“Make him go to Manningham.”
Just after Tom Brady's pass just evaded the outstretched hands of Wes Welker in Super Bowl XLVI, Bill Belichick crouched before his defensive backs on the sideline and uttered those famous last words.
“Make him go to Manningham.”
Belichick had identified the Giants' main threats, telling his team “This is still a Nicks and Cruz game” as Zoltan Mesko punted the ball back to the Giants with 03:46 seconds left. What followed is the moment that lingers in the mind of all NFL fans from that night.
With Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks lined up to the right hand side of the field, the Patriots left Sterling Moore alone with Manningham on the left-hand-side. Moore was supposed to get help over the top from Patrick Chung, but Chung was drawn infield because of Eli Manning's eyes shooting towards Cruz and Nicks initially.
Instead, Manning whipped around and threw a dart between Moore and Chung to Manningham, who snatched the ball out of the air, endured a hit and kept his feet in bounds.
The most important play in the biggest game of the season was made by the New York Giants' X-factor on offense.
Manningham was the Giants X-factor last year because teams looked to shut down Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Nicks and Cruz drawing coverage afforded Manningham opportunities to make big plays. That catch in the Super Bowl led to the Giants' game sealing touchdown from Ahmad Bradshaw.
Manningham isn't the best receiver. In fact, he's not even in the elite class. He has a lot of talent and can make big plays, but lacks consistency. Just because he is not the best player on the roster, it doesn't mean that he can't be one of the most important from week-to-week.
Just like a James Harden, Manu Ginobili or Lamar Odom, when he was with the Lakers, if your X-factor performs, you generally expect to win football games. Here is a player for each team who is appreciated as much as Mario Chalmers. (OK, OK. That's the last of the basketball similes.)
Even though the Browns' new starting quarterback will be 29 on opening day, he will still be a rookie in terms of NFL experience. Weeden has more life experience than most young quarterbacks, and more experience as part of a professional sports organization after spending some time in baseball, but that won't give him any advantage facing off against the defenses of Dick LeBeau, Mike Zimmer and Dean Pees in the AFC North.
Despite the success of Andy Dalton and Cam Newton last season, rookie quarterbacks tend to need all the help they can get in the NFL. Weeden will at least get a very talented feature back to rely on in fellow rookie Trent Richardson, but Richardson is nursing a knee problem entering preseason. Even if Richardson is fully healthy, he too will need help early on in his career.
Of the four potential starters the Browns will have on offense, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz could make the greatest difference behind Weeden. Unlike receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little, or Richardson at running back, Schwartz will be an every-down player affecting both aspects of the team's attack if he wins the starting job from Week 1. While Richardson is expected to eventually be a feature back, it is unlikely that the Browns over use him as a rookie.
The Browns have been crying out for a quality starter to bookend their offensive line across from Joe Thomas. With Thomas and Schwartz excelling outside in pass protection, the Browns could overcome any potential issues at guard by playing the numbers game. Schwartz, Alex Mack and Thomas will be key figures in pass protection for the team's rookie quarterback. Mack should have a lot of responsibility in calling adjustments in protection to complement the quality play outside.
Upgrading over Tony Pashos, who started most of last season, is a must for the Browns. Schwartz was drafted in the second round this year to claim the starting spot. In order to get the most out of Weeden and Richardson, he will have to live up to his draft stock.
Other Considerations: Trent Richardson, Scott Paxson.
One would think that the Ravens' X-factor for the coming season would be Courtney Upshaw or Paul Kruger. Undoubtedly, those players will be important for the Ravens after losing Jarrett Johnson, Terrell Suggs and Corey Redding during the offseason, but the best way of replacing them may be by relying on strength elsewhere.
The Ravens' secondary enters this season looking like one of the most talented units in the whole league. With Ed Reed as the veteran at free safety, a perfect complement in Bernard Pollard at strong safety and an emerging superstar at one cornerback position in Lardarius Webb, the Ravens only need to decide between Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams for the final spot on the backend.
Smith was the Janoris Jenkins of last year's draft with less issues. Smith went in the first round—unlike Jenkins, who fell to the second—because of his talent. Some saw Smith as being even more talented than Patrick Peterson in coverage. His rookie season was solid. He had mistakes, took time to adjust and showed flashes, but this year, he will be expected to elevate his level of play.
Considering his potential, the Ravens will hope that Smith can beat out Williams and develop into the superstar they took a risk on. With Smith on one side of the field and Webb across from him, it would be very difficult for opposing teams' receivers on every snap. That may not replicate Terrell Suggs' disruption upfront, but it could disguise the lesser pass-rushing skills of his replacements.
Should Smith live up to his potential, or even close to it, the Ravens defense will have a different style, but could be just as effective, maybe more, in today's pass-happy league.
Other Considerations: Parnell McPhee, Courtney Upshaw.
After Andy Dalton's impressive rookie season, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has set about surrounding him with better weapons this offseason. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Travelle Wharton came in through free agency as upgrades over the departed, while Kevin Zeitler and Mohamed Sanu were drafted to go along with Jordan Shipley, who is returning from injury.
Green-Ellis is a relatively proven commodity, Wharton was injured in his first outing for his new team and will miss the season. Without Wharton across from him, Zeitler's impact as a rookie will likely be lessened, while Sanu and Shipley are trying to emerge from the group of receivers behind AJ Green.
At this point, the Bengals' best receiving option behind Green is not a receiver at all but a tight end. Jermaine Gresham is on the precipices of being a star at his position, but it is his new partner in crime that has caught my attention. Orson Charles was drafted by the Bengals this year to be the team's second option behind Gresham at the tight end spot.
In today's NFL, mismatches are all the rage. Having two quality tight ends goes a long way to help a passing attack; just look at the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions. In Charles, the Bengals hope to have given themselves a valuable piece to take advantage of the coverage that both Green and Gresham draw.
Charles proved himself as a dynamic pass-catcher in college, but dropped in the draft to the fourth round. He has landed in an excellent spot to have early success, and if he does, he will prove to be a catalyst for quality play around the offense. With two quality tight ends, it is easier to run a balanced offense and run against pass-inclined formations or pass against run-inclined formations.
Furthermore, if Charles is impressive early on, opposing defenses will struggle to contain Green and Gresham. If defenses swing their coverage that way, they will risk letting Charles in for a big day. Of course, that effect would be there if another of the team's receivers emerges, but the matchup problems would be less severe.
Even with the types of guards, and the back, that Jay Gruden added this offseason, it appeared that he was looking to emulate the Patriots' mismatch offense. Charles would be a key player in that as the team's Aaron Hernandez to their Rob Gronkowski(Gresham).
The Patriots have been able to dictate the defenses they face for the most part the past two seasons. That is a direct result of their quality tight ends. Charles will add that same dynamic to the Bengals offense if he emerges early in his career.
Other Considerations: Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka.
Rashard Mendenhall is expected to start the season on the PUP list, having not appeared at training camp so far this year. Mendenhall tore his ACL towards the end of last season, which leaves the Steelers in search of a new running back. Despite the impressive showings of Isaac Redman in limited time last season, the Steelers are looking to replace Mendenhall with a committee of contributors.
Redman and Jonathan Dwyer appear set to carry the load, but neither player is suited to be the team's third-down back. In today's pass-happy NFL, receiving running backs have become very valuable. The Steelers drafted that type of player in the fifth round this year from the University of Florida.
Chris Rainey came into the Steelers' training camp with a reputation for being very fast, and he has used that speed well so far with a couple of massive plays in the team's first preseason game. Rainey was used as the third-down back with the first team as well as with the second and third teams.
While it is still unclear what the Steelers' new offense will look like, as Bruce Arians moves onto Indianapolis with Todd Haley taking his spot, the Steelers haven't had a back like Rainey in a long time.
Mewelde Moore has been the third-down back over the last few years. Moore was always able to root out first downs and was an excellent blocker, but he didn't have anywhere near the explosion Rainey has.
That explosion could be overwhelming for opposing defenses who are already dealing with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and most likely Mike Wallace on the outside. Throw in a scrambling quarterback who lives off of extended plays, and Rainey could find himself in plenty of space on plenty of snaps.
Other Considerations: Cortez Allen, Keenan Lewis, Sean Spence.
The Houston Texans had an excellent defense last year. JJ Watt emerged earlier than anyone expected. Brian Cushing became one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL. Jonathan Joseph and Danieal Manning played as advertised, as did Wade Phillips.
All in all, Gary Kubiak couldn't have been happier with the transition his defense made last season.
This year brings a different challenge. This year, the Texans must sustain and improve, as opposed to completely rebuild. While it may sound simple, it doesn't always prove to be. Offenses will be looking to challenge the Texans defense as much as possible this year because they will have a much greater respect for the unit.
One of the pieces they will expect to try and exploit on a regular basis is new starter Darryl Sharpton. Sharpton played a lot last season, but he is expected to take over DeMeco Ryans' role completely this season. Ryans was limited in coverage last year, leading to him becoming a two-down linebacker. Ryans' leadership will definitely be missed, as will his play on those earlier downs.
The Texans have veteran Bradie James as a backup, who is very experienced in Philips' system, but wouldn't like to be forced into starting the long-time backup. Sharpton is a third-year pro who has the potential to further elevate this defense.
However, he also has the potential to hurt it in a full-time role. If Sharpton can improve the unit, then the Texans would be challenging for the best defense in the NFL.
Other Considerations: Keshawn Martin, Lester Jean, Rashad Butler.
The Colts will be looking to just be competitive this year, but could think bigger if certain things go in their favour. The most important thing for the Colts, outside of developing Andrew Luck, is to fix a defense that was simply awful last year.
Chuck Pagano's roster has undergone significant surgery in the offseason, with multiple players from his former team joining him. Tom Zbikowski won't be one of the most talked about additions this offseason, but he could prove to be one of the most significant. If Zbikowski can successfully step into the starting strong safety role, then the Colts would have an impressive pair of starting safeties.
Antoine Bethea is an excellent free safety, but didn't have much support from his teammates on defense last year. With two very good safeties, Pagano's defense would have a lot of flexibility despite their problems elsewhere.
Of course, it will be important for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis to adjust to their new roles within the team's new scheme, but at the very worst, they can still use both players as pass-rushers on the majority of their snaps. You can't hide players in the secondary in such a way.
With quick rushers, the Colts will need to live off of turnovers. Zbikowski will be looked to to provide some.
Other Considerations: Bruce Arians, Josh Chapman.
Because they play in Jacksonville, without much help from their offense or media recognition, very few people really appreciate just how good the Jacksonville Jaguars defense is. Last year, the Jaguars were top 10 against the pass, run and in overall yardage, while they were 11th in points allowed.
A big reason for this is their investment in quality players. One area they have failed to address in recent years, however, is the pass-rush. Not for lack of trying either. The Jaguars signed veteran pass-rusher Aaron Kampman a few seasons back, but injuries derailed his career in Jacksonville. Instead, Jeremy Mincey and John Chick led the line last year from the outside.
While both are decent ends, neither is a premiere pass-rushing threat. With Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu inside, the team needs an outside threat to really become a fearsome foursome upfront. The Jaguars drafted Andre Branch in the second round of this year's draft to hopefully be that rusher.
If Branch can establish himself early on, the Jaguars defense has the ability to jump to one of the best in the NFL. With either Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne under center, Mike Mularky will need his defense to be at its best all season long.
Other Considerations: Rashean Mathis.
Many were surprised when Michael Griffin was franchise tagged after last season opposed to Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan joined the St. Louis Rams as a free agent, while Griffin was eventually re-signed to a long-term deal with the Titans. The Titans likely let Finnegan leave because of their trust in their young cornerbacks to replace him.
If those players, Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner, can adequately man the cornerback positions, then the Titans have a chance to have a very good secondary. However, Griffin must return to Pro Bowl level on the field and in the locker room if the team is to have any success at all. Griffin has to make impact plays on the field and lead a young defense off of it.
His most important attribute this year could be his leadership. He, Kamerion Wimbley and Will Witherspoon are the old heads on a very young defense. At the safety position, Griffin is in the prime spot to keep an eye on everyone on the field. Therefore, if Griffin excels in that role, it could have a major impact on all of his teammates.
Personally, Griffin is looking to bounce back from a down year for him, while the team as a whole is trying to endure some significant losses such as Jason Jones, Chris Hope and Finnegan.
Other Considerations: Kenny Britt, Akeem Ayers, Kamerion Wimbley.
The Dolphins have more question marks than most entering this season. There are key performers who need to step up on both sides of the ball, but Reggie Bush will be the most important. Bush can't simply replicate his performances from last season; he needs to live up to his potential as a dominant back if the Dolphins are to challenge in the division.
It's still not certain, but Bush could likely be playing behind Ryan Tannehill after the rookie has impressed early on. Regardless of how talented Tannehill proves to be, he lacks the threats outside, or even the quality of offensive line in front of him, to carry the offense.
Instead, the Dolphins will likely give the ball to Bush an awful lot. Coming out of USC, Bush was expected to be the next great running back. He has never shown that in his career despite being a good all-around player for the New Orleans Saints and Dolphins. He's at the stage of his career when it is now or never.
Other Considerations: Olivier Vernon, Roberto Wallace.
The New England Patriots reached the Super Bowl last season in spite of their defense that was devout of talent. Last year's struggles saw the unit rank 31st against the pass. Even though the Patriots have loaded up on weapons on offense in the offseason, it will be the changes on defense that make the difference this year.
Most of the attention will be on top draft picks Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson. While each of those players should be heavily involved, none will make a major difference over last season. Unless Chandler Jones is Jason Pierre-Paul or Julius Peppers from day one, he won't be a massive upgrade over the Patriots' defensive ends from last year.
Hightower is a very talented addition, but the Patriots already have talented linebackers. Wilson is not expected to start from day one.
Each player will certainly improve the defense, but it is returning second-year cornerback Ras-I Dowling who could be the major difference-maker. Dowling impressed initially last year, but only played in one game before being lost for the year. Dowling's injury history is worrisome, but his potential on the field overrides the risks in playing him.
Unlike Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty, or even Sterling Moore, Dowling gives the team a tall physical corner who can fight for the football. McCourty was destroyed last season by bigger receivers such as Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall. With Dowling on the field, the Patriots could avoid giving opposing offenses such glaring advantages.
Furthermore, if Dowling establishes himself outside, the Patriots have the flexibility to move Arrington inside in nickel packages. Arrington is a good outside cornerback who should prosper even more inside.
Other Considerations: Brandon Lloyd, Stevan Ridley.
Fred Jackson was re-signed by the Buffalo Bills this offseason, but outside of that, Ryan Fitzpatrick only got a rookie receiver, TJ Graham, to add to his offensive arsenal. After revamping the defense, the Bills need to do just enough on offense if they are to complete their push towards the playoffs.
Without bringing in more talent from the outside, the Bills will be looking to young receivers to step up. However, more importantly, they will likely be involving CJ Spiller on offense more. Spiller proved himself to be a dynamic playmaker last year who just needs more touches to have a greater impact.
Spiller wasn't selected in the top 10 of the 2010 draft to only carry the ball 90 times per season. Last year, Spiller averaged over five yards per carry and had 39 receptions. With that kind of dynamism, it is no surprise the Bills are looking to use both Spiller and Jackson on the field together at the same time. Spiller has the ability to line up in the backfield or split outside with Stevie Johnson.
So long as he is making plays, the Bills won't care where he is lining up. Spiller joining Jackson and Johnson in Fitzpatrick's arsenal could be enough to see them through to the post-season.
Other Considerations: Mark Anderson, Kyle Williams.
Playing in the AFC East, teams tend to make moves to counteract those made by the New England Patriots. The Jets confirmed this when they brought in LaRon Landry from the Washington Redskins this offseason.
Landry is a huge, and I really mean huge, strong safety who has struggled to stay healthy during his career. However, if healthy, the Jets believe he has the capabilities to go toe-to-toe with the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.
Because of his health issues however, Landry is a risk to even invest in. Landry has missed 15 games the past two seasons, so he only received a cautious contract from the team.
With the Jets looking to run more 46 formations this year, Landry will be a key piece of the lineup. He won't need to shut down tight ends like Gronkowski, but he will be asked to contain them without much help. Regardless of whether Tim Tebow or Mark Sanchez is under center this year, the Jets will still rely on their defense to win football games.
Other Considerations: DeMario Davis, Wayne Hunter.
The Chiefs have three vital X-factors entering this season. It really is impossible to pick between them, as all of them need to step up if they are to take the next step and compete for a Super Bowl. Matt Cassel, not included for being a quarterback, and Eric Berry, the less interesting option, are vital for the Chiefs' success this year.
Outside linebacker Justin Houston is the other name of importance for the Chiefs' Super Bowl chances. Unless you are a Chiefs fan, you likely don't know anything at all about Houston. He was a first-round talent last year who fell to the third round because of character question marks.
Houston has had no issues so far in his career, although the same can't be said for Jonathan Baldwin, but he did initially struggle to get on the field. Despite not entering the season as a starter, Baldwin still managed to notch 5.5 sacks on the year. Those 5.5 sacks came in his final three games also.
For years, the Chiefs had to solely rely on Tamba Hali to rush the passer. If Hali has Houston playing well across from him, his effectiveness should increase, while the defense as a whole could be dominant with the addition of Dontari Poe. Houston is only 22 years old, but proved that he is ready to be an impact player as a rookie.
Other Considerations: Eric Berry.
Philip Rivers' statistics through 12 games last year: 16 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, eight fumbles and 28 sacks. Philip Rivers' statistics from Week 13 through Week 17: 11 touchdowns, three interceptions, one fumble and two sacks.
After Week 12, the San Diego Chargers signed Jared Gaither and made him their starting left tackle. Gaither shut down the blindside and gave Rivers time to throw the football. Rivers played like an MVP candidate during the final five weeks of the season.
Coincidence? Maybe, but I don't believe much in coincidences.
Even if Gaither's presence simply comforted Rivers, his addition had an affect on the offense's productivity. With Ryan Mathews struggling with an injury entering the season, the Chargers are even more reliant than ever on Rivers to put points on the board.
Rivers? Well, he's reliant on Gaither. It's no surprise that the Chargers were 4-1 with him last year.
Other Considerations: Robert Meachem, Melvin Ingram.
It may be boring and obvious, but McFadden really is the X-factor for the Raiders. There is no doubt that McFadden is an elite running back on the level of any other, save for Adrian Peterson, in the NFL when fully healthy. However, while staying healthy may not be a talent, it is just as important for production as any other aspect of a player.
McFadden simply isn't durable enough to play 16 games per season. At least he's not until he proves otherwise. With Carson Palmer under center and some talented young receivers, the Raiders should have a decent passing attack. However, that passing attack isn't completely capable of carrying the offense without McFadden.
McFadden's running ability will cover some of the cracks on the offensive line, while his ability as a receiver out of the backfield would overwhelm defenses in the passing attack. Without him, the offense is a lot less dynamic. Mike Goodson may be a reliable professional runner, but he is nowhere near McFaden's talent level.
Other Considerations: Rolando McClain.
Let's pretend for a minute that Peyton Manning is guaranteed to be 100 percent past his neck issues. In that situation, nobody outside of Manning can be an X-factor on offense. That is the effect that he has on an offense.
Manning also affects the defense, though. When Manning was at his best in Indianapolis, the Colts were able to win games despite their poor run defense. When Manning is running your offense, opposition offenses are forced to pass the ball a lot because he puts points on the board.
For this reason, the Broncos defense only needs to be opportunistic next year if all goes according to plan. New addition Tracey Porter has experience of playing on an opportunistic defense. Porter caught the interception from Manning in the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl victory a few seasons back.
With Champ Bailey playing on one side of the defense, Porter could see the ball coming his way an awful lot next year.
Bailey will be expected to play to an All-Pro level, and if Porter can play to his potential, it really could be a big year in Denver.
Other Considerations: Von Miller, Drayton Florence, Quinton Carter, Joe Mays.
Over the past few years, I have been supporting Jay Cutler's case to be considered an elite quarterback. Of course, nobody listened to me, but Greg Cosell this offseason decided to ignore the reputation of Cutler and watch the film. His findings were very similar to mine.
During his time in Chicago, Cutler has had very little help from his teammates. Matt Forte, a running back, has been his most consistent receiver, while his offensive line has been amongst the worst in the league. Throw in Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator, and very few quarterbacks would have attained the success Cutler managed to attain.
Martz is considered an offensive genius, but his scheme didn't fit Cutler's skill-set. The Bears appointed their former offensive line coach, Mike Tice, as their offensive coordinator this offseason instead of Martz. Tice is expected to establish the run and play tighter formations to help his below-average offensive line.
With Michael Bush and Brandon Marshall added, the Bears have the talent to put points on the board. That talent just needs to be managed in the right way.
Other Considerations: Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Shea McClellin.
Regular readers of mine will know by now that I don't care much for reputations. I trust my own sight opposed to someone else's voice.That can often cause for conflicting points of view. One of the most polarizing players in the NFL is Ndamukong Suh. Suh's reputation precedes him compared to what he shows on the tape.
Suh has discipline issues, so much so that he was suspended last year. His discipline in terms of lashing out is something that permeates through the Lions' whole roster, but it is his lack of scheme discipline that really hurts his performance on the field.
This offseason, the 25-year-old spoke about wanting to be a leader for his team. Suh needs to do this in two ways. The first is to take Nick Fairley under his wing and lead by example off the field. Fairley is a very talented defensive tackle who was arrested twice this off-season. The youngster will likely be a key contributor for the Lions this year and well into the future.
The second way Suh can be a leader is by cleaning up his own game. He built his reputation on sacking the quarterback on a regular basis.
However the casual fan doesn't notice that Suh is a terrible run defender. Well, to be fair, Suh isn't actually a terrible run defender; he just doesn't bother playing the run. Suh routinely falls for draws, sacrifices gap integrity and even runs straight past ball carriers in favour of finding sacks where they don't exist.
Playing that way isn't the way leaders play. Leaders understand their responsibility to the team and don't overlook team responsibilities for personal goals. If Suh changes his attitude this year, then he could easily take over the NFL. If not, he is just another overrated product of the mass media.
Other Considerations: Mikel Leshoure, Louis Delmas, Riley Reiff.
Despite heavy investments in their offense through the draft in recent years, the Minnesota Vikings as a franchise will go as far as Adrian Peterson can take them. Even with Peterson and Jared Allen dominating on both sides of the ball last year, the Vikings still landed the third pick in the draft.
How Peterson recovers from his injury will determine this season for the Vikings. Having undergone the same procedure myself, I can tell you that all the offseason talk about Peterson's rehab is largely overblown. With a torn ACL, you can't rush it back. The only way you know it is ahead of schedule or fully healed is when you get back into proper action.
Peterson's ability to make cuts, plant his foot or twist his leg while taking punishment from defenders cannot be tested until he is thrown into the fire of an NFL game. His hopes to start Week 1 of this year seem like an unnecessary risk.
The Vikings should let Toby Gerhart start until they are 100 percent certain about Peterson's health. Gerhart was a high second-round pick, after all.
Peterson recently came off the PUP list.
Other Considerations: Harrison Smith, Matt Kalil.
The truth is, the Packers might not even need their defense to improve over last year to win a Super Bowl. Even though they lost to the Giants in the playoffs last year, the regular season still went almost completely to plan.
A high-powered offense, like the one Aaron Rodgers runs, doesn't need its defense to be dominant. Instead, the Packers will want their defense to create turnovers and live off of big plays. With added pressure upfront, the Packers have the talent in the their secondary to rack up the interceptions.
Last year, the Packers' issues appeared to be in the secondary, but what they really needed was improved play in the front seven. General manager Ted Thompson focused his draft on adding players to that front by bringing in Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy.
Playing across from Clay Matthews, Perry will be the most important addition this year, as they need someone to properly complement their most disruptive defender. If Perry can establish himself as a quality pass-rusher, Matthews' impact on games will also inflate. Two quality pass-rushers will improve the whole setup of the team's defense.
Other Considerations: None.
Edwards is one of the most underwhelming defensive ends in the NFL. Last year, he made proclamations about being a leading defensive end for whatever team signed him in free agency. No team offered him the opportunity to be a premiere pass-rusher for their team, so Edwards eventually signed for the Falcons.
With the Falcons, Edwards gets to play across from John Abraham like he did Jared Allen previously.
Despite his own protestations, Edwards struggled as a complementary piece with less talented teammates up front in Atlanta. Edwards was the beneficiary of playing alongside some significant talent in Minnesota; without that talent, he couldn't replicate his performances.
Edwards did have injury issues entering the season. Because of those injuries, he never really had the time to prepare for the season. Changing teams and adapting to a new scheme is not always easy, especially without a preseason to prepare. Therefore this year will be a decisive season for the 27-year-old.
A healthy Jonathan Babineaux will help, but Abraham has added another year to his tires. The Falcons defense has a lot of talent, with Asante Samuel and Chris Hope arriving and Brent Grimes sticking around, but they need Edwards to push them onto the next level.
Other Considerations: Asante Samuel, Jason Snelling, Harry Douglas.
There was no better free-agent signing last year than Darren Sproles. After leading the Chargers in receptions, Sproles took it to another level as he and Jimmy Graham became the stars for Drew Brees' record-breaking season.
Obviously, getting Brees back under center is the most important thing for the Saints, but Sproles will be under pressure to perform again this year after Robert Meachem left. Even though they drafted Nick Toon, the Saints will likely give Sproles most of Meachem's targets if all goes to plan.
It will be difficult for Sproles to repeat his success from his first year, as teams now have more tape of him in his new surroundings. It's quite possible that, after Jimmy Graham, teams will be game-planning for Sproles rather than Marques Colston.
It's one thing to be an amazing complementary piece, it's another to be the primary focus of the defense and still have success.
Other Considerations: Malcolm Jenkins, David Hawthorne, Sedrick Ellis.
It was somewhat worrying when the Carolina Panthers drafted Luke Kuechly in the first round of the draft this year. Kuechly was a middle linebacker at Boston College before being taken ninth overall. It was worrying because the Panthers already have a star linebacker, Jon Beason, who was coming off a torn Achilles tendon from last season.
With Kuechly and Beason on the roster, and hopefully healthy, the Panthers will have flexibility on defense. If Beason is fully healthy, either he or Kuechly will move outside and round out a strong linebacking corps with James Anderson.
Therefore, Beason is the most important piece for the Panthers next year, because he improves two positions when fully healthy.
On offense, the Panthers will be set so long as Cam Newton doesn't struggle in his second season. The defense is what is important for the Panthers going forward.
Other Considerations: Sione Fua, Ron Edwards, Terrell McClain.
Since being drafted third overall two years ago, Gerald McCoy has done little to justify his draft spot. In two seasons, McCoy has played 19 games without overly impressing.
While Ndamukong Suh is largely overrated, he has still done more than McCoy and is obviously a very gifted athlete. McCoy was considered on his level coming out of college, but has shown nothing to justify that in the NFL.
McCoy's early struggles can be attributed to the overall porousness of the defense around him. However, the Buccaneers have added veterans on both sides of the football and are expecting improvement under new coach Greg Schiano. This is somewhat of a make-or-break season for McCoy.
With Brian Price traded to the Chicago Bears and DaQuan Bowers seemingly out for the season, McCoy is already under pressure to carry the team's pass-rush, along with Adrian Clayborn. Price had arguably been a better player than McCoy throughout his career despite his off-field issues, and he was traded, so the writing is on the wall for McCoy's career.
Other Considerations: Preston Parker, Mark Barron, Doug Martin.
The common misconception is that Tony Romo had a bad season last year. Save for a few much publicized moments, Romo was phenomenal last year, finishing the season with 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and over 4,000 yards for a rating of 102.5.
Romo did that with an injury-plagued offense and inexperienced offensive line. This year, Romo's offensive line is expected to be better, while key players will hopefully avoid injuries. One player who should be a key player is running back DeMarco Murray.
Murray showed everything you want from a feature back last year, except for durability. He has power, agility, explosion, ball security and intelligence. If he can be fully healthy for 16 games, the Cowboys could have one of the most balanced teams in the whole league.
A big year for Murray would be a big step towards victory in the NFC East.
Other Considerations: Tyron Smith, Brandon Carr.
Michael Vick did nothing to help dispel his fragile reputation during his first game of the 2012 season. Vick hit his hand against a teammate's helmet which forced him out of the game. While Vick was fine before the game even finished, it does further highlight the Eagles' biggest weakness.
Losing their left tackle this offseason was a massive blow, but it came at a good time. The Eagles lost Jason Peters well before the season began, so they were able to sign Demetress Bell in free agency. Bell is no Peters, but he had a solid campaign for the Buffalo Bills last year.
Because Michael Vick is left handed, the left tackle position in Philadelphia is more like a right tackle. Bell won't be responsible for protecting Vick's blindside, but he will be an important cog for the Eagles, as Peters was a vital part of both the run and passing game.
It's impossible for the Eagles to replace Peters with Bell, but if Bell can replicate his performances from last season, the offense should be in good shape as long as Michael Vick stays healthy.
Other Considerations: DeSean Jackson, DeMeco Ryans, Juan Castillo.
Prior to last season, the New York Giants suffered through an epidemic of injuries. The most crucial loss during that span was starting cornerback Terrell Thomas. Thomas and Corey Webster formed one of the most underrated cornerback tandems in the NFL.
While it didn't stop the team from winning the Super Bowl, it didn't help them on their way either. Thomas was re-signed in the offseason after fully recovering from his torn ACL that kept him from participating in the Super Bowl run. Thomas immediately aggravated the knee, but is expected to return for the regular season.
While Prince Amukamara remains on the roster, Aaron Ross is now a Jaguars player. Amukamara is promising but doesn't show the same ball-skills or composure on the field that Thomas does.
Thomas was the flashier cornerback opposed to Webster when healthy. Webster is a very aggressive tackler who harasses receivers in coverage. Thomas is more technique-based and uses his awareness to get to the football and come up with turnovers.
If Thomas can return to full health, Amukamara can focus on being the nickel cornerback again this year. With those three on the field, the Giants have a strong group of cornerbacks to combat opposing team's receivers. Without Thomas, Amukamara is forced into a starting role and the team's depth takes a hit.
Other Considerations: Shaun Rogers, Marvin Austin, Rueben Randle.
Most won't notice, or even agree with me right now, but Kyle Shanahan has a beautifully designed offense. Unlike Rod Chudzinski and Jay Gruden, who have excellent young quarterbacks to show off their work, Shanahan has had to work with Rex Grossman in recent years, who was too inconsistent to highlight his scheme's style.
With the Redskins' zone-blocking scheme in the run game and strong decisive routes that allow his receivers to come free in the passing game, the Redskins plays are excellently designed to fit his talent. His play-calling is not predictable either, which is important, but the Redskins still ranked 28th in scoring last year. That was a result of a lack of talent under center opposed to on the sidelines.
This year, Shanahan faces a new task, however. He must prove his backbone with a youngster under center. Robert Griffin III is definitely very talented, but how he is managed will be crucial to his success early on. How much Griffin is let loose could determine the team's success this year as well as the quarterback's development.
Other Considerations: Brandon Meriweather, Roy Helu.
Much like the Jaguars, the Cardinals have a fantastic defense that is not fully appreciated because of the failures of the offense that accompanies it. After going through some growing pains and adjustments early last year, the Cardinals defense finished the second half of the season with some very strong performances.
Key staples of the Cardinals defense should be healthy this year, with Kerry Rhodes returning and Adrian Wilson looking to avoid injuries in the preseason. With those two proven safeties and William Gay joining Patrick Peterson at cornerback, the Cardinals secondary should be more than impressive.
The key for the Cardinals is O'Brien Schofield, however. Schofield had a decent second season last year in mostly a bit part role. This, year they will want him to take over the starting role from Clark Haggans, who was re-signed late in the offseason, to play across from Sam Acho.
Acho is a fantastic pass-rusher who just needs Schofield to complement him. Schofield has a relentless motor but needs to refine his rushing skills. With Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington, Sam Acho and Darnell Dockett in the front seven also, Schofield would push this defense over the top if he can reach his potential.
Other Considerations: Michael Floyd, Ryan Williams, Kerry Rhodes.
Sam Bradford got a pass for his second year struggles because of the lack of talent around him in St. Louis last season. Steve Spagnuolo didn't get a pass, however, as the futility of the offense and defense saw him lose his job.
This year, Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have looked to surround Bradford with weapons to help him grow.
The most important weapon that has arrived is rookie receiver Brian Quick. Quick is like Vincent Jackson, as he is a physical receiver who can stretch the field. Having a bigger receiver who can stretch the field is exactly what Bradford has needed over the past few seasons.
If Quick can consistently catch the ball deep, then the whole offensive gameplan opens up for the Rams. A deep threat makes it more difficult for defenses to crowd the box against the run, while it also spaces the field for the team's possession receivers.
Other Considerations: Kendall Langford, Janoris Jenkins, Rodger Saffold.
All the talk in Seattle is about the quarterback position and whether Pete Carroll got his man this offseason. However, on the other side of the ball, there is a vital competition going on also, as rookie Bobby Wagner looks to beat veteran Barrett Ruud out of the starting role.
The Seahawks defense is exceptionally talented across the board, except at middle linebacker. Ruud isn't physical enough in the running game, nor does he overly excel in pass coverage. He won't make many mistakes, but he won't allow the defense to be elite either. Ruud is the type of player who doesn't make the defense worse, but also doesn't significantly improve it.
If Wagner can adjust to the professional game quickly, then he has the potential to help the Seahawks on their quest to become elite. Wagner didn't impress in his first game for the Seahawks, but he still promises more than Ruud.
Other Considerations: Bruce Irvin, Sidney Rice.
Jim Harbaugh obviously had one main priority this offseason once he had finished “evaluating” Peyton Manning. After a season in which kicker David Akers was their primary offensive threat, Harbaugh set about diversifying his offense with multiple new pieces.
With Mario Manningham signed off a massive Super Bowl performance, AJ Jenkins coming in the first round of the draft and LaMichael James looking to become the team's Darren Sproles, the 49ers have plenty of new toys to play with.
However, none of those players have the potential upside of Randy Moss. Moss is returning to football after retiring last year, but still has the potential to take over football games. As a former superstar, everyone knows that Moss has the ability to put up massive numbers, but how he fits with his new teammates will likely determine his effectiveness.
One thing is clear, Moss is not facing the typical issues that face an aging player.
Other Considerations: LaMichael James, Aldon Smith, Colin Kaepernick.
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