The 2012 NFL season is just around the corner, as players across the league will begin to gather over the next several days for the beginning of training camp.
These camps will run the proverbial gamut where players are concerned, from stars returning to their teams to old faces in new places and incoming rookies looking to make a good first impression.
Some of these players are much more important to their teams' playoff aspirations than others, and the following handful of stars could prove to be absolutely vital if their teams are going to make a deep run into the postseason this year.
The New York Jets were one of the most dysfunctional teams in the National Football League last year, and after a disappointing 8-8 campaign, one would think that the last thing the Jets would have wanted was to carry that dysfunction over into the offseason.
That hasn't been the case, at least under center.
The team tried and failed to pursue free agent signal-caller Peyton Manning, mended fences with starter Mark Sanchez by inking him to a three-year contract extension and then tore that fence right back down by trading for former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
Rich Cimini of ESPN New York recently reported that the Jets have asked Tebow to bulk up to around 250 pounds, and that head coach Rex Ryan has plans to utilize Tebow as a Wildcat quarterback, especially inside the red zone.
However, other pundits have already begun the countdown as to when Tebow will usurp Sanchez as the Jets starter, with Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. telling ESPN that he expects the switch to be made by the middle of the 2012 season.
“My prediction is he will see immediate time as a backup, maybe 15-20 snaps a game from the start,” Williamson explained. “Then, I think [coach] Rex Ryan will look at it more and more like Tebow gives the Jets the better chance to win.
"The Jets' defense is so strong and they’re pretty good on special teams that they could play Tebow more and more, because it gives them the best chance to have a winning record this year.
"That may not be the right answer long term, but I don’t think Rex cares about that. He’s probably feeling a little heat there with the Jets. I think Tebow becomes the starter before midseason.”
Quarterback Peyton Manning was the crown jewel of this year's free-agent class, and it would be easy to say that how the four-time NFL MVP fares this season will determine whether the Denver Broncos repeat as AFC West champions.
However, after missing all of last season following multiple neck surgeries, the most important ingredient in a Manning comeback is likely keeping him upright, and the job of protecting Manning's blind side this year will fall to fifth-year pro Ryan Clady.
The two-time Pro-Bowler suffered through a somewhat disappointing 2011 season in which he allowed nine sacks. A rebound season from Clady is vital not only to Denver's success this year but also for Clady himself, as the 25-year-old is entering the last year of his rookie contract.
The San Diego Chargers struggled a year ago, as the team many predicted would win the AFC West before the season battled costly turnovers and inconsistent play on offense en route to an 8-8 mark that left them sitting at home when the playoffs began.
The Chargers experienced an offseason shakeup on offense. Gone are top wideout Vincent Jackson and running back Mike Tolbert, which leaves third-year pro Ryan Mathews as the unquestioned lead back in the San Diego backfield.
Mathews topped 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in 2011, and Mathews recently told XTRA Sports 1360 in San Diego, via SportsRadioInterview.com that he's ready to "blow it away this season."
However, after missing time in each of his first two seasons due to injury, some have questioned whether Mathews can handle a feature back workload, and how Mathews carries that burden in 2012 will go a long way towards determining how successful the Bolts are offensively.
The Green Bay Packers lost only one game during the regular season last year in spite of the fact that the team ranked dead last in the National Football League in total defense.
The team's inability to stop opponents caught up with them in the postseason, where the Pack was unceremoniously booted in the Divisional Round by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Green Bay's defensive deficiencies were due in large part to the team's inability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with the Packers ranking a paltry 27th in the NFL in sacks.
The Packers took steps to address this deficiency by selecting USC defensive end Nick Perry in the first round of April's NFL draft, and how quickly the youngster makes the transition to 3-4 outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews is one of the most important questions facing one of the NFC's top contenders this year.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was the most coveted free agent in the National Football League in 2011, and after the Philadelphia Eagles signed the 10th-year veteran to a five-year, $60 million contract, many pundits labeled them Super Bowl favorites.
However, much like many of the Eagles, Asomugha struggled in his first year in the City of Brotherly Love, and a season that began filled with promise ended with crushing disappointment as Asomugha had one of the worst seasons of his career and the Eagles missed the playoffs altogether.
The departure of cornerback Asante Samuel means that Asomugha will move back outside after playing out of position much of last year.
The Eagles coaching staff is hoping that this switch will inspire a return to prominence for the four-time All-Pro and that an improved secondary will get Philadelphia back into the thick of the NFC East race.