More than any other sport in the world, football is a team-oriented game in which a solid effort is needed from all 53 players on a roster. Contrary to what many fans believe, players don’t win football games—teams win football games.
What players can do though is put a team over the top. Teams know what they will get from their superstars—the Dallas Cowboys can pencil in 12 or more sacks from DeMarcus Ware this season and the Cleveland Browns know they’ll have a rock at left tackle with five-time Pro Bowler Joe Thomas.
But what about the unknowns? Teams that released a veteran and are going with an unproven rookie really don’t know what they’re going to get, which is what makes the following 32 players so crucial to their team’s success in 2012.
Last year, the Arizona Cardinals had the third-worst pass-blocking offensive line, per Pro Football Focus. The unit failed to provide protection for Kevin Kolb or John Skelton, particularly offensive tackles Levi Brown and Brandon Keith/Jeremy Bridges on the right side.
The tackles alone allowed 23 sacks and 80 quarterback pressures, and it was especially disappointing to see that kind of performance from Brown, the former fifth overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft. The Cardinals apparently felt that Brown ended the season strong enough that he was worth a five-year contract extension, but Brown then tore his left triceps and was placed on injured reserve already.
That likely forces the inexperienced DJ Young into the starting lineup, and this doesn’t spell good news for the Cardinals. Young spent nearly all of 2011 on the practice squad, and he lacks the starting experience of Brown. The Cardinals may choose to go with D’Anthony Batiste or the veteran Jeremy Bridges instead, but whichever player it is, he has the ability to make or break the season in 2012.
Like the Arizona Cardinals, left tackle is the most important position for the Atlanta Falcons. Former first round pick Sam Baker has flopped in his four years with the team and temporarily lost his starting job last year to Will Svitek.
For the 2011 season, Baker gave up four sacks and 17 quarterback pressures in eight games. The year before, he allowed 10 sacks and 33 pressures. That’s not helping out Matt Ryan, and if the Falcons want to compete in 2012, they’re going to need Baker to play up to the potential he displayed when the Falcons felt he was worth a first round pick back in 2008.
The Baltimore Ravens are an aging team, and they may miss the playoffs in 2012. They lost Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs in free agency, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs to an Achilles injury, and franchise players Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are another year older.
The Ravens have the makings of a terrific defense again this season, but they need a breakout season from projected starting nose tackle Terrence Cody. It took Cody some time to adapt to the NFL, especially as a 400-pound man—he failed his first two conditioning tests as a rookie before finally passing his third one. Cody played sparingly as a rookie before appearing in about half the snaps in 2011. He still didn’t play great, and if he can develop into the type of player Haloti Ngata was (and is), the Ravens will have a dominant defense.
I think the Buffalo Bills have the makings of a playoff team in 2012. Their offensive and defensive lines are tremendous, and they made a terrific upgrade to their defensive backfield this past offseason whey they selected cornerback Stephen Gilmore with their first round pick. A breakout year from C.J. Spiller would be nice, but Fred Jackson and Spiller are a talented enough duo that the Bills will move the ball on the ground.
Obviously, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s play is critical, but to keep the theme and avoid putting quarterbacks, Mario Williams is the player with the most to prove this coming season. The Bills spent $100 million—including $50 million guaranteed—on the former No. 1 overall pick in the hopes that he can give them the NFL’s best defensive line.
The problem is that Williams has struggled to stay healthy as of late, playing in just 17 of the last 32 games. He missed most of 2011 after undergoing an early season-ending injury, and the Bills need Williams to stay on the field for 16 games in 2012. Considering that he’s playing alongside Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, Williams could rack up 15 or more sacks. But if he underachieves, the Bills won’t make the playoffs.
The Carolina Panthers had a terrible defense in 2011, allowing nearly eight yards per passing attempt—a figure that rates among the 20 worst single-season totals of any team in league history.
The Panthers were without linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, each of whom was injured, and they added another linebacker in the first round of the draft, picking Boston College’s Luke Kuechly. Getting all three of those players to their defense will be huge, but Beason is the one that needs to play the best considering he’s the best player and the leader of the defense.
The Bears are starting J’Marcus Webb at left tackle, and he’s one of the absolute worst blindside protectors in the business. The interior line is very mediocre and right tackle Gabe Carimi showed little in his limited snaps as a rookie in 2011. Carimi is slated to start on the right side and if he plays up to his potential as a former first round pick, the Bears may make the playoffs. But if Carimi struggles—and Webb almost assuredly will struggle as well—then the Bears may be in big trouble, especially in a division that includes elite pass rushers like Jared Allen, Clay Matthews, and Ndamukong Suh.
For the first two seasons of his career, it looked as if the Cincinnati Bengals blew it when they selected offensive tackle Andre Smith with the sixth overall selection. Smith broke his foot in successive seasons and struggled when he did play.
He made major strides in 2011, suiting up for 14 of 16 games and allowing just three sacks in pass protection. Smith still hasn’t reached the potential the Bengals thought he had when they made him a top-10 pick in 2009, but if he can break out in 2012, the Bengals will have two rock-solid offensive tackles in Smith and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
The Cleveland Browns probably aren’t going to win more than four or five games no matter what happens in 2012. They’re starting a rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden, the receiving corps is subpar, and Trent Richardson is really the only weapon on the team.
Richardson was drafted third overall in the 2012 draft, the highest spot for a running back in the draft since the Miami Dolphins took Ronnie Brown second overall back in 2005. If he puts up a season similar to what Adrian Peterson did for the Minnesota Vikings in 2007, the Browns’ offense could move the chains and score some points.
But Richardson did have minor knee surgery in August, and that’s certainly a concern for Browns fans. It may affect him and it may not, but his performance will greatly affect how the Browns do in 2012.
The Dallas Cowboys pulled off one of the more shocking moves of the draft when they traded up to the sixth overall spot in the NFL draft to acquire standout cornerback Morris Claiborne. In a division that features wide receivers like DeSean Jackson, Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz, adding a top player against the pass like Claiborne was an essential move, and the Cowboys were smart to make the trade.
Now they need Claiborne to pay off immediately. The Cowboys also signed free agent cornerback Brandon Carr from the Kansas City Chiefs, and they have the makings of a successful team if the cornerback tandem can play up to its potential immediately. If not, the Cowboys could be on the outside looking in once again in January.
Peyton Manning choosing to go to Denver is surprising when you take a good look at the Broncos’ offensive line. It’s one of the worst units in the game, even though all five starters suited up for every regular-season contest in 2011.
Clady was particularly poor, rating as a -23.6 by Pro Football Focus’s rankings, which is a far cry of what you would expect from a player who was arguably the league’s best offensive lineman as a rookie in 2008. Clady allowed six sacks and 32 pressures, played extremely below standards in run blocking, and committed a ridiculous 12 penalties. He is on record as saying he wants a deal higher than that of Joe Thomas.
If Clady really thinks he’s deserving a deal greater than the game’s best lineman, he better play much better in ’12, especially now that he’s blocking for a 36-year old quarterback coming off four neck surgeries.
After his stellar rookie season in which he wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, Ndamukong Suh’s play really dropped off in 2011. Not only did he register just four sacks and rate as only the 27th best interior defensive lineman by Pro Football Focus’s standards, he also got into legal trouble that required a sit-down meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell.
Suh—along with last year’s first round pick, Nick Fairley—has the potential to be a difference-maker on every play for the Lions. Suh and Fairley could be for the Lions what Kevin Williams and Pat Williams were for the Minnesota Vikings back in the day. If they’re not though, the Lions may not make the playoffs in what will be one of the toughest divisions in the league.
There were many reasons the Green Bay Packers struggled in 2011 after winning the Super Bowl the previous season. The Detroit Lions were greatly improved. Jermichael Finley had a bad case of the dropsies. And the secondary allowed an NFL record 4,988 passing yards.
There were many reasons for that, but none more so than the lackluster play of B.J. Raji. Raji was one of the NFL’s most dominant interior defensive linemen in 2010, registering 6.5 sacks and 24 quarterback pressures without committing a single penalty. Raji dropped off in ’11, seeing his numbers fall to three sacks and 16 pressures, and he was atrocious in run defense, rating as the single worst defensive tackle in the NFL. In turn, Clay Matthews struggled to find the form he displayed when he was an elite pass rusher in 2009 and 2010, picking up just 5.5 sacks all year. And no defensive end had more than three sacks.
If Raji disappoints again, the Packers will still win games on the strength of their amazing offense, but they’ll have to put up loads of points per game regularly.
Ask all the experts and most will tell you Andre Johnson is a top-three receiver in the National Football League. To be honest, I think he might be the best in the game—when he’s healthy, and that’s key.
Johnson was drafted with the second overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, and he has been everything the Houston Texans hoped he would be. Johnson has led the league in receiving yards twice, he’s been to five Pro Bowls, and he has the highest yards per game average (79.1) in the league’s history. But he’s missed 22 games in the last seven seasons, including nine last year.
Johnson has struggled repeatedly with hamstring injuries, and he’s now 31 years old in an offense that still doesn’t have a good second wide receiver. If he can continue to be the dominant force he has been in the previous years—while staying healthy—the Texans could run the table. But if Johnson goes down with an injury, Matt Schaub will really struggle to pass the ball.
Andrew Luck—like all quarterbacks that go first in the NFL draft—inherits an awful team that is lacking in many key areas.
The Indianapolis Colts have struggled with their first round picks in recent years, not getting the production they hoped for from 2009 first rounder Donald Brown or 2010 pick Jerry Hughes, who was bad enough as a rookie that there was speculation he might be cut heading into last season. Castonzo was the team’s first round pick in ’11, and he has the task of blocking Luck’s blind side for the next 10-12 years.
Castonzo struggled in his 12 starts as a rookie, allowing six sacks and 16 quarterback pressures, but then again, many first rounders struggle when adapting to the intensity of the NFL. Castonzo needs to make major strides in 2012 though because the Colts really can’t afford to have him progress slowly, or it will stunt the development of the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning.
Despite a horrific passing game in 2011, the Jacksonville Jaguars got a tremendous season from running back Maurice Jones-Drew. MJD led the National Football League with 343 carries, 1,606 rushing yards, and 100.4 rushing yards per game, while scoring 11 total touchdowns and averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
Jones-Drew has threatened to hold out for this season if the team doesn’t trade him, and if the Jaguars don’t have him, I don’t know if they will be able to move the ball at all in 2012. Even if MJD stays, there’s almost no way he will repeat his stellar ’11 campaign, especially not now that he has almost 1,500 NFL carries on his body.
The Kansas City Chiefs have all the makings of one of the NFL’s best defenses, and now that they return Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Tony Moeaki from early season-ending injuries in 2011, they should be strong contenders for the AFC West title.
They lost Pro Bowl safety Berry early in ’11, and now he should be fully recovered from his ACL injury. Berry probably wasn’t as good as a rookie as many people thought—he gave up seven touchdown passes in coverage, which tied for the most among all safeties. If he shows lingering effects from his injury, the defense will struggle. But if he plays to the form at which he’s capable, look for the Chiefs to win 10 or more games.
Now that the Miami Dolphins traded away former first round cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts, the pressure on Sean Smith greatly increases.
Smith was once a second round pick of the Dolphins, although he hasn’t seen the same success Davis has had. Smith was repeatedly torched in 2011, posting a -15.1 rating per Pro Football Focus that put him as the fourth-worst overall corner in the NFL. Smith allowed five touchdown passes and 793 passing yards on over 100 targets, and that made him a huge liability to the Dolphins.
If he turns it around and plays up to his capabilities in 2012, it will be great news for Dolphins fans who may have given up on Smith ever amounting to what the team thought he could be. But if he struggles once again, it’s going to be a long season, especially without Davis next to him to help out.
Heading up to the NFL draft, experts were torn between whether the Minnesota Vikings should draft Morris Claiborne, the shutdown corner, or Matt Kalil, the franchise tackle. The Vikings went with Kalil, and that’s a good move considering how poorly left tackle Charlie Johnson played in 2011.
Johnson surrendered eight sacks, nine quarterback hits, and a ridiculous 32 pressures, which didn’t make life easy for first-year quarterback Christian Ponder. Johnson will move inside to give way for Kalil, who played well enough at USC that he kept 2010 top-10 pick Tyron Smith on the right side.
Kalil needs to step right in and play as well as other top offensive tackles—Jake Long and Joe Thomas—have played as rookies. If he struggles to adjust to the next level like Jason Smith of the St. Louis Rams or Robert Gallery, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, the Vikings’ line is in trouble.
Since Pro Football Focus was founded in 2008, Devin McCourty is one of just two cornerbacks to pull off the dubious feat of surrendering at least 1,000 yards through the air.
McCourty was largely responsible for a New England Patriots secondary that allowed the second-most total yards and second-most passing yards in the league. That, in turn, put constant pressure on Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and the offense needed to put up 400 or more total yards per game to win.
If McCourty can play as he did in 2010—586 yards allowed on fewer than 6.0 per attempt and seven interceptions—the Patriots will have a much-improved defense. If not, they will continue to struggle on defense and have to win games via shootouts.
The New Orleans Saints spent a first round pick on defensive end Cameron Jordan in 2011, and were rewarded with just one sack and no forced fumbles in 16 games (15 of them starts).
The Saints are in a rough situation in 2012 with Sean Payton suspended for the entire season, and it would go a long way for Jordan to have a breakout campaign. He was drafted in the first round because of a standout collegiate career where he was a stellar pass rusher and terrific run stopper, and the Saints need to see that production from him this season.
Wilson takes over a unit that ranked just 19th in the NFL in rushing yards last season, 23rd in rushing yards per attempt, and 23rd in rushing touchdowns. That forced Eli Manning to throw the ball a career-high 589 times in 2011, and if Wilson can gain some yards on the ground, it will make life much easier for Manning immediately.
The New York Jets have a pretty solid offensive line with the exception of the right tackle position. Wayne Hunter may play this but as of now, it looks like it will be Austin Howard, the former Philadelphia Eagles backup who will be thrust into the starting role from day one in 2012.
Tim Tebow is a left-handed quarterback so Howard will be blocking Tebow’s blind side, and that’s not good news considering Tebow has a very slow delivery and takes a high percentage of sacks. If Howard/Hunter struggles—which almost assuredly will happen—the Jets are in big trouble.
When he’s healthy, Darren McFadden is probably a top-five running back in the NFL. But he’s missed at least three games in all four seasons, an average of nearly five per year.
In 2011, McFadden ran for 614 yards and four touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry, and that was in not even half a season. He has topped 90 rushing yards in 11 of his last 20 games to date, and McFadden has the potential to rush for 1,500 or more yards should he be able to stay healthy for the entire season.
The Oakland Raiders let their top backup, Michael Bush, walk in free agency, so if McFadden goes down, they don’t have Bush to take carries anymore. That’s why McFadden really needs to prove that he can finally stay healthy for a full season.
The Philadelphia Eagles losing Jason Peters to injury back in late March is an injury the team may never recover from. Peters was an All-Pro last year and rated nearly twice as well as any other offensive tackle in the game, per Pro Football Focus.
He is a stellar run blocker and an equally phenomenal pass blocker, and he can get downfield on screen passes better than any other offensive lineman in the game. Peters was intended to be replaced by Demetress Bell, but Bell lost his starting spot in training camp to fifth-year player King Dunlap, who has only ever been a backup since joining the NFL in 2008.]
Dunlap won’t be blocking Michael Vick’s blind side because Vick is a left-handed quarterback, but that doesn’t mean the left tackle position won’t be important this upcoming season. In a division that boasts elite pass rushers like DeMarcus Ware, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ryan Kerrigan, and Brian Orakpo, Dunlap needs to play at least adequately or the Eagles could be in big trouble.
You could make a case for a handful of players on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster as being the most critical for the team’s success.
Rookie left tackle Mike Adams has a huge assignment to block Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. The backup for injured first round guard David DeCastro will have his hands full. Mike Wallace can make or break the wide receiver corps if he chooses to sit out or play. But no one player will have more of an impact than All-World strong safety Troy Polamalu.
Last year, Polamalu rated as the best safety in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, even though he only played about 75-80 percent of the team’s snaps. Polamalu has played all 16 games in a season in just two of his last six seasons, and the Steelers can’t afford to be missing him for extended periods of time as they did in 2007 or 2009, especially given Polamalu’s ability to complete take over a game from defense.
The St. Louis Rams selected quarterback Sam Bradford with their first overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, paying him $78 million over six years, including a ridiculous $50 million guaranteed.
And then they did what they could to improve their offensive line to keep Bradford standing upright—they had spent the second overall pick on offensive tackle Jason Smith in ’09, they selected offensive tackle Rodger Saffold in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft, they signed a solid guard in Harvey Dahl in free agency before the 2011 season, and they signed a top-10 center in Scott Wells this past offseason.
Unfortunately, Smith has been nothing but a major disappointment with the Rams, and Saffold regressed significantly in ’11, giving up 11 sacks and committing 10 penalties in just nine games. That’s a nearly unheard-of sack per game rate for an offensive lineman, and Bradford is going to crumble and fall apart if Saffold doesn’t pick up his performance immediately.
Philip Rivers better be praying that Jared Gaither can stay healthy in 2012 because otherwise, Rivers might spend more time on his back than standing upright.
The only left tackle Rivers has ever known—Marcus McNeill—retired during the offseason due to neck and spinal injuries. The San Diego Chargers signed Gaither to be the new blindside protector for Rivers, but Gaither has had recurring back problems and probably can’t be counted on to stay healthy during the 2012 season.
If Gaither does get hurt though, the Chargers may have to go with Brandyn Dombrowski, who owns the distinction of the single worst game performance in the history of Pro Football Focus, when he rated as a -17.5 after allowing two sacks, two quarterback hits, and a ridiculous 14 pressures in 88 plays.
Michael Crabtree had his best year yet in 2011, catching 72 passes for 874 yards and four touchdowns, but that’s still not indicative of the talent he displayed when he came out of college for the 2009 draft.
The San Francisco 49ers signed veteran Randy Moss and Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham to a wide receiver corps that already includes Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn, and new draft pick A.J. Jenkins. There’s no clear cut number one wide receiver in that group—although in the 49ers offense, tight end Vernon Davis is the go-to receiver.
But for Alex Smith to really reach his potential as a quarterback now entering his eighth professional season, he needs Crabtree to become that No. 1 receiver the 49ers thought he could be when they took him 10th overall in the ’09 draft.
In a shocking move, the Seattle Seahawks gave the starting quarterback job to rookie sixth round pick Russell Wilson over highly-coveted free agent quarterback Matt Flynn.
What will really help Wilson though would be if Sidney Rice would stay healthy and play like he did with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009. So far, Rice has done nothing to dispel the myth that he was a one-year wonder that benefited solely from the presence of Brett Favre as his quarterback. Rice had two more surgeries this offseason, and it seems like he has had more surgeries than career touchdown catches in the NFL.
If Rice can become Wilson’s go-to guy, the Seahawks can ride their great defense and an average offense to a playoff berth. But if Rice falters, Wilson will have to make a living of throwing checkdown passes to subpar receivers, and that’s not the ideal situation for a quarterback in year one in the National Football League.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers paid a big price when they signed free agent wide receiver Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55 million deal that gives quarterback Josh Freeman another big weapon. Add Jackson to a wide receiver corps that includes Mike Williams, and the Buccaneers may—repeat, may—have a stellar receiving combination.
Then again, Jackson probably benefited more from Philip Rivers and the San Diego Charges’ passing offense than anything else, and I don’t expect Jackson to excel in Greg Schiano’s ground and pound offense. And Williams showed a frightening drop-off in 2011, catching just three touchdowns after finding the end zone 11 times as a rookie.
One of those two needs to show he can be a consistent number one receiver in this league or Josh Freeman won’t ever again be the quarterback he was in 2010.
If he played on the New England Patriots and had Tom Brady as his quarterback, I think Kenny Britt could put up at least 1,500 receiving yards. He’s extremely talented but he just can’t stay healthy or out of trouble.
Britt has been arrested eight times since he was drafted in the first round back in 2009, and he’s also played in just 31 out of a possible 48 games because of numerous injuries. Britt tore his ACL last year and the Tennessee Titans need him to come back at full strength in 2012. The Titans are going with first-year starter Jake Locker under center, and if Britt can be a Pro Bowl receiving option for him, the Titans could make the playoffs.
DeAngelo Hall has never been the cornerback he should have been when the Atlanta Falcons made him a first round selection back in 2004.
Hall was torched repeatedly last year, giving up 858 yards in the passing game—more than all but three cornerbacks in the game—and he allowed five touchdown passes and a passer rating of 100.3.With the exceptional trio of linebackers the Washington Redskins have in London Fletcher, Brian Orakpo, and Ryan Kerrigan, the ‘Skins really need Hall to improve on his numbers in 2012.