One Player Who Will Feel Most Pressure to Carry Each NFL Team in 2012

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIFebruary 10, 2012

One Player Who Will Feel Most Pressure to Carry Each NFL Team in 2012

0 of 32

    Today, we wanted to look at every team in the NFL and identify who is the one player that will be feeling the most pressure to carry and lead their team into battle in 2012.

    In some cases, it is the team captain. In other cases, it is the face of the franchise who may not necessarily be the team captain. In other examples, it will be the veteran that is nearing the end of his career, and is holding on for that last run towards a Super Bowl ring.

    They could be a starting quarterback, a running back, a wide receiver or a defensive unit star. Whatever their position or situation is, these are the guys that the rest of the team looks to for leadership and inspiration week in and week out.

Arizona Cardinals

1 of 32

    The decision for the one player on the Arizona Cardinals that will feel the most pressure to carry his team in 2012 came down to Larry Fitzgerald or Kevin Kolb.

    Kolb should feel pressure in 2012 because he led the Cardinals to more losses than wins when he was the starter, which is the exact opposite of what his backup, John Skelton, did. The other reason that Kolb has to feel pressure is due to the enormous contract he signed to join the Cardinals, six years for $65 million. So far, Kolb has not come close to delivering value for what he is earning.

    But to my way of thinking, Fitzgerald is the face of the Cardinals franchise. He was dining with Peyton Manning during Super Bowl week, presumably to recruit him for considering playing for the Cardinals.

    Fitzgerald continues to play at All-Pro level, and due to his desire to excel and be part of a winning team, he will serve as my selection for the Cardinals.

Atlanta Falcons

2 of 32

    After qualifying for the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 but exiting in the first playoff game each year, the question really isn't about who feels the most pressure to carry his team in 2012, but who can deliver on a playoff win for this team?

    After losing by 27 points to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs in 2010, and then by 22 points to the New York Giants this year, the Falcons know that they lost to the Super Bowl champions both times, but it doesn't make the sting of being embarrassed losing a home game any easier to take.

    To me, the two guys that should feel the most pressure are Matt Ryan and Roddy White. They are the two most key players on offense and have been leading the Falcons attack. To have the offense shut out by the Giants at home is going to be eating at them all offseason. They should be feeling pressure because of their sorry performance, and if they aren't feeling pressure, then something is wrong with them.

    For the sake of this article, I will select Ryan as the player that feels the most pressure to carry his team in 2012. He needs to step up his play in big games, or his reputation will become further tarnished.

Baltimore Ravens

3 of 32

    When you are the frequent subject of national media stories or are a frequent guest on shows that run on the NFL Network, you are then one of the first players thought of when your team is doing well or is not playing very well. Call it guilt by association or think of it as a product of "it comes with the territory."

    For the Baltimore Ravens, the main subjects are numerous: Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs and Ed Reed. They seem to be in front of the camera often, and as such, they should be the same players that are feeling pressure to lead their team in 2012. Out of this group only Ray Rice is a free agent for 2012, but it is hard to picture him not coming back to play for Baltimore in 2012.

    We don't know how many years Lewis has left to play. His body and his mind are both holding up and staying positive. As long as both his physical game and mental game remain strong, there is no reason for him to stop playing, unless his reactions begin to really get slower and slower.

    Flacco wants to be respected, and he will feel internal pressure to perform and win in 2012. He led the Ravens offense in the playoffs and continued to deliver the ball where he was supposed to.

    That was a clutch throw that he made to Lee Evans, and the missed field goal prevented us from seeing what Flacco could do in overtime. Still, for Flacco to make the jump to the next level of quarterbacks in the league, he will need to have a big year and for the Ravens to have a big year as a team.

    Considering all of the above, Lewis' desire to have one more Super Bowl ring before he retires and the fact that he leads Ravens, I will have to select Lewis as my choice for the Baltimore Ravens.

Buffalo Bills

4 of 32

    The Buffalo Bills have a number of interesting prospects for this particular subject. On defense, veterans like Kyle Williams and Chris Kelsay have been with the Bills for their entire careers, but have never been to the playoffs with the team.

    Newcomers to the Bills defense, Shawne Merriman and Nick Barnett, want to prove to the rest of the NFL that they are valuable commodities—being part of a winning team will draw more attention to their play. This is especially true for Merriman, who will be a free agent in 2013. 

    On offense, the main guys I think of are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Steve Johnson and Fred Jackson. For Jackson, he is entering 2012 on the final year of his contract and was playing at an All-Pro level last year until he fractured his leg in Week 11 against Miami. Jackson wants the Bills to rework his contract, and taking that position will bring added pressures on Jackson to deliver and come up with another strong season.

    For Steve Johnson, he wants to be considered among the elite receivers in the NFL. He is the first player in the history of the Bills franchise to ever record back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, something that Hall-of-Fame finalist Andre Reed was never able to do. Johnson is a free agent, and although both sides would like to see a long-term deal done, it is possible the Bills might have to settle for a one-year franchise tag deal. Johnson would then have pressure to prove that he is actually an elite receiver.

    Finally, we come to Ryan Fitzpatrick, my choice for the Bills. Fitzpatrick was noteworthy in 2011 for signing the huge contract extension in the middle of the season (seven years for $62 million), and the Bills immediately catapulted into their worst losing streak of the year. It has since been revealed that Fitzpatrick suffered four cracked ribs and an injured sternum against the Redskins in Week 8 and played injured from that point on.

    To justify the contract and the faith that the Bills had in making him the starting quarterback, Fitzpatrick will be feeling the most pressure to carry the Bills in 2012. Since they are the only NFL team that has failed to make the playoffs since 2000, Fitzpatrick faces the added pressure to get his team to the playoffs this year.

Carolina Panthers

5 of 32

    For the Carolina Panthers, I am boiling this down to Steve Smith and Jon Beason. Cam Newton is too young and new to the NFL to be thought of as the guy that is going to be feeling much pressure yet. That will come with time, but it's not yet Newton's moment.

    As for Jon Beason, he signed a six-year, $51-million contract in 2011, so the Panthers have invested heavily in Beason to be a leader of their defense. He is coming back from an Achilles' tendon tear, so there is also pressure on him to perform and prove that he is still physically able to do his job and lead the defense. He will also have to prove that he is still worth the money that he is taking up against the salary cap.

    As for Steve Smith, the Panthers star wide receiver is entering the final year of his contract in 2012. You already know that he formed a strong chemistry with Newton last year, so it would make sense that Smith would want to help lead the Panthers to the next level. As one of the senior members of the team, he has no reason to believe that the Panthers wouldn't want to see him end his career in Carolina. He still thinks he can play for another three or four more years.

    In conclusion, my choice for the Panthers is Beason. The Panthers offense put forth a solid 2011 campaign. The defense is what held Carolina back from having a better record. As leader of the Panthers defense, Beason will be placing tremendous pressure on himself and his defensive teammates to make sure that doesn't happen again.

Chicago Bears

6 of 32

    In thinking about the Chicago Bears, I originally thought of five players for this presentation: Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers. Of the five, only Forte is a free agent coming into the 2012 season, and we can only assume that the Bears and Forte will work some kind of a deal out, whether it is long-term variety or a franchise tag deal.

    Back in 2010, Peppers signed a six-year, $84-million contract. As soon as he signed that deal, he was placing tremendous pressure on himself to produce in Chicago and be a difference maker.

    All Briggs does is keep going to Pro Bowls, playing solid football year-in and year-out. He is not happy with his contract, and he asked the Bears to work out a new deal for him. The fact that he is calling attention to himself places some internal and external pressure on him in 2012.

    Urlacher wound up getting hurt toward the end of the 2011 season. He will be playing in the final year of his contract, as he becomes a free agent in 2013. Assuming that he wants to continue his career and that he would like to retire as a member of the Bears, Urlacher will have pressure to show that he is healthy again and has enough football left in him to warrant another contract extension.

    From the injury he suffered in the NFC Championship game in 2010 to the season-ending injury he suffered in 2011, Cutler hasn't been able to stay healthy for the entire year. Some of that has to do with the Bears offensive line woes and the incredible pounding that Cutler is asked to face each year. Cutler has also been asked to direct an offense that offers Forte and little else, so there is constantly pressure from trying to produce as well as trying to avoid the pass rush.

    Forte has been looking for a big raise and prefers to have a contract longer than one year, but we won't know how all of that shakes out for another month or so. Since Forte was the main weapon on the Bears offense in 2011, he will carry tremendous pressure to produce once again—not just to keep the Bears in games, but to justify whatever his new deal is. 

    As for my pick, I select Brian Urlacher. He is basically the face of the Bears organization, and for however many years he has left, he would like to have a Super Bowl ring of his own.

Cincinnati Bengals

7 of 32

    For the Cincinnati Bengals, I considered Bobbie Williams, Andrew Whitworth and Cedric Benson. Andy Dalton just finished his rookie year, and there is no way he is going to be feeling the same pressure as the established veteran players are.

    Williams is now 36 years old, and he is a free agent. He went on the IR list in 2011 with a broken ankle. So, if you add all of those factors up, it is almost like three strikes and you're out. Pass.

    Benson is also a free agent, and it would not be a surprise if the Bengals decide to let Benson walk away a free agent. With his future in Cincinnati anything but secure, it means we scratch him off the list.

    So, that brings us to Whitworth. He  signed a five-year deal in 2011, so he will be looked at as the Bengals' leader. He led Cincinnati during the lockout, and he is going to be leading them into the future, until it is time to pass the torch to Dalton.

Cleveland Browns

8 of 32

    Who is the best player to select from the Cleveland Browns? Is it Colt McCoy, Joshua Cribbs or Peyton Hillis? What about leading tackler D'Qwell Jackson from the Browns defense? Would Joe Thomas be a better selection?

    For one thing, Hillis and Jackson are both free agents, and neither one is guaranteed to be back in Cleveland, so we will eliminate both of them. 

    Thomas is a stud tackle, but you hardly ever hear from him directly—at least not from a national platform—so to have any clue what kind of pressure he is under would be a shot in the dark.

    Cribbs excels in special teams and has been coming on as a receiver. His job is secure, but he will become a free agent in 2013—that means Cribbs will be playing for a new contract during the 2012 season, and that carries with it some unique pressures for Cribbs to deal with. 

    In my opinion, the answer for the Browns is McCoy. He has two years of starting under his belt, and he needs to show the Browns that he is progressing and can lead them to more wins. The Browns need to surround McCoy with better talent and more weapons on offense, but with the extra picks they picked up in the 2011 draft (and presumably, they can do the same thing in 2012 draft if they so desire), the Browns should be on their way towards giving McCoy better options. The rest is up to him.

Dallas Cowboys

9 of 32

    For the Dallas Cowboys, I was looking at either DeMarcus Ware or Tony Romo. They are the highest profile Cowboys, draw the most attention on both sides of the ball and have been with the Cowboys long enough that they are the perceived leaders of the team.

    As much as the Cowboys are perceived to be a national contender, the reality is that they have one playoff win in the last 15 years. That alone should be enough of an embarrassing fact to motivate every player and have every Cowboys player under intense pressure.

    Romo played through a number of injuries in 2011, but the game he came back to lead the Cowboys to a win against the San Francisco 49ers was one of his best moments of the year. Unfortunately, those best moments appear to be coming few and far between. If Romo is to improve his national reputation, as well as his standing in Dallas Cowboys history, he will need to start cranking out some NFC East titles as well as some playoff wins.

    As for Ware, he continues to play at an advanced level, creating sacks and coming up with a number of plays that demonstrates how difficult he is to contain. The Cowboys defense should be even better in the second year under Rob Ryan, so look for Ware to have another sensational season.

    When all is said and done, however, the player that the fans keep talking about is Romo. He is either going to be leading the Cowboys to the playoffs, or he will be the goat that makes them miss the playoffs again.

    Romo has to be my choice.

Denver Broncos

10 of 32

    Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins have been serving as the leaders of the Denver Broncos defense, but the pressure for them is nothing compared to the pressure that Tim Tebow has created for himself during the 2011 season.

    Nobody sold more jerseys in 2011 than Tebow, and as his legion of fans in Denver continued to grow, so did the amount of pressure that Tebow was creating for himself to produce. As the Broncos neared the conclusion of the regular season and a playoff berth was at stake, the whole city of Denver rested its hopes on the left arm and legs of Tebow to deliver for them.

    While the fanbase remains behind Tebow and Tebow-mania is alive and well, the Broncos are hedging their bets when John Elway admits that he will allow for a quarterback competition in training camp. Tebow can still emerge in 2012 as the Broncos starter, but nobody knows how much better of a passer he can become, with some customized tutoring from Elway, until we see the finished product on the field.

    While that will require some patience from everybody, it doesn't lighten the amount of pressure on Tebow to improve his game or take the next step up in his evolution. This one is a pretty easy call; the Broncos player that will feel the most pressure to carry his team is Tebow.

Detroit Lions

11 of 32

    Not only did Matthew Stafford stay healthy for an entire season, he excelled as a starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions, throwing for more than 5,000 yards on the year. Of course, the Lions didn't have much of a running game going; consequently, the Lions needed Stafford to pass them into the playoffs on a weekly basis.

    Kyle Vanden Bosch is another player viewed as a leader on the Lions, and he also is playing with the pressure of trying to lead the Lions to the next step in their evolution as a contending playoff team. While Vanden Bosch is just one component of the Lions' strong defensive line, he has help from his teammates, and they in turn make the guys next to them even better.

    I believe that Stafford will be feeling the most pressure in 2012, because now that the Lions have finally reached the playoffs again after a long absence, the fans will not be happy with anything less. That will be a motivating factor that keeps driving Stafford for the entire season.

Green Bay Packers

12 of 32

    Who carries more pressure into a brand new football season than the previous NFL MVP? Nobody else does, period.

    While it might be fine to consider defensive leaders like Charles Woodson or Clay Matthews, Jr., the answer for the Green Bay Packers is Aaron Rodgers.

    Rodgers completed an amazing 2011 season where he led his Packers to a 15-1 regular season record. Of course, they were eliminated by the visiting New York Giants in the playoffs, and that playoff loss is something that Rodgers will be trying to personally overcome during the entire 2012 season.

    From a national perspective, the Packers regular season record is somewhat tainted due to falling so flat in the playoffs. Rodgers will be looking to erase any doubts that the Packers are for real, but there will be pressure on him from Week 1 all the way to Week 17 to make sure there is no let up.

Houston Texans

13 of 32

    I was considering four Houston Texans for this presentation: Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson on offense and DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams on defense.

    Williams is a free agent, and even though he has been a leader for his entire career, there is the distinct possibility that he could be playing somewhere else in 2012, so we will opt for a player that we are quite certain will be on the team instead.

    Matt Schaub survived the earlier seasons when the Texans failed to make the playoffs, but the year that they went, Schaub gets hurt and can't participate in the playoffs with his teammates. While there is pressure for Schaub to keep his team in the playoff hunt for the foreseeable future, they proved that they can get there without him.

    DeMeco Ryans has been one of the key leaders of Texans' defense. The Texans made their drastic turn around from one of the worst NFL defenses in 2010 to one of the best defenses in 2011 thanks to the addition of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Surrounded by better players, playing in a system and scheme that works, that helps to take some of the pressure off of Ryans. 

    For my money, the guy that is going to be bringing the most pressure is Andre Johnson. For one thing, he has to show that he is over his leg injuries to maintain his place as one of the elite wide receivers in the NFL. In addition, Johnson will be turning 31 years old before the 2012 season begins, so he will have to take better care of his body and legs since injuries will start lingering more and more now that he has crossed over into 30-something territory.

    Johnson needs to produce on a regular basis to draw double teams from the defense, freeing up the field for Schaub to exploit weaknesses for the other Texans weapons. Johnson needs to have a big year in 2012.

Indianapolis Colts

14 of 32

    When the NFL regular season begins on Sept. 6, 2012, one of the players in the league that will be carrying the most pressure is Peyton Manning. It doesn't matter what team he is playing for; it is just a given that Manning will need to return to his former great play regardless of what team he joins.

    If Manning somehow stays in Indianapolis, he will be expected to lead the Colts while tutoring Andrew Luck. The prospects of that right now seem remote, as very few people expect Manning to remain with the Colts due to the huge roster bonus coming up soon.

    Since we really don't know what team Manning will play for in 2012, safe to say that he will be the new face of that franchise, and he will be carrying the most pressure of anyone else on that team.

    As for the Colts, again, with the assumption that Manning has left, I will have to go with Dwight Freeney. For one thing, he will be playing with a huge contract ($14 million), and since he is one of the few starts that is under contract for the Colts in 2012, he will be looked at as a leader on the team. Since he will be a free agent in 2013, Freeney is also playing for a new contract in 2012, so he will want to have a very good season on tape to help his free-agency chances.

Jacksonville Jaguars

15 of 32

    Maurice Jones-Drew is the leader of the Jacksonville Jaguars. He is the heart and the soul of the team, and whatever pressure there is to win in Jacksonville, that is being carried by Jones-Drew for the entire team.

    When David Garrard was released in 2011, whatever pressure that was on the quarterback, it immediately was transferred to Jones-Drew. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert is dealing with his own pressures of learning how to cope in the pocket while pass rushers are closing in all around him, so he isn't in a position to take on any additional pressure.

    It will be up to Jones-Drew to keep the offense moving, keep the chains moving and motivate the rest of his teammates on offense.

Kansas City Chiefs

16 of 32

    The Kansas City Chiefs had a rough 2011 season. They pulled off an upset and won the AFC West in 2010, but then, their 2011 season was noted for losing one key player after another with early-season injuries.

    Of the many injured stars, one of them was Matt Cassel, and it doesn't help that the Kansas City Chiefs are thinking about bringing back Kyle Orton in order to have a little old-fashioned quarterback competition in training camp to determine who will start in 2012.

    Cassel hopes that Jamaal Charles is able to spring back to his former level of health and that the Chiefs were able to keep Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City. If either one of those issues turns out to be a negative, that will turn up the pressure on Cassel exponentially—something a guy in a training camp battle can do without.

    It should be an interesting year for both Cassel and the Chiefs.

Miami Dolphins

17 of 32

    As far as the leaders of the Miami Dolphins go, I think it boils down to Karlos Dansby on defense and Brandon Marshall on offense. Marshall had a monster game at the Pro Bowl (funny what you can do when the other team isn't really playing) and proceeded to run his mouth about how much better he is when he has elite quarterbacks throwing him the ball.

    Then, Marshall talks about how great it would be to be reunited with Jay Cutler again. Meanwhile, we still don't know who will be lining up to take snaps under center for the Dolphins in Week 1. It could still be Matt Moore, who is left to hear all this junk pouring from his top wide receiver and wondering why he is being insulted.

    Dansby is a solid pro, leading the Dolphins defense for years with his performance.

    As reliable as Dansby is, what separates the two is that whenever Marshall keeps running his mouth, he is ultimately bringing more pressure on himself. If Miami does indeed land a higher-caliber quarterback, Marshall will have to come up with huge numbers. If for any reason he can't do that, then he winds up looking more like Rex Ryan and will be viewed as a blabbering fool.

Minnesota Vikings

18 of 32

    While we consider some defensive stars like Jared Allen and E.J. Henderson for the Minnesota Vikings, both solid leaders on the defensive unit, our ultimate choice for the Vikings was running back Adrian Peterson.

    Due to the severity of Peterson's injuries—torn ACL and MCL and had meniscus surgery—and the timing of the late-December injury, it all adds up to mean that Peterson will probably not be ready for the start of the 2012 season.

    Peterson is known to be a dedicated athlete who works tirelessly to stay in shape and be the best possible running back that he can be. Due to the inexperience of quarterback Christian Ponder, Peterson will place extra pressure on himself to return as soon as possible, because let's face it, the Vikings don't really have anybody else that compares to Peterson.

    If Peterson can't play, that means opposing defenses will be looking to tee off on Ponder. The running game is what keeps defenses honest.

    The biggest fear for Vikings fans will be that Peterson tries to come back before he is ready to. If he suffers any kind of a setback, that will just push his return back further. For the sake of Peterson and the Vikings, we can only hope that Peterson plays it smart and comes back only when he is ready to and that he still resembles the running back that he used to be.

New England Patriots

19 of 32

    As badly as Tom Brady felt about losing another Super Bowl, you just know that the competitive juices will be flowing and that Brady can't wait to get out there and have another shot at returning for one more crack at another ring. He is just that kind of a competitor.

    Never mind the comments from New York Giants players about his wife, Gisele Bundchen, running her mouth. That is just too trivial and it gets lost in the all of the noise out there. The real issue is proving to the rest of the league that Brady can still win the big one and that he can rise to the occasion, no matter what kind of a defensive scheme is drawn up to try to slow him down.

    Assuming that Wes Welker signs to return to the Patriots, Welker will also be playing with added pressure, as he will have wrestled with enough bad nightmares over "The Drop" that he will have plenty of motivation to come back and have a great 2012.

    But when it is all said and done, Brady will be the motivating factor for the Patriots, and he will meet all of the pressure head-on.

New Orleans Saints

20 of 32

    Even before opening kickoff, Drew Brees takes it upon himself to get the rest of the New Orleans Saints team fired up and ready for the games. The NFL AP Offensive Player of the Year was upset at not going back to the Super Bowl, and based on how productive his offense was once again, he had every right to be frustrated. The defense played better in the playoffs in 2011 than it did in 2010, but they still have to improve if the Saints are to return to the Super Bowl.

    We are fully aware that Brees is a free agent and is not guaranteed to be back with New Orleans in 2012, but the fallout from the city of New Orleans if Brees was allowed to sign with another team would probably be sufficient to start a riot. Either that, or they would be playing funeral marches all over the city for years to come.

    Brees places a high level of pressure on himself because he is a competitor and he is driven to succeed. He is the heart and soul of the team, and because of his leadership skills, he takes on all of the pressure so that the rest of the team can relax and play their best game.

New York Giants

21 of 32

    From the minute that Eli Manning answered the question that he felt he was an elite quarterback in the NFL, prior to the start of the 2011 season, he put himself firmly in the cross-hairs of the bullseye target. His performance would be scrutinized to the nth degree, and every one of his successes would support his claim, while every one of his losses would prove to be ammunition for the disbelievers.

    As Manning demonstrated down the stretch drive of the 2011 regular season, and then through the playoff run leading up to the New York Giants Super Bowl XLVI victory, Manning was able to cope with all of the pressures that came with being a starting quarterback in New York City—not only handle it, but to excel with the pressure and respond with a great performance.

    There are other members of the Giants team that will great pressure to perform, such as Justin Tuck and phenom Jason Pierre-Paul. However, their role on the Giants isn't as vital to the team's success as compared to what Manning is responsible for week-in and week-out. Manning is the easy choice for the Giants.

New York Jets

22 of 32

    Since we were just discussing the perils of dealing with the pressure of being a starting quarterback in New York City, we now come to the New York Jets and Mark Sanchez.

    While the New York Giants are busy celebrating their championship all over the city, the Jets are busy with throwing teammates under the bus, finger-pointing and accusing Rex Ryan of not being aware of what the problems are in his own locker room.

    For the time being, that takes some of the focus off of Mark Sanchez, but the closer we get to the start of the 2012 season, it will become time for Sanchez to step up and prove that his quarterback play is improving and that he is actually maturing as a player, regardless of what Santonio Holmes thinks.

    It probably doesn't help Sanchez to hear rumors of Peyton Manning coming in and being the perfect quarterback to lead the Jets. That just adds more fuel to the fire. However, nobody ever said that being a quarterback in New York City would be easy.

Oakland Raiders

23 of 32

    When Hue Jackson worked out a trade to bring Carson Palmer from the Cincinnati Bengals, it guaranteed that Palmer was going to be playing with tremendous pressure to justify the hefty price tag the Raiders gave up to acquire him. To remind everyone, the hefty price tag was a first-round pick in 2012 and another pick in 2013 that would be at worst case a second-round pick, but would convert to a first-round pick if the Raiders appear in the AFC Championship game in 2011 or 2012.

    New head coach Dennis Allen will be working hard to repair the defense, and he literally started that on Thursday with the release of corner Stanford Routt.

    However, the offense should have plenty of weapons for Carson Palmer to utilize. Darren McFadden should come back healthy, and there is the possibility that the Raiders will sign Michael Bush to a new contract. The Raiders have a good group of receivers led by Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Palmer will now have a full year to work with his receivers and continue to develop better chemistry with them.

    While it is possible that Palmer may never be able to live up to the hype because of the magnitude of the trade, at least he is playing football instead of watching television on the couch. I am sure this is what he wants to be doing, so it is fine for him to feel the need to carry his team on his back.

Philadelphia Eagles

24 of 32

    The Philadelphia Eagles became a destination spot of sorts in the NFL, as all kinds of veteran players wanted to have the opportunity to play with Michael Vick. To the extent that Vick helped attract an impressive array of free agent talent in 2011 is a tribute to his star power, but what Vick did during the season to take advantage of all that talent is another story altogether.

    Vick will be 32 years old by the time the 2012 season starts, so he is starting to inch up there in years. The Eagles are thinking about investing one of their second-round picks on a quarterback at the draft, so they can start grooming an eventual replacement for Vick. If he wasn't feeling enough pressure before, consider him warned, and his pressure will be ratcheted up appropriately.

    Vick needs to focus on taking better care of the ball. The Eagles had a turnover margin of minus-14 in 2011, and a good portion of that can be attributed to Vick.

    The upcoming season should be a better year for the Eagles, as they have a chance to blend all of their talent with a complete offseason to work together. If Vick wants to make another playoff run, he should be prepared to step up his performance.

Pittsburgh Steelers

25 of 32

    When I first received this assignment, I was thinking that I would be nominating James Farrior for the Steelers, because he is clearly a leader on the team and has been for years. However, I then saw all of the developments with the hiring of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and that convinced me to change my mind and go with Ben Roethlisberger.

    As Roethlisberger continues to progress in the NFL, the will to win is still there, and the pressure is there because you can see it in his interviews after a loss. I really think his pressure level is going to go up much higher, thanks in part to the caustic nature of his new coordinator, Todd Haley.

    Most football fans caught the shouting match between Bill O'Brien and Tom Brady of the Patriots during this past season. Well, that might be nothing compared to what you can expect from Haley and Big Ben during the 2012 season. Haley likes to challenge people, and for some reason, I never thought of Roethlisberger as a guy that would back down from a challenge. 

San Diego Chargers

26 of 32

    Philip Rivers has been known to be a fiery type of competitor ever since he joined the NFL. I can recall him shouting at the other team from the sidelines as a rookie, and there has never been any doubt as to how badly he wants to win.

    Now that we are approaching the 2012 season, we have a few things to recall. Head coach Norv Turner was given a reprieve, and conceivably, 2012 will be it. Either Turner takes the Chargers to the playoffs or he will not be back in 2013 to coach the team. Rivers apparently enjoys playing for Turner, so there is that little added pressure of trying to play and save your coach's job (sounds similar to what the Giants did for Tom Coughlin).

    Then, there is the matter of how Rivers played in 2011. It was easily his worst season in recent memory, as Rivers wound up with 20 interceptions on the year. The Chargers had a bye in Week 6, and they came out of that and promptly lost six straight games, which also saw the Chargers get swept by losing to each of their three AFC West rivals. Rivers made a number of bad decisions during the losing streak.

    2012 is a chance for Rivers to redeem himself, so you can be assured that he will apply plenty of pressure on himself to come through and carry the Chargers.

Seattle Seahawks

27 of 32

    Marshawn Lynch had a solid 2011 season, but by all accounts, he should have turned in a solid season since he knew he was going to be a free agent in 2012. As popular as Lynch is in Seattle, he could easily be called the face of the organization, especially after his memorable touchdown run in the playoff victory over New Orleans Saints two years ago.

    You can see how pumped up Lynch is for a game when he starts running over and through tacklers, shrugging them off like they aren't even there. The only problem is that "Beast Mode" doesn't always show up for 16 games a year.

    If Lynch is signed to a multi-year deal, you know that he received big bucks to do so. If, however, he is signed due to a franchise tag, then he will be highly motivated again to try to attract better offers in the market in 2013. The Seahawks offense was No. 28 last year, so there is more pressure on the offense stars to try to carry the load until the team is able to land more weapons or help.

    To me, Lynch is the Seahawks player that will feel the most pressure to put his team on his back, especially for the 2012 season.

San Francisco 49ers

28 of 32

    While some fans of the San Francisco 49ers might be expecting to see quarterback Alex Smith in this spot, I instead chose Patrick Willis.

    For starters, we aren't even sure if Smith will be with the 49ers in 2012, as he is a free agent. For now, it appears that he will come back to the 49ers, but there is still a chance that somebody else could make him a better offer. Smith did show an improved level of play in 2011 that might have caught the eye of several teams that are looking to add a quarterback for the upcoming season.

    Choosing Willis boils down to him being a true leader of the 49ers team. He is a vocal presence on the field, playing with plenty of fire and drive. He is emotional on the field and leads by example. The way that the 49ers turned things around in 2011 under Jim Harbaugh, you just knew that Willis was fired up over the resurgence of his team.

    In 2012, the 49ers will likely capture the NFC West title again. Expect to see Willis driving his defensive unit teammates to come up again with another top-five overall ranking in the NFL.

St. Louis Rams

29 of 32

    Steven Jackson has already survived eight years in the NFL. Coming into his ninth year in the league, Jackson only needs to come up with one more 1,000-yard rushing season to top 10,000 yards in his career—a clear milestone to be shooting for.

    While there are a number of young players that help to build the core of what new head coach Jeff Fisher wants to build around, Jackson is the player that makes the running game work, and because of that, makes life easier for Sam Bradford.

    Bradford still needs an improved offensive line to play behind, but that isn't Jackson's fault. He does what he can to keep defenses honest. His running with the ball that prevents all-out pass rushes on Bradford.

    You would imagine that Jackson is getting tired of all the losing seasons by now, so anything he can do to turn things around in St. Louis, you know he will do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

30 of 32

    We all know about the number of big changes going on with the Indianapolis Colts, but what changes are going on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? While the Bucs' activities aren't broadcast with the same regularity of the Colts' changes, they are still taking place nonetheless.

    It is too early to know if 36-year-old veteran Ronde Barber will be back for the 2012 season under new head coach Greg Sciano. If Schiano is looking to have one veteran player step up and be on the team to lead by example and act as a professional, I think Barber would make tremendous sense.

    Now, I understand that Barber might be on his last legs as a player in the NFL, but you can still demonstrate drive, willingness to work, to persevere and play through pain, even if you have lost a step. Barber has been there for some great seasons with the Bucs, and it must have been painful to watch the Bucs self-destruct in 2011 after such a promising season in 2010.

    If Barber doesn't come back in 2012, then by default, I would nominate Josh Freeman, who is also a player that can lead his team, but he will need to play better to do that. Hopefully, Schiano can do for Freeman what Jim Harbaugh did for Alex Smith.

Tennessee Titans

31 of 32

    Matt Hasselbeck surprised many football analysts when he signed with the Tennessee Titans during the 2011 free-agency period instead of returning to the Seattle Seahawks like most people expected. Hasselbeck led the Titans to a respectable 9-7 finish, but now, with things going crazy in Indianapolis for the first time in a long time, this is the time to be capitalizing on the sudden shift of power in the AFC South Division.

    Head coach Mike Munchak has decided to open up competition between Hasselbeck and Jake Locker for the starting quarterback job for 2012, which will undoubtedly add new levels of pressure on Hasselbeck, who now has to fight for his job. 

    Even with that being the case, it is expected that Hasselbeck will be able to hold off Locker and retain the starting job, at least according to the  

Washington Redskins

32 of 32

    In May of the 2012 NFL offseason, free agent linebacker London Fletcher will turn 37 years old. Most linebackers would have retired easily be then, but the Redskins are planning to sign Fletcher to a new contract, according to comments by general manager Bruce Allen, as per this blurb on 

    While Fletcher is old by most NFL player standards, if you watch him play, he flies around the field from sideline to sideline. He takes very good care of his body, so that allows him to continue playing in the league after all these years.

    While Fletcher is a great role model for the younger Redskins players on defense, he is also very competitive and has a strong desire to win. That desire and will to win are the types of pressure he puts on himself, and is why he is the Redskins player we pick to lead his team in 2012.