Regardless of current state and outlook, each NFL team has at least one player who needs to make a statement to close the regular season. So as teams finish their Week 16 games and begin to look ahead to next week, our NFL Nation reporters identify one such player with something still to prove in Week 17.
Note: Entries will be added throughout Week 16 as teams play their games.
Kevin Johnson, CB. With the fifth seed locked up, the Bills likely will rest or sit several of their starters during their Week 17 game against the Jets, one of whom should be Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White. If White sits or sees reduced snaps, it opens the door for Johnson to show Buffalo’s front office that he’s worth re-signing this offseason. Johnson is on a one-year deal and split time with Levi Wallace opposite White. The Bills have little depth at the position, and the former first-round pick can strengthen his case with a solid performance in the regular-season finale. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB. The Dolphins seem to have found the perfect bridge quarterback to take them into the next era, and the role should be his in 2020 if he wants it. On Sunday, Fitzpatrick became the first Dolphins quarterback to throw for 400-plus yards and four touchdowns in a game since Dan Marino retired. He has overcome many offensive obstacles to put up a respectable season. He’s the quintessential leader for a rebuilding team, and if he’s willing to come back for Year 16, he would a great fit with whomever the Dolphins select in Round 1 of the 2020 draft. A good Week 17 outing in New England would further support that. — Cameron Wolfe
Mohamed Sanu Sr., WR. The Patriots traded a second-round draft choice for Sanu, and while he is playing a lot of snaps, his production as a pass-catcher has been limited. On Saturday against the Bills, he was on the field for 70 snaps — more than any receiver — and finished with three receptions for 24 yards. One of the receptions came short of the first-down marker, and he didn’t exhibit the explosion to get to the sticks. While Sanu has contributed in other ways, such as returning punts, the Pats would naturally like to see some more in the pass-catching area, starting next week against Miami. — Mike Reiss
Quinnen Williams, DT. Coming off his best game, Williams will look to close a relatively quiet rookie season with a strong outing in Buffalo. Big things were expected of Williams, drafted third overall, but he has only 2.5 sacks — two of which occurred when he was unblocked. He was somewhat disruptive (one sack) in the Jets’ win over the Steelers on Sunday, perhaps a sign that things are turning for him. — Rich Cimini
Robert Griffin, QB. With the No. 1 seed wrapped up, the Ravens likely will sit Lamar Jackson in the regular-season finale and give Griffin his first start in three years. Griffin has been limited to playing the fourth quarter in blowouts this season, and he could get his chance to show what he can do with a full week of preparation. He is 12-of-17 passing this season for 129 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He now could stand in the way of the Steelers getting to the playoffs. — Jamison Hensley
Andy Dalton, QB. The veteran is out to prove he can be a starting quarterback for an NFL team next season. After a rough first half against Miami, Dalton rallied the Bengals and threw for four touchdowns in the second half to force overtime and ran in the game-tying two-point conversion. Dalton could strengthen his case to start somewhere with a good outing against Cleveland in what could be his final game in Cincinnati. — Ben Baby
The Bengals erase a 16-point deficit in the final minute, as Andy Dalton throws two touchdown passes and runs in the two-point conversion with no time on the clock, sending the game to overtime.
David Njoku, TE. A former 2017 first-round pick, Njoku has fallen completely out of favor in Cleveland. Sunday against Baltimore, he was inactive again, a healthy scratch for the second consecutive week. Njoku, who had 56 catches last season, has only five receptions this season and has struggled in practice, especially with drops. He’ll need a big turnaround this week just to show he deserves a chance to be active in the rematch at Cincinnati, which would give him a final opportunity to demonstrate he can still be a viable part of the Browns in 2020 — or, at least, a viable piece in the NFL somewhere else. — Jake Trotter
Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, QB. In a season that has hinged on the quarterback — or lack thereof — it’s only fitting that the player with the most to prove in the Steelers’ Week 17 matchup at Baltimore will come down to whoever is the team’s starting quarterback. Who that will be is up in the air after the Steelers’ 16-10 loss to the Jets on Sunday afternoon. The team went with Hodges to start but pulled him after two interceptions. Rudolph, though, lasted only a quarter and a half before he left with a shoulder injury. Hodges went back in and attempted two passes to prolong the Steelers’ final drive but couldn’t connect with James Washington or JuJu Smith-Schuster. To make the playoffs, the Steelers must beat Baltimore, and to do that, they need a quarterback who can take care of the ball and help the offense score more than one touchdown, something the Steelers have done only twice since Week 8. — Brooke Pryor
Whitney Mercilus, OLB. The Texans’ first-round pick in 2012 is a free agent after the season. The veteran will have a chance to continue to show why he’s worth a big contract in free agency when the Texans host the Titans in Week 17 (and in any playoff games). Mercilus got off to a strong start to the season with five sacks in four games. But after J.J. Watt tore a pectoral muscle in Week 8, he has had a harder time getting to the quarterback because he’s been given a lot more attention by opponents. — Sarah Barshop
Jacoby Brissett, QB. Brissett will head into the season finale at Jacksonville with one final opportunity to end his three-game string of completing worse than 53% of his pass attempts. He had another unimpressive performance Sunday, going 14-of-27 for 119 yards against the Panthers. The Colts — no matter how Brissett plays against the Jaguars — likely will look to add to the quarterback position during the offseason. — Mike Wells
Gardner Minshew II, QB. The rookie is trying to make an argument that he should be the Jaguars’ starter in 2020 but is not helping himself with poor first-half performances. Since he returned as the starter in Week 14, he has completed just 13 of 32 passes for 159 yards and no touchdowns in the first half of the three games. He’s 6-of-20 in the past two games. It’s not all his fault — the protection has broken down, the run game has sputtered and the playcalling has been conservative — but that’s just not good enough. Especially when the offense has scored a combined nine points in those three first halves. Starting hot against Indianapolis would be a good way for Minshew to finish the season. — Mike DiRocco
Ryan Tannehill, QB. His record as a starter fell to 6-3 on Sunday, but he threw three touchdown passes and ended the day with 272 passing yards against the Saints. Tannehill is still looking to prove that he can be the man, both in the present and the future, for the Titans and other teams in need of a quarterback. He’ll get a chance to put a stamp on the regular season and send Tennessee to the playoffs next week in a win-and-in game against the Texans. — Turron Davenport
Daniel Jones, QB. The rookie has shown he can play at a high level. He threw five touchdown passes in Sunday’s 41-36 overtime win over the Redskins, his fourth game this season that he’s produced at least four touchdowns. Jones also showed he can play a clean game without a turnover. The final week against Philadelphia is about showing he can do it consistently. That would serve the rookie well heading into the offseason. — Jordan Raanan
Montae Nicholson, S. Two years ago he looked like he could be a long-term answer at free safety, but his momentum ever since has been interrupted either by injuries or inconsistent play. Nicholson is not a free agent after the season, but he hasn’t played well enough to warrant a starting job next season, especially with a new coach. He has missed tackles the last two weeks, whether because of angles or just being juked, and hasn’t provided big plays. The Redskins could end up with multiple new players in the secondary, and if Nicholson’s play doesn’t improve next week in Dallas and into training camp, then it creates another opening. Nicholson needs to prove they can trust him. — John Keim
Vic Beasley Jr., LB. This was a prove-it year for Beasley, who is playing on a fifth-year option. While he has recorded eight sacks, he still hasn’t returned to being the dominant player he was in 2016 (NFL-high 15.5 sacks, Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro). Reaching double-digit sacks would certainly go a long way toward helping him in free agency, so the season finale at Tampa Bay might be the most important game of the season for him. One problem: Beasley never has recorded any of his 36.5 career sacks in nine career games against Tampa Bay. — Vaughn McClure
Vernon Butler, DT. Butler was in a prove-it season before it even began because Carolina didn’t pick up the 2016 first-rounder’s fifth-year option. He then began the season on the inactive list the first two games, further clouding his future. He seemed to have turned the corner with six sacks over the next 11 games after Pro Bowl tackle Kawann Short was placed on injured reserve, but his punch to the face of Indianapolis tight end Jack Doyle on Sunday put his future in jeopardy again. He was ejected for the punch and apologized afterward, but interim coach Perry Fewell said there would be internal discussions about Butler. What happens internally this week, leading up to Week 17’s tilt vs. the Saints, will say a lot about whether Butler will be a part of the team’s future. — David Newton
Alvin Kamara, RB. It sure looked like Kamara found his mojo again during the second half of Sunday’s 38-28 comeback win at Tennessee. He scored his first two touchdowns since Week 3, including a 40-yard run. He also started making defenders miss in the open field again, something he hadn’t been doing at his usual prolific rate since returning from midseason knee and ankle injuries. Kamara said he never lost confidence, but he has been fighting to get back close to 100% and said it felt good to see the results Sunday. For the Saints to advance in the playoffs, they’re going to need Kamara to play the way he did against the Titans, and he can provide further confidence in Week 17 at Carolina. — Mike Triplett
Jameis Winston, QB. With a decision about his future with Buccaneers looming, Winston threw four interceptions — including a pick-six on his first pass attempt — in a 23-20 Week 16 loss to the Texans. While Winston had been able to overcome interceptions in the Bucs’ four-game win streak — including three against the Colts two weeks ago — this team’s turnover issues will continue to doom it against playoff-caliber teams. “I can’t do that. I can’t do it,” Winston said. “We can’t win that way consistently.” The bigger question: Can the Bucs win with Winston period? He is in the final year of his contract and has one more chance next week vs. the Falcons to convince coach Bruce Arians and ownership that he’s worthy of a new deal. — Jenna Laine
Jameis Winston asserts his primary focus in games is to not turn over the football and says he will be a great quarterback once he achieves that.
Jared Goff, QB. He signed a four-year extension, which included an NFL-record $110 million in guarantees before the season, so the fourth-year quarterback hardly needs to prove himself for a contract. However, with the Rams out of playoff contention for the first time in three seasons, Goff must play to his ability in Week 17 against Arizona to gain confidence from Rams faithful that he is capable of leading the team to a playoff run in 2020. — Lindsey Thiry
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB. Outside observers have spent much of this season questioning whether Garoppolo has what it takes to lead the Niners to the promised land. Well, they are headed to the playoffs, but their road once they get there will come down to how Garoppolo & Co. fare in a massive Week 17 showdown with the Seahawks. The NFC West, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs are all on the line at Seattle next Sunday as Garoppolo starts his first game in a venue that has been a house of horrors for the Niners in recent years. A win there would answer any non-playoff-related questions that still remain. — Nick Wagoner