The word "greatness" has a few different meanings in my book, especially when talking about football. In the case of this article, greatness doesn't only mean individual numbers; it also deals with versatility and teamwork.
The players on this list are great because of their contributions to their team. They might not be great all-around players, but they play a very pivotal role.
It's also important to note the players on this list might not have rushed for 1,000 yards, but instead paved the way for the running back to gain those yards. They might not have recorded 15 sacks, but they occupied blockers to allow the sack artist to create pressure.
The Buffalo Bills' acquisition of Mario Williams has raised the expectations of this football team. While Williams will play an important role, Marcell Dareus is the key to how the defense performs. Dareus has the size and strength needed to dominate the line of scrimmage.
His ability to occupy blockers and hold at the point of attack helps stuff the run. Opposing offenses must commit extra bodies to neutralize Dareus' impact on the running game. He isn't just a space eater, as he also has the quickness to penetrate the pocket.
Dareus' penetration disrupts both the running and passing attack. He might not reach five sacks this season, but he'll make it tough for offenses to double-team Williams. Dareus needs to receive a lot of credit for the amount of sacks Williams registers.
Over the course of his career, Vince Wilfork has been one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL. His size and strength allows him to clog running lanes. Wilfork's ability to occupy blockers helps the linebackers cleanly flow to the football.
Versatility is another important trait Wilfork brings to the table. This versatility is what allows Bill Belichick to employ multiple defensive fronts. New England will likely use both a 3-4 and 4-3 attack this year, which is possible because of the presence of Wilfork.
Any team looking to run a 3-4 system needs a good nose tackle, and the same could be said for a 4-3 system. Wilfork might not tally great numbers, but he makes those around him better.
Rex Ryan routinely mentions the phrase "ground and pound," which describes how he wants the New York Jets offense to run. The hiring of Tony Sparano as the offensive coordinator should only make this team more run oriented.
In order for the Jets to find success on the ground, they need a strong season from John Conner.
Conner won't get many carries or pick up yards in the passing game, but his ability to clear the way for the running back is essential to the team's success. The inconsistency on the right side of the Jets' offensive line means the fullback plays an important role.
Dustin Keller's limitations as a blocker also increase the importance of Conner.
Tim Tebow's non-stop media attention causes a lot of controversy, but that won't limit the impact he has for the New York Jets.
His presence has already helped increase the focus and play of Mark Sanchez. Adding Tebow to the mix has put pressure on Sanchez to improve or face a possible demotion from starting quarterback.
Tebow wasn't only brought in to inspire Sanchez, as he'll also have a role within the offense and special teams. New York's decision to make him the punt protector creates problems for the opposing team. They must commit someone to "spy" Tebow in this situation, which will take a blocker out of the punt return formation.
It's also important to remember the potential Wildcat packages being developed by the offensive staff. Tebow isn't like other Wildcat options because he can also throw the football, which will keep teams from stacking the line.
It's also interesting to note that Tebow brings a combination of speed and power in his running style.
Marshal Yanda is a terrific player, but he's also a major factor in the success of the Baltimore Ravens offense. His importance will be magnified this season because of the loss of Ben Grubbs in free agency.
Baltimore's offensive line is the key to the offense's success, as the unit thrives off its ability to run the football.
Because of the need to break in a new left guard, the Ravens need Yanda to continue his reliable play. Last season, Baltimore averaged just over 125 yards per game running the football. If this number is to be duplicated this season, Yanda will need to play at an elite level.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis' contributions can be seen through stats. However, it's the areas that can't be measured by stats that will have a greater impact.
Green-Ellis brings reliability and consistency to the Cincinnati Bengals' running attack. His lead-by-example approach is exactly what this young team needs.
There might have been more talented runners available, including last year's starter Cedric Benson. However, talent isn't everything, especially for a young team looking to take the next step forward. With Green-Ellis, the Bengals added someone who knows what it takes to win football games.
During his years with the New England Patriots, his team won a total of 39 games. This is compared to 27 won by the Bengals in the same time period.
Claiming that Mike Adams will have a great season might be a bit of a stretch, but his presence will have a great effect on the offense.
Adams' ability to play left tackle allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to make major shifts along the offensive line. Marcus Gilbert was moved to right tackle and Willie Colon bumped inside to guard. This unit as a whole is now stronger because of Adams' potential to play left tackle.
Over the past few years, the Steelers' offensive line has suffered a ton of injuries and inconsistent play. Ben Roethlisberger has taken a beating as a result of these situations. It also impacted the team's ability to employ a consistent running attack. Traditionally a strong running team, Pittsburgh ranked in the middle of the pack in rushing yards per game.
So, Adams' greatness relates more to his ability to allow the Steelers to make moves along the line. It's also important to mention that a limited amount of rookies are given the chance to start at left tackle in their first year.
Last season, the Chicago Bears jumped out to a 7-3 start, only to fade down the stretch because of an injury to Jay Cutler. After the injury, Chicago lost five out of its last six games.
Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown were unable to top 20 points while under center. The addition of Jason Campbell will have a bigger impact than any other free-agent backup quarterback.
Chicago's offensive line struggles make Cutler a likely candidate to miss more games next season. Having a backup quarterback capable of winning could help the Bears avoid another season without a playoff appearance.
Campbell's career quarterback rating is 82.8 (compared to McCown's 71.2 and Hanie's 41.6) shows he's a better option. Even if Campbell doesn't see the field this season, his presence will give the organization more peace of mind.
Jarret Johnson isn't going to give the San Diego Chargers high sack production, but the things he does provide will make those around him better. Johnson is a team-oriented player who brings leadership, run-stuffing ability and versatility to the table.
The Chargers defense has gotten tougher and smarter with the addition of Johnson.
Another impact Johnson will have is the depth created by his addition. Antwan Barnes, who started five games last year, will now serve a backup role. Larry English is also taken out of the running for a starter's role, giving San Diego two capable backups.
San Diego's defense ranked 20th in stopping the run, allowing 1,955 yards last season. Johnson's ability to stack and shed will help this unit in that department.
Tyron Smith doesn't have much experience at left tackle, but that won't stop him from playing at a Pro Bowl level this season. His combination of athleticism, balance and proper technique will allow him to dominate the competition.
The Dallas Cowboys offense will run much smoother with Smith lined up on the left side of the line.
Smith's strength is his ability to protect the passer. This is important to note for the Cowboys because they are a pass-oriented offense. Last season, they had 570 passing attempts compared to only 408 rushing attempts. Factor in the 39 allowed sacks and there's a reason Smith was moved to the left side.
Improved offensive line play is going to help keep Tony Romo healthy and improve the flow of the offense.
Last season, the Dallas Cowboys secondary allowed 3,906 yards through the air. Their struggles down the stretch played a major role in the team missing the playoffs. This was especially an issue versus the New York Giants, where Eli Manning combined for 746 yards and five touchdowns in two games.
Dallas' addition of Morris Claiborne will go a long way to fixing this problem.
I expect Claiborne to be tested early and show teams that it's unwise to challenge him. His combination of size, quickness and fluidity will allow him to quickly develop into a lock-down defender. Claiborne and Brandon Carr form a strong cornerback tandem that should greatly improve the Cowboys' pass defense.
As teams realize they can't take advantage of Claiborne, they'll decide to attack other areas of the field. This will limit his tackle and interception totals, but not his impact on the game.
Punters don't typically receive a lot of accolades or credit for a team's victory. However, a good punter could change the outcome of a game. Andy Lee isn't only a terrific punter, but he also fits perfectly into the game plan of the San Francisco 49ers.
This is a team that wants to win the field position battle and let their defense make plays. Lee's 50.9 yards per punt ranked tops in the league, and it helped the 49ers consistently change field position.
However, it's his 44.6 net punt average that routinely leaves the opponent with poor field position.
The above numbers are considered stats, but I argue that Lee's impact reaches further than those numbers. San Francisco is capable of employing their game plan because they can count on Lee to do his job. Without Lee in place, the offense might be forced to take more risks, which could lead to more turnovers.
The coaching change within the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization is going to change the culture and game plan. Greg Schiano is a no-nonsense coach who believes in strong defense and controlling the line of scrimmage. On offense, look for the Buccaneers to employ a run-heavy attack featuring both Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount.
However, the success of the running backs will be thanks to the play of Carl Nicks.
Tampa Bay's flashy free-agent moves have greatly improved the talent on this team. Nicks is an elite player who'll both protect the quarterback and open running lanes. Featuring Nicks and Donald Penn, the right side of the line should excel in the run-blocking department. Expect a lot of plays to be designed to run right behind both massive players.
Look for the Buccaneers' 30th-ranked 91.1 rushing yards per game to have a significant increase this season.
Justin Smith's impact on the game can't be identified by his tackle or sack total. His tenacity, toughness and anchor at the line is what makes the San Francisco 49ers defense so strong. The five-technique position isn't very glamorous, and requires the player to do a lot of the dirty work.
Smith routinely handles double-teams and occupies blockers, which allows linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman to purse the football. The two linebackers combined for a total of 240 tackles, and a lot of credit should be given to Smith and the rest of the defensive line.
It's also impossible to measure the impact of Smith's leadership and motivation. His hard play and tenacity inspires those around him to play better.
Vonta Leach ranked as the top fullback in Matt Miller's B/R NFL 1000 Series. Miller stated:
The NFL's best fullback, Leach is a throwback to the days when fullbacks were asked to block first, catch second and run third. He's very effective in all three phases.
His impact is felt through his ability to lead a running back through the hole. He does a great job attacking the line and moving defenders. Leach has paved the way for a number of 1,000-yard rushers such as Steve Slaton, Arian Foster and Ray Rice.
He even helped Ron Dayne compile 1,385 in a two-year period.
Leach's role will continue to exist in the Baltimore Ravens offense. The Ravens need a strong running attack in order to find offensive consistency. Despite continued improvement, Joe Flacco isn't the type of quarterback who should throw 50 times a game.