The Big Payback: 5 NFL Defensive Players With Something to Prove - Rolling Stone
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The Big Payback: 5 NFL Defensive Players With Something to Prove

Can these five defensive standouts silence their critics in 2014?

NFL, Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Professional sports are a contest. Sorry, that’s too obvious of a statement, like saying that desserts are a food or that Tim Tebow is not a football player. More specifically, professional sports are a pissing contest. Competition to be the best – and a desire to prove doubters wrong – is what pushes good athletes to become great.

Last season the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl with many of those types of players: A quarterback that was too short. A running back that was too volatile and inconsistent. A cornerback that talked too much for a fifth rounder. Luckily, they also had a coach who reminded them they weren’t here by accident.

Silencing their naysayers helped the Seahawks win their first championship in franchise history. Can these five defensive players with something to prove this season follow suit?

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans

Why he has something to prove: The first defensive end to be taken first overall since Mario Williams in 2006, some think his desire to be a great player will never match his otherwordly athletic ability.

Not to mix sports here, but Clowney is a lot more like LeBron James than he is Mario Williams. He’s been the prospect to watch for years, the one guy that everyone’s been itching to see in the league, a rare athlete with the potential to dominate. In the draft, he was taken ahead of prospects with polished resumes, just like LeBron went ahead of players that were taller, more accomplished and had proven themselves on a higher level.

But he was LeBron.

And Clowney is Clowney, the “Super Freak Special” from South Carolina who was nearly unstoppable in college and is now paired with the best defensive player in the game, J.J. Watt. When you reach that level of stardom before you’ve actually proven yourself, the truth is that there really is nowhere to go but down. The best Clowney can do at this point is not do anything to screw it up. In which case, he could immediately be one of the hardest players to block in the game.

All last season, the Texans prayed for someone like him. Can he answer those prayers?

Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks

Why he has something to prove: By telling one person “Don’t you ever talk about me,” Sherman simultaneously had the whole world gabbing about his outburst after the NFC championship game. In the months following, he became a Super Bowl champion, a Madden cover boy and one of the most famous football players in the world. But can he maintain his status as “the best corner in the game?”

Sherman is known for his aggressive (and legal) style of play against receivers, but the league aims to cut down even further on defensive holding. Could that inhibit Sherman’s ability to be a shutdown corner? And will that even matter if no one’s willing to throw in his direction?

He played in over 1,000 snaps on defense but was only targeted 57 times, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed only 29 catches and had eight interceptions, leading to a passer rating of just 36.2 for any quarterbacks that threw in his direction. That includes Matt Schaub, who threw a pick-six in Week 4, and Colin Kaepernick, who went towards Sherman only once in the NFC championship game and saw it tipped to Malcolm Smith to send the Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

We all know that Sherman is great (he won’t let us forget it), but is he losing his edge because everyone is watching him? The former receiver-turned-corner at Stanford fell to the fifth round of the 2011 draft, and he used the chip on his shoulder to motivate him to become what he is. But now fans are waiting and watching either for him to get even better, or fall flat on his face. Many want to see the latter, especially after he signed a $57.4 million contract extension in the offseason, but that could become his new shoulder chip.

Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots

Why he has something to prove: He might be the closest thing to a shutdown corner in the NFL, but Revis is now with his third team in three years. Still, he’s only 29 years old, and out to make a statement in 2014.

He’s replacing Aqib Talib in New England, but provides that extra level of reliability that only a handful of elite players in the league can really bring. Revis, like Adrian Peterson before him, proved that you can make a full recovery from an ACL tear and be elite.

However, the most fascinating thing about Revis’ career thus far seems to be how intent he is on squeezing as many pennies out of NFL teams as he can. This is a business, of course, and the players only get to collect their checks for a short amount of time. But the way that Revis has gone about it may one day be studied by young athletes and taught by agents.

He signed a massive deal with the Buccaneers last year for $16 million per season, but with no guaranteed money. After one year, Tampa Bay decided they didn’t want to devote that much money to one player and cut him. He was picked up by the Patriots and signed a two-year deal, but nobody expects New England to pay out the massive second year commitment. For all intents and purposes, this is a one-year deal, and Revis is banking on the idea that he won’t suffer any more major injuries, or stop being one of the best players in the game. If he can do that, he will continue to rent out his services to the highest bidder and possibly make more money over the life of his career than most defensive players ever have.

Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

Why he has something to prove: Despite his tremendous play as the leader of one of the best defenses in the league, many people scratched their heads when Kuechly won last season’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Is he really the best defensive player in the game?

Middle linebackers are limited in ways that pass-rushers, cornerbacks and safeties are not. For the most part, defenses are looking for an inside linebacker that isn’t a sieve, and if he’s a great leader in the huddle and can read an offense, even better. That was not the case when running backs ruled the league, but as teams lean more and more on the pass, most middle linebackers will be limited in how much they can help.

If there was an exception to that rule last season, it was NaVorro Bowman, not Kuechly, and that’s because Bowman was able to rush the passer. That is, unless Kuechly can prove me wrong.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions

Why he has something to prove: Some would say he has attitude problems, others may argue they’re just “passion” problems. But none of that compares to Detroit’s biggest problem: Suh’s massive cap hit and looming free agency. He’ll cost the team more than $22 million this year, and that likely keeps the Lions from being able to franchise him in 2015.

He was so dominating in college that many felt he should have won the Heisman Trophy in 2009, and if success in the pros had anything to say about it, those people were right. Suh finished fourth behind Toby Gerhart, Colt McCoy and winner Mark Ingram. Through four years in the NFL, those players have only gained obscurity while Suh gained notoriety as one of the toughest, most volatile personalities in the league.

Said personality has garnered him over $200,000 in fines through four seasons. If he enters free agency next year, it will be the comparisons to former defensive tackle (and bad-attitude all-star) Albert Haynesworth that both excite teams, and discourage them from committing too much guaranteed money.

Suh now needs to show the Lions – and everyone else – that he’s no Haynesworth. Can he demonstrate the intensity that makes him dominating, while not going over the edge? If he can do that, then Detroit is going to have to break the bank to keep his services.

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