Raiders TE Michael Mayer Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

9 Notable Veterans with the Most to Prove During 2024 NFL OTAs

Kristopher Knox

2024 NFL organized team activities (OTAs) are officially underway, and it's an important point in the offseason for rookies and veterans alike—and it's more important for some veterans than others.

Jobs aren't won or lost at this point in the offseason, but players can make lasting impressions during OTAs and minicamps. For veterans looking to hang onto a starting job, insert themselves into a position battle or simply make the final 53-player roster, the next few weeks can be critical.

Many rookies will find themselves in similar situations, though for first-year players, especially those drafted early, the only thing they need to prove is that they belong.

Here we'll examine nine notable veterans—former high draft picks, Pro Bowlers or starters—who have plenty to prove as OTAs continue to unfold. We'll examine what's at stake and what could potentially be gained or lost well ahead of training camp.

James Bradberry, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

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According to John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia, cornerback James Bradberry hasn't been spotted at the start of Philadelphia Eagles OTAs. It's a curious development because Bradberry has plenty to gain by showing up and performing well.

The 30-year-old did not perform well last season, allowing an opposing passer rating of 114.3 in coverage. However, he was a quality starter for the Eagles in 2022 and a Pro Bowler with the New York Giants back in 2020.

The arrival of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could give Bradberry an opportunity to reestablish himself as an above-average NFL corner. Fangio's scheme is zone-heavy and plays to the veteran's strengths. However, Bradberry will likely need to beat out incoming rookies Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean to earn a prominent role under Fangio this season.

A strong series of OTAs would at least give Bradberry a fighting chance. If Bradberry struggles, though, or fails to even show up to voluntary workouts, he could be on his way out of Philadelphia.

While Bradberry has $15.1 million in dead money remaining on his contract, the Eagles could cut him after June 1 and not hurt their cap situation. Trading him after June 1 would save $1.2 million in 2024 cap space, and cutting him after this season with a post-June 1 designation would save $4.7 million in 2025 cap space.

Chase Claypool, WR, Buffalo Bills

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Wide receiver Chase Claypool landed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason after disappointing stints with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins. Miami acquired Claypool from Chicago in a 2023 trade, but the 25-year-old caught just four passes in nine games with the Dolphins.

Early in his career, though, Claypool looked like an ascending star with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He topped 800 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons before being dealt to the Bears in Year 3.

Now, Claypool is looking to revitalize his career on a one-year, $1.1 million deal that only includes $25,000 guaranteed.

"I went from being a starter, playing every play, to going to Miami and really not playing at all," Claypool said, per ESPN's Alaina Getzenberg. "So, it ... Made me realize my love for the game

In Buffalo, Claypool will get to perform with a top-tier quarterback in Josh Allen. However, he's also facing long odds just to make the team. Buffalo parted with Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis this offseason but also brought in the likes of Mack Hollins, Curtis Samuel, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie first-round pick Keon Coleman.

Buffalo's No. 3 receiver from last season, Khalil Shakir, is also in the mix.

While the Bills' receiver room isn't an all-star group of established players, Claypool's contract makes him an easy cut candidate if he can't reestablish himself as a high-upside option.

Standout performances during OTAs could give Claypool the inside track to a complementary role, while a series of poor outings could have him on the bubble before camp even begins.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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After losing Tony Pollard in free agency and not taking a running back in the draft, the Dallas Cowboys brought back former longtime starter Ezekiel Elliott on a one-year, $2 million deal that includes $1.6 million guaranteed.

While Elliott may not be a serious cut candidate because of the guaranteed money, he surely doesn't want to spend the bulk of his return campaign on the bench. With Royce Freeman, Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn also on the depth chart, Elliott isn't a lock to waltz back into the starting job.

Freeman, who was signed on April 16, has already made a strong early impression.

"Very impressed with him," head coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday, per Bri Amaranthus of FanNation. "... I'm very impressed with how quickly he picked up the language. Football comes pretty easy to him. It's natural. You can see that protection. He has been an excellent addition."

If Elliott wants to have a prominent role in Dallas' committee, he may have to start impressing well ahead of training camp. The four-time Pro Bowler failed to do that with the New England Patriots last season, finishing the year with a paltry 3.5 yards-per-carry average.

Elliott will have to show during early workouts that he can still be an effective ball-carrier. Otherwise, the Cowboys will likely look at options like Freeman, Dowdle—who appeared in 16 games for Dallas last season—or perhaps an available free agent to fill the starting role.

Justin Fields, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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2021 first-round pick Justin Fields never established himself as a franchise quarterback in Chicago, but he'll get a fresh start with the Steelers this season. However, Fields is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is coming in along with nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson.

Reestablishing himself as an NFL starter won't be easy if he can't earn playing time, though Fields does believe he has a chance to compete.

"I'm definitely competing," Fields said, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "I think Russ knows that we're competing against each other every day. ... I definitely don't have the mindset of me just sitting all year."

Unfortunately, Fields' outlook contradicts early offseason reports that Pittsburgh already views Wilson as the starter.

"Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was upfront with Justin Fields—told him that Russell Wilson is the starter, and Fields will work from there," Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated posted on X in March.

If Fields is going to have a chance to truly compete for the starting job—or, perhaps, a significant change-of-pace role—he'll need to impress the Steelers early. Wilson might be viewed as the starter, but if Fields can make things appear close between the two signal-callers now, he could open the door for an open camp competition.

If he can't, the starting job will likely be Wilson's to lose in training camp, and from there, it could be very difficult for Fields to earn meaningful snaps in 2024.

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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After having his fifth-year option declined, Steelers running back Najee Harris is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The 26-year-old has had good stretches of play—he was a rookie Pro Bowler in 2021—but he's also been an inconsistent runner (3.9 yards per carry).

Harris will be playing for a new contract this season, either an extension from Pittsburgh or a new deal in 2025 free agency. Fellow running back Jaylen Warren believes the situation will motivate his teammate.

"It's more motivation," Warren said, per Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "There's no bad blood. We understand it's a business."

The problem for Harris is that to earn a lucrative second contract, he'll need to reestablish himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber, high-volume back. That could be difficult coming off a campaign in which Warren—who has averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his career—was a far more explosive backfield option.

New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith had a habit of rotating backs frequently and riding the hot hand as the Atlanta Falcons head coach. The Steelers also brought in former Falcons running back and receiver Cordarrelle Patterson this offseason.

There will be competition for snaps in Smith's offense, and it would behoove Harris to ingratiate himself quickly. Impressing now could establish Harris as the clear-cut starter ahead of training camp. Struggling could lead to more of a committee approach in Pittsburgh and leave Harris eyeing a low-salary "prove-it" deal next offseason.

Michael Mayer, TE, Las Vegas Raiders

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2023 second-round pick Michael Mayer had an underwhelming rookie season (27 catches, 304 yards, 2 TDs), and the Las Vegas Raiders just used a first-round pick on tight end Brock Bowers.

Mayer believes that he and Bowers can be used in tandem to great effect in Las Vegas.

"Who's going to guard both of us?" Mayer said, per ESPN's Paul Gutierrez. "If you put a 'backer here, put a small safety here? I'm a big body, Brock's a big body, so it's going to be a lot of fun."

There are a couple of potential problems with Mayer's assessment. He was a product of the previous regime, while Bowers and free-agent addition Harrison Bryant were added by new general manager Tom Telesco.

Bowers was also widely viewed as a special prospect—he was the second overall player on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's final draft board—who should quickly become Las Vegas' primary receiving tight end.

If Mayer hopes to see meaningful snaps in 2024, he'll need to show enough during to offseason to justify regularly using multiple tight ends during the season.

New offensive coordinator Luke Getsy didn't do a ton of that in Chicago last season, as Cole Kmet was an offensive focal point, and No. 2 tight end Robert Tonyan played just 28 percent of the snaps.

If Mayer hopes to get on the field often in an offense that also includes Bowers and wide receivers Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers and Tre Tucker, he'll need to show that he can be more productive than he was as a rookie. If he can't begin doing that in OTAs, Mayer could be eyeing a lot of bench time in 2024.

Wanya Morris, OT, Kansas City Chiefs

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What offensive lineman wouldn't want to block for Patrick Mahomes and the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs? 2023 third-round pick Wanya Morris appeared headed to exactly that opportunity when starting left tackle Donovan Smith was not re-signed in early free agency.

However, Morris will now face stiff competition from rookie second-round pick Kingsley Suamataia.

"The position battle between Suamataia and Wanya Morris, the Chiefs' third-round draft pick last year, will be the team's last one for a starting job," he wrote.

Morris' offseason hasn't gone smoothly—he and backup tackle Chukwuebuka Godrick were recently arrested on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges—and the Chiefs made it clear before the draft that the 2023 four-game starter wouldn't be handed the job.

"There will be competition. He's got to make sure he takes care of business there," head coach Andy Reid said of Morris in April, per Jordan Foote of FanNation.

Suamataia, the 37th-ranked player on the B/R Scouting Department's final draft board, was a highly regarded prospect. If Morris hopes to hold off the rookie and become Mahomes' new blindside blocker—a role that could lead to a very lucrative second contract in a couple of years—he'll need to impress throughout the offseason.

Morris will need to show during OTAs and minicamps that his experience gives him a clear edge over the rookie. If he can't, Suamataia could have the inside track to the starting job before training camp even begins.

Miles Sanders, RB, Carolina Panthers

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Running back Miles Sanders was a Pro Bowler with the Eagles in 2022, and he parlayed his breakthrough campaign into a four-year, $25.4 million contract with the Carolina Panthers last offseason.

Without Philadelphia's powerful offensive line blocking for him, however, Sanders took a major step back in 2023. The 27-year-old averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last season and was pulled from the starting lineup five games into the season.

Chuba Hubbard, who replaced Sanders as the starter, is back. The Panthers also signed Rashaad Penny in free agency and used a second-round pick on Texas running back Jonathon Brooks.

New head coach Dave Canales is already thinking up ways to use the rookie in his offense.

"Perimeter screens. Checkdowns. We have a really cool empty package where we use the backs," Canales told reporters after Brooks was drafted. "... There's so much that he brings, from a versatility standpoint."

It's probably only a matter of time before Brooks ascends to the starting role with Hubbard as Carolina's second option.

If Sanders can't show shades of the Pro Bowler he was two years ago, he might not even get the chance to earn a roster spot in training camp.

While dumping Sanders after one season would sting, the Panthers could afford to do it. Releasing him after June 1 would trigger a dead-cap hit of $10.4 million but would save $200,000 in 2024 cap space. Trading him after June 1 would save $4.2 million in cap space—though, of course, finding a trade partner could be a challenge.

Christian Watson, WR, Green Bay Packers

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There was a time when 2022 second-round pick Christian Watson appeared on track to be the Green Bay Packers' No. 1 receiver of the future. He had a promising, if inconsistent, rookie campaign, finishing with 611 yards and seven touchdowns.

However, hamstring issues have hampered Watson's growth. His production also fell behind that of other young receivers—like Jayden Reed, Romeo Doubs and Dontayvion Wicks—who all built some chemistry with quarterback Jordan Love during his first season as a starter.

Watson still has two years remaining on his rookie contract, but he could be running out of time to prove that he should be a part of Green Bay's long-term future.

If he hopes to establish himself as one of Love's go-to targets, he'll first have to show that he can stay healthy and be dependable on the field. Watson, it's worth noting, provided a passer rating of only 71.4 when targeted last season.

The challenge began at the start of OTAs, and the early reports are promising.

"It's too early to speak definitively but [head coach Matt] LaFleur is pleased with the progress Christian Watson has made," Bill Huber of FanNation posted on X on Tuesday.

Watson will have to continue pleasing the Packers throughout OTAs because he's now playing catch-up in Green Bay's young receiver corps. If he falters, he could face an uphill battle for a starting job in training camp.

*Cap and contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.


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