Flacco's in Indianapolis and the Browns are back in the same spot. Watson appeared to be turning a corner last year before he was forced to go under the knife. Once his rehab's complete, he'll again embark on a season -- this one being his third in Cleveland -- with the Browns' hopes resting on his shoulders. He also needs to live up to the fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal Cleveland handed him in 2022, because to this point, the Browns have not received anything close to a quality return on their investment. If that continues, we might see Cleveland consider alternative options before long, making 2024 an absolutely pivotal year for Watson.

Daniel Jones
New York Giants · QB

The four-year, $160 million deal New York gave Jones last offseason looks bad right now. The former No. 6 overall pick reverted to his oft-injured, inconsistent form in 2023, producing results so ugly that the Giants openly mulled the possibility of adding another highly drafted quarterback to compete with the veteran. That’s not a good sign for Jones, a signal-caller who has never quite put up numbers worthy of a $40 million-per-year price tag. To those who think the Giants are beholden to Jones because of his contract, I have a counterpoint: New York can part with him for a very manageable dead cap number as low as $11.1 million in 2025, meaning it’s time for "Danny Dimes" to give the G-Men reason to stick with him. The pressure is on.

Chase Young
New Orleans Saints · DE

If Young needs motivation to produce in 2024, he only has to look back a few months at his free agency, which didn’t include a ton of attention and ended in a one-year, $13 million trial with the Saints. That’s far from what most expected the former No. 2 overall pick to fetch even a year ago, but after his move west to San Francisco failed to produce the results most expected when considering he was paired with Nick Bosa, Young was forced to accept a decent prove-it opportunity. If he wants to make big money, Young needs to act now. At 25 years old, he can once again become a coveted edge rusher by posting double-digit sacks (and experiencing a generally healthy season, given he recovers from offseason neck surgery), which admittedly feels less than likely at this point. Perhaps sharing the field with Cameron Jordan will help.

Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB

Pittsburgh declined to pick up Harris’ fifth-year option in May, leaving the former first-round pick with one more season to showcase his worth to the Steelers. The logic behind the decision was rather simple, according to NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero: Pittsburgh wants to see how Harris produces in new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s scheme before committing to him beyond 2024. That makes this a prove-it year for the Alabama product, who has at times carried the Steelers' offense on his back, but who has also seen his job threatened by backup Jaylen Warren. The time is now for the “motivated” Harris to ball out and raise his value on the open market. And with the way the RB market has largely collapsed in the recent years, you definitely don't want to enter free agency after a down season.

Budda Baker
Arizona Cardinals · S

This one is all about the money. Baker remains the same consistent player on the back end of Arizona’s defense, and although he earned another Pro Bowl nod in 2023, he flew under the radar due to the team’s general irrelevance in its first season under Jonathan Gannon. This year matters more because, after digging in in an attempt to secure a long-term deal a year ago, all Baker received was a revised pact that added bonuses and incentives. This is a contract year for the 28-year-old Baker, who is in the best window to capitalize on his earning power before it slowly starts to diminish with the passage of time. The Cardinals should have the money to pay him next year, but does he fit in their plans, or is a deal elsewhere more likely? And ultimately, will Baker prove he’s worthy of being a top free agent in 2025? We’ll find out in 2024.

Quentin Johnston
Los Angeles Chargers · WR

The Chargers’ receiver exodus should bode well for a second-year player at the position, but judging by what we saw from Johnston as a rookie, I’m far from confident he’ll capitalize at this point. Johnston struggled to make a play -- any play -- in his first season, catching just 38 of his 67 targets for 431 yards and two touchdowns and falling short of expectations set for a typical first-round receiver. Sure, he didn’t have Justin Herbert for a good portion of his debut campaign, but Johnston also wasn’t special. And now that the Chargers have attempted to remake their receiver room with the likes of rookies Ladd McConkey (keep an eye on him), Brenden Rice and Cornelius Johnson, it’s high time for Johnston to blossom. At this point, I expect McConkey to outperform him, but what Johnston absolutely cannot afford is another season like his first. He needs to play a bigger role in this offense in order for the Bolts to succeed -- and to prevent Los Angeles from seeking more help elsewhere in 2025.

Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · RB

This might seem extreme, but when considering both Chubb’s value to the Browns and his injury history, this season is undoubtedly a pivotal year for the stud running back. After getting caught with a thin RB group following Chubb’s serious injury last season, Cleveland has prepared accordingly entering 2024, loading seven running backs onto their roster entering camp. Chubb, who logged four straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons from 2019 to ’22, was able to avoid getting cut by agreeing to a revised contract that included more incentives, but that comes with a production requirement. Despite all that Chubb has done for the franchise (for which he will forever be beloved in Cleveland), Father Time spares no one, especially at running back. Chubb will turn 29 years old in December and needs to return healthy and prove he can still produce -- both for his future and for the immediate fate of the Browns.

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