Last year's nightmare ending for Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins could have ill effects on their 2013 season.
Every NFL team and fanbase goes into each season with optimistic goals. Each team typically expects to be better than it was the previous season and to either contend for or become much closer to contending for a Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, as some teams rise, other teams will fall. Typically, that means there are a few teams each year whose seasons fall apart much worse than expected and who have their championship dreams quickly turn to nightmares.
What would be the worst-case scenario for every team in the NFL? In the following 32 slides, I took a look at one event that could cause each team to fall far short of its expectations or an end result that will be considered unacceptable for that franchise.
These are not expected occurrences, but rather a look at one scenario that each team cannot afford to have happen in 2013. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.
The Arizona Cardinals' first draft under new general manager Steve Keim was a strong one, but the future won't be immediate for the Cardinals.
Coming off an uninspiring season with the Oakland Raiders, Carson Palmer is not the quarterback to lead the Cardinals back to contention in the NFC West, which may be the NFL's strongest division in 2013.
After losing 11 of their final 12 games this season, the Cardinals should be focused on simply holding their own against NFC West powerhouses San Francisco and Seattle and fighting for a .500 or better campaign. But if free-agent addition Palmer struggles and the offensive line fails to come together as hoped, the Cardinals could end up near the bottom of the NFL ladder again next season.
If the Cardinals have another bad season, they would at least be better off if they ended up with one of the top two picks in the 2014 NFL draft. That would give them the chance to draft the star quarterback they lack in Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or an elite pass-rusher in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.
If Arizona struggles enough to have a top-five draft choice, but missed out on the top two spots in the NFL draft, it will be a very disappointing outcome for Cardinals fans.
The Atlanta Falcons finished 2012 tied for the NFL's best regular-season record in large part because they did not lose a single regular-season game outside of their division. Division play last year, however, was actually exactly even—each team went 3-3 against division competition.
The New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all struggled outside of the NFC South and finished with 7-9 records. That said, all three of those teams have serious potential to improve their records in 2013, which means the Falcons will need to improve along with them.
The Saints bring back coach Sean Payton after a one-year suspension, which should make the team a playoff contender once again. The Panthers had a disappointing season, but have a talented young roster led by dynamic quarterback Cam Newton.
The Buccaneers made strides last season under coach Greg Schiano. They also made some major additions this offseason to turn around their secondary by trading for cornerback Darrelle Revis and signing free safety Dashon Goldson.
The Falcons, meanwhile, should continue to have a fantastic passing offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Their defense, however, has to compensate for some key losses, including defensive end John Abraham and cornerback Brent Grimes.
If the Falcons take a step back at all, the rest of the NFC South will likely creep up close behind them.
Last season, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants failed to make the playoffs, finishing the season with a 9-7 record (the same record they had when they won the Super Bowl). The Baltimore Ravens could be at risk of suffering the same fate.
The Ravens struggled into the playoffs last year before their dominant postseason, finishing the season at 10-6. Going into 2013, they will be without some of their key players from last season, including safety Ed Reed, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and inside linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis.
The Ravens will have plenty of competition within the AFC North for making the postseason. The Cincinnati Bengals are a strong, young team that has made two consecutive playoff appearances, and the Pittsburgh Steelers certainly still have the talent to bounce back and steal a postseason berth in 2013.
The Baltimore Ravens should be favored to win the AFC North as the defending champions, but getting to that point won't be easy. If the Ravens struggle to make up for their losses early in the 2013 season, they might not get another chance at making a run to the Super Bowl.
EJ Manuel hopes to win the Bills' starting quarterback in 2013.
The Buffalo Bills will have a new starting quarterback in 2013, having released Ryan Fitzpatrick earlier this offseason. For any shot at contending this season, however, they need one of the quarterbacks on their roster to emerge as a viable starter.
The most likely choice to do so is rookie EJ Manuel, but he remains a project who will likely need multiple years to develop and reach his potential. If that is the case, but the Bills still rely on Manuel to start as a rookie, they could be in for another tough season record-wise.
The Bills' other potential starting quarterbacks are veterans Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson. Neither Kolb nor Jackson, however, has been able to establish himself in numerous NFL team stops as a viable, long-term starting quarterback option.
Playing just 15 games over the past two years as Arizona Cardinals quarterback due to injury, Kolb completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw 11 interceptions.
Jackson started for the Seattle Seahawks in 2011, but he threw just 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a 60.2 completion percentage that season.
After a very promising rookie season, expectations were high for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton entering his sophomore year. He failed to live up to them, however, and the Panthers ended up finishing below .500 for the third consecutive season.
Newton had some issues with accuracy in 2012, completing just 57.7 percent of his passes, while his passing yards and total touchdowns both went down.
Newton is a dynamic dual threat who can make big plays with both his arm and his legs, but he will need to cut down on his turnovers (15 total turnovers, 12 interceptions in 2012) and improve his downfield accuracy next season.
If Newton can overcome a somewhat disappointing second year and emerge as the star he can be in 2013, the Panthers have a real shot at making the postseason. If not, they are at risk of finishing with a record below .500 yet again.
Kyle Long will be expected to play an immediate role on the Bears' offensive line.
Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler did not have a particularly fun situation under center last year. He worked behind a very shaky offensive line that allowed 44 sacks and consistent, heavy pressure throughout the season.
The Bears have made a heavy effort to rebuild that offensive line this offseason.
The Bears rebuilt the left side of their offensive line with veteran free-agent additions in left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson. They used their first-round draft pick on Oregon's Kyle Long, who is expected to start his career out at right guard.
Bushrod and Slauson are talented veterans, while Long has star potential as both a guard and tackle. Adding those three players, along with moving J'Marcus Webb to right tackle, should equate to upgrades at four of five positions on their shaky across the board blocking unit from last year.
If that is not the case, the 2013 season could be another year of struggle for Cutler and the Bears offense.
After years of being one of the NFL's punchline teams, the Cincinnati Bengals seem to finally be on a steady stream upward toward championship contention. They have a lot of young talent on their roster, led by wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and have made two consecutive postseason appearances.
Taking a step back and dropping out of the 2013 NFL playoffs would be a devastating blow.
By all indications, the Bengals are one of the NFL's rising young teams. Andy Dalton may not be a great quarterback, but he has proved to be a steady starter over his first two NFL seasons. The Bengals have a roster with few holes led by young stars, and could be favored to win the AFC North, even with competition from the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
The Bengals still have some question marks, however. They need Dalton to cut down on his interceptions (16) and sacks (46) from last season. On defense, they need to find stability at last season's points of weakness: linebacker and strong safety
With a new coach, general manager, team president and team owner, there was heavy speculation that the Cleveland Browns would select a quarterback early in the 2013 NFL draft to lead their regime's rebuilding effort.
Instead, the Browns decided to give 2012 first-round pick Brandon Weeden, whom Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated as the NFL's worst quarterback last season, another year to establish himself as a viable starter.
The Browns will certainly hope that Weeden, who will face competition this preseason by free-agent additions Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer, will make significant strides from his 14-touchdown, 17-interception rookie season.
If the 29-year-old sophomore continues to struggle in 2013, the Browns will likely end up with another sub-.500 season—although that could put them in position to draft one of the top quarterbacks in the 2014 NFL draft.
DeMarcus Ware will be transitioning to DE this year.
The Dallas Cowboys have one of the NFL's most talented pass-rush duos in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. But both Ware and Spencer will have to make a significant adjustment this season to playing defensive end in the Cowboys' Tampa 2 defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Both players were defensive ends in college, but they have spent their entire careers with the Cowboys as outside linebackers. Both have thrived on rushing from the second level in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. Now, they must readjust to playing as down linemen and prove they can still consistently beat blockers at the line of scrimmage as they have their entire NFL careers.
Ware and Spencer are not the only players forced to make significant adjustments in the Cowboys' defensive scheme. Jason Hatcher had a breakout season at five-technique defensive end last year. But now, he moves inside to be the team's penetrating defensive tackle in its four-man front.
The position that continues to be of most significant concern is safety, where the Cowboys do not have one established starter. The Tampa 2 scheme requires athletic safeties who can cover deep, and they will need two unproven safeties to emerge this season to avoid giving up big plays over the middle.
If the Cowboys defense fails to adjust quickly for the 2013 season, the team will have trouble competing in the challenging NFC East.
While it seems unlikely that Ryan Clady will sit out even part of the 2013 season, it remains a possibility at this point. Clady has yet to sign his franchise tag tender, and if he were to make a surprising decision and hold out should negotiations fall apart, his loss would be massive for the Broncos offense.
Clady is one of the NFL's elite left tackles. His fantastic pass protection is crucial to keeping pressure away from quarterback Peyton Manning and keeping Manning healthy. If he were to remain unsigned at the beginning of the 2013 season, the Broncos would likely to be forced to move Orlando Franklin, who is a much better fit for the right tackle spot, over to the left side.
Broncos director of player personnel Matt Russell said earlier this month that the team is "confident" about re-signing Clady, according to USA Today's Lindsay Jones, so this is likely to be a non-issue. That said, it presents a slight concern, as the Broncos need to have him ready to play and healthy to lead their offensive line for the 2013 season.
The Detroit Lions had a surprising drop-off last season, winning just four games after making the playoffs one year earlier.
Superstitious people will argue whether the "Madden Curse" struck the Lions with Calvin Johnson on the cover of Madden NFL 13, but they will certainly be looking to return to contention in 2013, even with Lions legend Barry Sanders gracing the cover of Madden NFL 25.
One of the key players in the Lions' bounce-back effort this season will be left tackle Riley Reiff. Reiff was a backup on the Lions offensive line as a rookie, but he will be expected to play a much bigger role in his sophomore season as the Lions replace both of their starting offensive tackles from last season.
With an unstable position already at right tackle, the Lions really need Reiff to come in and emerge as a leader of the offensive line in 2013. They have had issues in the past keeping quarterback Matt Stafford healthy—he missed 19 games in his first two NFL seasons—and need to be able to adequately protect their quarterback this season.
The Lions have no proven players on their roster at offensive tackles, but one with high upside in 2012 first-round pick Reiff. The success of their offense will be heavily reliant upon his ability to step up in his second year.
In truth, the nightmare scenario for just about any NFL team with a great quarterback for any season is to lose its starting quarterback to injury. For this season, however, we highlight Aaron Rodgers as the ultimate example of how one quarterback's loss could cripple his team's season.
The Packers showed Rodgers' value to the team this offseason, signing their quarterback to a five-year, $110 million contract extension.
Rodgers has led the NFL each of the past two seasons in quarterback rating, and he leads an offense that has no consistent running backs.
In order to ensure that Rodgers stays healthy, the Packers need to do a better job this season in pass protection. The Packers offensive line allowed 51 sacks last year—the second-most of any team in the NFL.
A key player in that effort will be Bryan Bulaga, who missed seven games last season but is moving from right to left tackle.
The Packers should continue to be one of the NFL's top Super Bowl contenders in 2013, but they will need Rodgers to be at his best to win another championship.
Losing the NFL's best quarterback would be a devastating blow for the Green Bay Packers. The Houston Texans may have the NFL's best non-quarterback in defensive end J.J. Watt, so losing him would be a nightmare scenario for them.
Watt is the identity of the Texans defense, a player who has impacted the game in ways no 3-4 defensive end ever has before.
Although outside linebackers are typically the premier pass-rushing position in a 3-4 defense, Watt nearly broke the NFL sack record from that position last season, finishing with 20.5 quarterback takedowns.
He has not missed any games in his first two NFL seasons, and the Texans hope to keep it that way in 2013. Both a consistently impactful pass-rusher and a dominant run-stopper, Watt is the engine that makes the Texans defensive front one of the NFL's most feared.
Without Watt's presence, holes at all three levels of the defense could end up being exposed.
There may not be a nightmare scenario the Indianapolis Colts can't overcome. Last season, the Colts made an amazing run to the postseason with a rookie quarterback, a head coach sidelined by cancer and just one year removed from being the NFL's worst team.
That said, the one of those three elements that remains most at large for the 2013 season is the performance of their quarterback. The Colts will have high expectations, but all of those will hinge on the production of their rising star, Andrew Luck.
Luck immediately proved himself as a leader and playmaker under center. He broke the rookie record with 4,374 passing yards and threw 23 touchdowns. He also proved his ability to perform in the clutch with four fourth-quarter comebacks, according to Pro Football Reference.
There are some areas, however, in which Luck must significantly improve. While he made plenty of big plays last season, he struggled with his accuracy, completing just 54.1 percent of his passes and throwing 18 interceptions.
The Colts will be looking for Luck to make significant progress upon those numbers while continuing to make big plays and lead the team to clutch victories. If not, their hope of making it back to the playoffs could be out of luck.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have made some significant changes this offseason, adding a new coach and general manager while reworking much of their personnel, especially on defense. That said, they still have a very uncertain quarterback situation, one that is going to need help from the Jaguars' ground game.
Unfortunately for the Jaguars, neither their passing nor rushing game was very effective last season. Maurice Jones-Drew missed the final 10 games of last season with a foot fracture and is still recovering from that injury, according to the Florida Times-Union.
Jones-Drew is expected to be back in time for training camp, according to NFL.com, but the Jaguars will need him to be 100 percent and to stay that way during the 2013 season. They will be hoping for significant progress from third-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert this season, but will continue to rely heavily on Jones-Drew's rushing ability on offense, especially following the free-agent departure of Rashad Jennings.
If Jones-Drew has another injury-plagued season, Jacksonville will likely be in line for another top-five draft selection in 2014.
After years of being labeled a draft bust, 2005 No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith finally looked like the quarterback he was supposed to be when he was Jim Harbaugh's starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.
Smith put up career-high numbers that year, completing 61.3 percent of his passes while passing for 3,144 yards and leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game.
He played even better last season, completing 70.2 percent of his passes for 1,737 yards and 13 touchdowns in only 10 games. But unfortunately, he lost his starting job to Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion midseason.
In need of their own quarterback upgrade, the Kansas City Chiefs decided to pass up the 2013 quarterback draft class and instead traded their second-round pick and a 2014 conditional third-round pick for Smith.
Now, the Chiefs will hope that Smith proves to be the quarterback he was for Harbaugh under new Chiefs coach Andy Reid.
If so, Kansas City will have an above-average starting quarterback who is capable of leading the Chiefs back to contention after an abysmal 2012 season. If not, however, it will have a quarterback who completed just 57 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (53) than touchdowns (51) in his first six seasons.
Jeff Ireland's job could be on the line in 2013.
Even after the team won less than half of its games last season (7-9), Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland decided to employ an aggressive, win-now strategy this offseason. The Dolphins were the big spenders of the 2013 free-agency season, which netted them some very talented players, but also left them in trouble once again going into the 2014 season.
The Dolphins' big-impact signing was wide receiver Mike Wallace, who will give quarterback Ryan Tannehill a true deep threat to work with.
The problem with Wallace? His $3.2 million cap hit will turn into a $17.2 million cap hit in 2014—a restrictive and very high number for a non-quarterback, according to Spotrac.
Wallace is not the only signing that will cause the Dolphins trouble after the 2013 season. Dannell Ellerbe's $2.425 million cap hit will increase by $5 million in 2014. The Dolphins may have temporarily added a top-tier cornerback in Brent Grimes, but he is only signed for 2013.
After such an aggressive offseason, which is expected to make the Dolphins much better in 2013 but could limit their ability to re-sign some of their own players in 2014, they are expected to contend this season. If they struggle to catch up to their spending and fail to make the playoffs, it will be disappointing given Miami's aggressive offseason activity. It could also cost Ireland his job.
How important is Adrian Peterson's health to the Minnesota Vikings' success?
During an injury-plagued 2011 season in which Peterson only ran for 970 yards and ended his year with a torn ACL and MCL, the Vikings went 3-13. Last season, when he took the NFL by storm and won the NFL MVP award with a 2,097-yard rushing season, the Vikings bounced back in a big way and made the postseason with a 10-6 record.
Peterson's star is burning as bright as any player in the NFL this offseason. Durability has, nonetheless, been a concern for Peterson at times in his career. He has missed time in three of six NFL seasons and had injury issues in both high school and college.
The Vikings need a healthy Peterson to make another playoff run, especially with uncertainty still surrounding the play of starting quarterback Christian Ponder. The expectations are high for Peterson in 2013, and the team will hope he stays healthy and continues to stretch out his prime as an NFL running back at 28 years old.
Aaron Dobson will be an important Patriot in 2013.
The New England Patriots have been the NFL's most consistent Super Bowl contender since the turn of the century, and that consistency has been largely a result of their prolific passing offense. That passing offense, however, is facing more questions heading into the 2013 season than it has in many years.
The Patriots still have one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks in Tom Brady, but he does not have the established group of receiving targets he is used to working with.
The Patriots' two leading receivers from last year, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, are no longer with the team. They still have superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, but he faces additional surgeries for his still-recovering forearm and possibly for a back issue.
If Gronkowski misses any time in 2013, the Patriots could be shorter on passing weapons than they have been since the start of Brady's career in New England. Aaron Hernandez is a very good receiving tight end, but the Patriots will otherwise be relying on new players to step up.
Free-agent addition Danny Amendola and second-round draft pick Aaron Dobson will be expected to step up at wide receiver, along with returning veteran Julian Edelman. At tight end, the Patriots will look to Jake Ballard, who is still recovering from a torn ACL from two Super Bowls ago.
The Patriots cannot afford to take a step back with their passing offense. As the core of their success, their chances of winning a Super Bowl in 2013 would also take a big step back.
The Saints need Martez Wilson to step up this season.
After finishing 31st in points allowed per game and dead last in yards allowed per game last season, the New Orleans Saints had to make major changes to their defense this offseason. Whether the Saints have the right personnel for a successful transition to the 3-4 scheme, however, remains uncertain.
On the defensive line, they will be relying heavily on rookie John Jenkins and second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks to step up and play immediately.
A secondary that struggled mightily in 2012 will need to be sparked by free-agent addition Keenan Lewis and first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro.
The position of greatest uncertainty, however, may be at outside linebacker, where the Saints lack a premier pass-rusher. The team will have to rely heavily upon Victor Butler, Martez Wilson and Junior Galette to make an impact as rushers in its new scheme.
If the Saints' returning veterans can adjust and their new additions can make an immediate impact on defense, they have a good shot of getting back to the postseason in 2013 with coach Sean Payton returning. If not, it could be another long year in New Orleans.
The Giants need better play from Corey Webster in 2013.
One of the biggest reasons the New York Giants failed to make the playoffs last season was the shaky play of their cornerbacks, who frequently gave up big plays down the stretch to opposing offenses. The Giants have plenty of talented players at the position, but they need those players to compete up to their ability in 2013.
Prince Amukamara is the Giants' best cornerback, but he has battled both injuries and inconsistency. Corey Webster and Jayron Hosley were among the NFL's four worst-rated cornerbacks last season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while Terrell Thomas has missed back-to-back seasons with torn ACLs.
All of those players, and returning free-agent signing Aaron Ross, have the ability to be at least top-three cornerbacks in the Giants secondary. The key for all of them, and for the success of the Giants defense, will be for at least three of them to stay consistent and healthy for next season.
If the Giants continue to get gashed with big passing plays, they could easily fall behind in a competitive NFC East.
Geno Smith's development is key to the Jets' 2013 season.
The New York Jets have a lot of issues with their current roster, not the least of which is at quarterback. They hope to have their future secured at the position in second-round pick Geno Smith, but Smith is very much a developmental prospect who needs to learn a pro-style system and become better at making reads and handling pressure.
Because of that, expecting Smith to be ready to get thrown into the fire in September could be a tall task and not necessarily a good thing for the rookie quarterback. On an offense that is lacking in weapons and in a media market that is quick to turn on struggling players, the Jets should refrain on inserting Smith into the lineup until he is sufficiently ready.
The problem for the Jets is that if they do not start Smith right away, they have no other good options. Mark Sanchez's 2012 season was a disaster, as he completed only 54.3 percent of his passes while turning the ball over 26 times. The Jets' best option may be Greg McElroy, a smart quarterback whose upside and downfield playmaking ability is limited.
Ultimately, the outlook for the Jets' 2013 season is not very promising unless Smith becomes an immediate star as a rookie.
This scenario also comes into play for the Oakland Raiders, whose roster may have more holes than that of any other team in the National Football League. But if the Raiders struggle again, the last thing they want is to end up with the No. 3 overall selection for a second consecutive draft.
If the Raiders have a top-three draft pick, then that likely means they have yet to find a franchise quarterback between Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson. The closest they have to a star defensive player is safety Tyvon Branch, and they lack a premier pass-rusher.
If the Raiders are going to struggle through 2013, then the best light at the end of the tunnel would be to have the opportunity to draft a franchise quarterback in Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or a star pass-rushing prospect in South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.
For an organization desperately trying to turn things in the right direction, the Raiders are looking to make progress toward contention in 2013. But if they do not, they will want to be in the best position to add a star player in the 2014 NFL draft.
The "Dream Team" era in Philadelphia may have been a disaster, but hopes are high for the Philadelphia Eagles entering the 2013 season with Chip Kelly taking over as coach. The key to their turnaround will be finding the right quarterback to lead Kelly's fast-paced, quick-passing offense.
Expected to start is Michael Vick, whose past two seasons have been more of a nightmare than a dream. Vick fits the Chip Kelly profile of a strong-armed, athletic, dual-threat quarterback, but whether he can bounce back and fit Kelly's offensive scheme remains to be seen.
Fortunately for the Eagles, Vick is not the only option in Philadelphia should he struggle in training camp and preseason. Second-year quarterback Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley are two quarterbacks who know Chip Kelly well from playing against him as collegiate quarterbacks in the Pac-12.
Neither Foles nor Barkley has Vick's athleticism or arm strength, and whether either fits Kelly's scheme is also uncertain. However, both have certain developmental upside as inside-the-pocket passers.
Finding one quarterback early in the 2013 season who can win games and run the offense to Kelly's tempo will be necessary if the Eagles are going to contend in the NFC East.
The Steelers will be looking for a bounce-back season from Troy Polamalu.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have only had one losing season since 2000, but the end of an era appears to be nearing.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace, outside linebacker James Harrison and nose tackle Casey Hampton are among the Steelers stars of recent years who are not back with the team for the 2013 season. Meanwhile, standout safety Troy Polamalu is coming off an injury-plagued 2012 season, and Ben Roethlisberger has not played a full 16-game season since 2008.
Coming off of an 8-8 year, the Steelers will be hoping to overcome their losses, stay healthy and get immediate production from their rookie draft class, especially first-round pick outside linebacker Jarvis Jones.
If the Steelers cannot do that, they could fall below .500 in what projects to be a very competitive AFC North.
Outside of the Denver Broncos, the AFC West may very well be the NFL's weakest division. Two of the division's four teams picked in the top three of the 2013 NFL draft—and there is a distinct possibility that the San Diego Chargers could finish below both of them this season.
The Chargers have many unanswered questions on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, that starts at the quarterback position, where Philip Rivers could be in for a make-or-break year. Rivers was once considered one of the NFL's top quarterbacks, but his quarterback rating has fallen for five straight years. The Chargers could be primed for a change at the position if his performance doesn't lead to success in 2013.
They still have a position of uncertainty in terms of protecting Rivers as well, with King Dunlap projected to start at left tackle.
They do not have too much talent that stands out on their roster—free safety Eric Weddle might be their best player—and they will be heavily reliant on new coach Mike McCoy's ability to turn some of their returning talent in the right direction.
The range of nightmare scenarios possible for the San Francisco 49ers may be larger than that of any other team, as they are the favorite to realize their Super Bowl dream in 2013.
The 49ers have the NFL's most stifling defense and most complete roster, but they still have a quarterback who has yet to play a season as a starter.
Colin Kaepernick became a quick star last season, making big plays as both a passer and a runner during the final seven games of San Francisco's regular season and then in its run to the Super Bowl.
He did so well that the 49ers traded Alex Smith—who led the NFL in quarterback rating last season before suffering a concussion in Week 10—before Kaepernick even played a full season as an NFL starting quarterback.
All indications are that the 49ers have an outstanding quarterback under center in Kaepernick. He has the potential to be both an elite passer and the NFL's best running quarterback. Because of that, the 49ers made a very smart move in trading Smith for a second-round pick and a 2014 third-round pick, as he was set to be the Kansas City Chiefs' backup quarterback.
Still, Kaepernick has yet to prove himself over the course of a 16-game season, and he also plays with increased injury risk because of his frequency to tuck and run the ball.
If Kaepernick is unable to play consistently and at a Super Bowl level for the 49ers this season, they may wish they still had Smith. Assuming he continues trending upward as he did down the stretch last season, they may avoid all nightmare scenarios and hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season.
2012 third-round pick Russell Wilson was the surprise star among last year's rookie class. He quickly emerged as a star quarterback in Seattle, using his arm strength and running ability to put up big numbers and lead the Seahawks to the postseason.
Expectations are huge for both Wilson and the Seahawks in 2013. The Seahawks are expected to rival the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC West and are a Super Bowl favorite. Those expectations are largely based, however, on positive development in Wilson's progress.
Wilson got consistently better throughout his rookie season in terms of accuracy, decision-making and leadership. There is reason to believe that he will prove himself as an elite quarterback in 2013, but a regression in performance is also possible, which would set back the Seahawks' championship hopes.
Like Kaepernick, Wilson's game comes with an increased risk of injury, as he also makes plays outside the pocket as a runner and scrambler. Depth is also a concern. The Seahawks' best backup quarterback option is Brady Quinn, who has been unsuccessful in previous starting stints.
The St. Louis Rams have had some tough times in recent years. They've held the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick in four of the past six drafts—the result of having four seasons with three wins or less in that time span.
But the Rams finally appear to be on the upswing, as their many high draft picks are coming together to build a strong young roster around quarterback Sam Bradford.
In what may be the NFL's toughest division, the Rams need to build momentum this season by improving upon last year's 7-8-1 record. If the competition drives them to a record significantly below that, their momentum will be lost.
Surprisingly, the Rams actually had the best record within their division last year, winning one game against both the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers and also tying the 49ers in their other matchup. If the Rams can continue to have that intradivision success and consistently win the games they should win, they have a shot to contend even in the NFC West.
At some point, St. Louis needs to start taking advantage of its draft picks and turning its young talent into a run to the postseason. That may not be 2013, but moving farther away from that would be a huge disappointment for Jeff Fisher's team.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to be successful on pass defense in an NFC South division that includes Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton as quarterbacks. Knowing that, they made a major effort to rebuild their struggling secondary this offseason.
The Buccaneers signed free-agent safety Dashon Goldson and drafted cornerback Johnthan Banks in Round 2. But their biggest move was trading their first-round pick to the New York Jets for cornerback Darrelle Revis. As the Buccaneers look to turn their weak secondary into a strength, the acquisition of Revis will be the key.
When healthy, Revis is arguably the NFL's best cornerback. If he returns fully from the torn ACL that cost him nearly all of last season, the Buccaneers should have one of the NFL's best secondaries. But if Revis does not come back at full strength, the cornerback position could continue to be an area of concern.
Considering Revis' ACL tear occurred in September, he should be able to make a full recovery for the start of the season. Whether or not he returns at 100 percent will have a big impact on whether the Buccaneers can make a playoff run in 2013.
The jury is definitely still out on whether or not Jake Locker, the Tennessee Titans' No. 8 overall pick in 2011, is the team's long-term answer at starting quarterback. 2013 looks to be a make-or-break year for both him and the Titans.
Locker needs to prove that he can stay healthy and improve upon a 2012 season in which he only completed 56.4 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). Not only will this be critical to whether or not he remains the starting quarterback in Tennessee, but also to whether the Titans can challenge for a division title or playoff berth.
The Titans do not have a star-studded roster, but it is fairly well-rounded. Locker's lack of progress and struggles to stay healthy last season appeared to hold the team back.
He is a talented quarterback who can make big plays with both a strong arm and very good athleticism. If he can put it all together in 2013, challenging for a division title is not out of the question for the Titans. But if he continues to struggle, another sub-.500 season could be ahead in Tennessee.
The Washington Redskins won their first NFC East division crown since 1999 last season, largely because of the immediate success of rookie star quarterback Robert Griffin III. The start of Griffin's 2013 season, however, could be in jeopardy as he battles back from a torn ACL.
Griffin suffered a partially torn ACL and LCL in his right knee in January during the Wild Card Round of the NFC playoffs. That left him only an eight-month window in which to get fully healthy for the start of the 2013 season.
Fortunately for the Redskins, they have a very capable backup quarterback in Kirk Cousins should Griffin not be ready to go in September. That said, Griffin is a dynamic playmaker as both a passer and runner, and he gives the Redskins the best chance to win week in and week out.
If Griffin is fully healthy and plays a full season in 2013, the Redskins are definite favorites to win the NFC East next year. Without him, however, their playoff hopes drop significantly, as he is a spectacular talent whose breakout rookie season was largely responsible for a quick turnaround in the nation's capital.