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NFL's most intriguing players of 2014, a team-by-team examination

Former No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper returns from an early injury in 2013 to boost the Cardinals. (USATSI)
Former No. 1 pick Jonathan Cooper returns from an early injury in 2013 to boost the Cardinals. (USATSI)

More NFL offseason: League minicamp dates | Latest news, notes

It's the time of year for lists in the NFL.

We're still about 100 days from the start of the regular season and nearing a month since the draft, and there is only so much breathless, play-by-play coverage that can be devoted to glorified OTA walk-throughs.

So, perhaps inspired by those Dos Equis commercials, I starting thinking about the most intriguing guy for each NFL franchise. Not quite the world's most dangerous man, to be certain, but individuals whose production in 2014 could have a direct impact on team fortunes this coming season. I'm not looking for MVP candidates or the most important player; it's a little more nuanced than that. These are guys who fill a particular void or have a particular situation that makes me pay particular attention to them.

We're going to do them in alphabetical order, and I'm sure we'll revisit this at some point in 2015 to see how they fared.

Arizona Cardinals

G Jonathan Cooper: We tend to forget, amid the Cardinals' upstart 2013 campaign, just what they had to overcome. That rookie class might wind end up being even more special than it started to look, considering first-round pick Cooper missed the season after breaking his leg in the preseason (and Tyrann Mathieu would up injured, too). Young GM Steve Keim could use Cooper to anchor and hasten the overhaul of a long putrid offensive line, and that could start this season. Considering the defense -- without starting LB Daryl Washington for the season -- might naturally slip a bit, establishing a consistent inside running game and protecting older quarterback Carson Palmer might be just what this team needs to continue its growth.

Atlanta Falcons

RB Steven Jackson: Another player coming off essentially a lost 2013. If the Falcons are truly going to morph into a more physical and tenacious team, Jackson must stay healthy and embody that no-nonsense style. The Falcons want to start overpowering opponents at the line of attack and Jackson, though oft-injured in recent years, has made a career out of running people over and setting a physical tone. He is vowing to do so once again, and with the NFC so deep and this defense still looking unproven to me and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White coming off injury-ruined seasons, the Falcons are going to need a dependable running game. If Jackson can get into form, some ball-control offense would force teams to defend them a little bit differently.

Baltimore Ravens

OL Kelechi Osemele: The offensive line was a joke last season, undermining the entire offense. Osemele's serious back condition was at the heart of that, though he appears healthy and spry to start OTAs. As he goes, so goes this offense. He has displayed an ability to be an all-world left guard when healthy, and a street fighter at right tackle. Right now the Ravens do not have any proven options at right tackle and KO's versatility likely will be called on throughout the season as need arises. Osemele could be considered among the best at two positions by the end of 2014, but sorting out where that is will be a major talking point through training camp, especially if no one grabs that right tackle spot with authority. This line -- especially with Jeremy Zuttah now at center -- could be markedly better than a year ago, fueling major gains by the entire offense. Another year like 2013 by Joe Flacco, compounded by indifferent pass protection, would be damning for the franchise.

Buffalo Bills

QB EJ Manuel: I'm trying to avoid rookies on this list, though I thought long and hard about first-rounder Sammy Watkins, who's under major pressure given what the Bills parted with to move up and get him in a receiver-rich draft. Instead I'm going with the guy they put in the same position last year, when they made Manuel the only quarterback drafted in the first round, doing so at least a round before many believed necessary. Now, after doubling-down on that trade by parting with a future first-rounder to get Watkins, the message is clear that this is supposed to be a big-boy offense from Day One in 2014. Only I'm not sure it will be, and Manuel left me with far more questions than answers his rookie year. Color me skeptical because we've seen plenty of teams end up scrapping first-round passers sooner than expected, so there's lots of demands on this young man. If he fails, the Bills -- who are looking for a new owner -- could have a shakeup after the season that goes well beyond who is under center, and deep into the front office and coaching ranks.

Carolina Panthers

WR Jerricho Cotchery: The wide receiver issues for this club are obvious. Steve Smith is gone and it will take a handful of players to replace what he routinely produced in his prime. Quietly, Cotchery has continued to get the job done, moving the chains and becoming a security blanket for quarterbacks. Someone other than TE Greg Olson is going to have to become a target for Cam Newton, and I believe Cotchery can make an impact for a club looking to build off its surge a year ago. With seemingly little notice last season, Cotchery -- playing in what many thought would be a crowded Steelers receiving group -- collected 10 TDs on 46 receptions as a clear go-to guy. With far less competition this season, I wouldn't be surprised to see him put up strong numbers and far more receptions.

Lingering questions follow franchise QB Jay Cutler into another season. (USATSI)
Lingering questions follow franchise QB Jay Cutler into another season. (USATSI)

Chicago Bears

QB Jay Cutler: It would be easy to overload this list with quarterbacks given their importance to winning and losing each week, but Cutler really is an interesting case study. He managed to land a massive contract in a year when his injury was paramount and as understudy Josh McCown outplayed him, parlaying that into a likely starting gig in Tampa. Cutler lost a very key sounding board in McCown, he will be judged against McCown's ghost -- and the big numbers the journeyman achieved in Marc Trestman's quarterback-friendly system. Did they really need to pay Cutler $18M a year to operate an offense this robust? Will he ever make a dent in the postseason? Can all of their offensive weapons still overcome what could be an awful defense again? Will Cutler, and his sometimes surly demeanor, continue to be a subject of some scorn in Chicago and nationally? If the untimely turnovers continue, you can expect to hear McCown's name muttered a time or two, and there are many around the league who believe Cutler's offer was originally extended early in the season, before he got hurt, which ended up tying the Bears' hands when he took that contract late in the season as McCown led the team in the playoff hunt.

Cincinnati Bengals

LT Andrew Whitworth: He's bounced around some in recent years, but with Andre Collins gone and Andre Smith really only a candidate at right tackle, Whitworth is called back to heavy duty. This is a prove-it year for quarterback Andy Dalton and everyone is expecting running back Gio Bernard to have a big season, but if the protection falters and if this line takes a step back, a run of three straight playoff appearances could be in jeopardy. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are right there with the Bengals. And with second-year undrafted free agent Trevor Robinson penciled in as the starting center, likely commanding plenty of help from the guards, the tackles may have to fend for themselves quite a bit. Robinson started seven games as a rookie, but just ask the Ravens how big an impact a tough season from a young center can have on an offensive line, and offense. So getting a stalwart season out of Whitworth would be huge, and allow new coordinator Hue Jackson to attack defenses the way he likes to.

Cleveland Browns

TE Jordan Cameron: In the first half of last season Cameron was making a case to be among the league's top five tight ends. He looked the part of an elite playmaker and he seemed to have some immediate chemistry with whichever quarterback he played with (and there were quite a few). But injuries again were a problem, making his durability something of a question. Now with the Browns possibly are playing without emerging star receiver Josh Gordon all season because of a pot suspension, Cameron's role will be even more vital. There likely will be weeks where he is going to have to keep the passing game going, and with Johnny Football possibly throwing balls his way sooner rather than later, all eyes will be on Cameron. Teams will double him while Gordon is gone, and he's going to have to find a way to be productive.

Dallas Cowboys

DT Henry Melton: I'm not sure this defense has much of a chance to be competitive after losing DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee from what was an already awful unit. They lack special players, and the scheme has been rendered suspect. Without the ability to anchor some up front it could really be ugly in the Big D. Melton is nearing the end and has had injury concerns and I'm not sure how much it's fair to expect from him now, but the Cowboys are going to need him to be a free-agent find. He's coming off a torn ACL for the Bears a year ago, but given the void the Cowboys have at linebacker, they are to be holding out hope that time, health and plenty of good fortune are on Melton's side. There might not be a worse defense in the league, but perhaps there is some way to keep that from playing out Sunday after Sunday.

Denver Broncos

LB Von Miller: Which guy will we see this season? Will he be the one-man wrecking crew that tormented opponents upon breaking into the league, or will it be the guy who was battling missed time, a changed public perception and a more buff body that seemed to slow him down at times? With DeMarcus Ware on the opposite side, a healthy and fully-focused Miller might be enough to help stabilize a shaky defense. Denver will need to be a more complete team to achieve Super Bowl glory, and facing a brutal schedule, it would be naïve to expect the offense to as historically explosive as a year ago. If Miller looks like an MVP candidate, that would more than offset the offense cooling down a bit. With that fifth-year option dangling over his head, as well as that six-game suspension, Miller needs to be mindful of everything he puts in his body. This could be a huge season for him in more ways than one.

Detroit Lions

DT Nick Fairley: The talented defensive lineman hasn't always been the poster boy for effort and dedication, but he has no shortage of motivation after his fifth-year option was not picked up. And he's playing next to Ndamukong Suh, who is trying to work out a new long-term deal with the club now and carrying an insane cap hit in the meantime. Oh, and Suh won't be around until mandatory camps start. This could be Fairley's time to come into his own and make the Lions pay for not picking up his option, which comes with very limited risk to the team, financial or otherwise. The motivation ploy just might work all the way around. The Lions will go on defense as far as their front four takes them. They should be among the best in the league week in and week out. Remember, Fairley was a kid who drew a ton of buzz as a potential No. 1 overall pick during his final year in college -- before more was made of his off-field issues -- and playing to that level would be perfect timing on his part, with free agency now looming.

Green Bay Packers

LB Julius Peppers: What does he have left? Can he adjust to a new position and new scheme at this stage of his career? Will he fit in with Dom Capers? The Packers need to re-establish a pass rush and did something pretty rare for them by wooing Peppers in free agency, despite already having one of the higher paid pass rushing linebackers in the league (Clay Matthews) already on the roster. Peppers, on his game, can be special and he clearly has a book on all the tackles in the NFC North from his time in Chicago, although moving from end to linebacker might not be particularly easy. But those two meetings with the Bears will be must-see television. Just a hunch, but he might not be the biggest Jay Cutler guy on the planet.

Houston Texans

WR Andre Johnson: He's being more persistent with his unhappiness with the organization than I originally anticipated, and while that won't change the way the Texans deal with him, it does raise the ante on this once-beautiful relationship. He wants out, even after all the money over all the years, and they simply can't afford him given they are trying to build a new offense under Bill O'Brien. But they lack other proven receiving options, so they need his leadership and ability and will call his bluff about actually skipping mandatory work. But man, this was the face of the franchise forever and if he doesn't produce and help bring along quarterback Tom Savage, who eventually will play regular-season games for them, it could forever taint the way the legend is viewed there. He's always been a true gamer and a stand-up guy, and I don't think that changes even if he isn't happy with the state of the franchise. But either way it immediately becomes one of the more interesting short-term dynamics on this rebuilding club.

How will a four-game suspension affect veteran sack artist Robert Mathis? (USATSI)
How will a four-game suspension affect veteran sack artist Robert Mathis? (USATSI)

Indianapolis Colts

DE Robert Mathis: Regardless of what Mathis was doing with a women's fertility drug and whether it was used to help make a baby or as a masking agent, Clomid is a banned substance and the Colts will be without their best pass rusher for a quarter of the season. That's a huge blow, though not enough to sway the balance in this putrid division. But given Mathis' age, can he get back to the form of a year ago, or anything close to it? And who else picks up the slack?

Jacksonville Jaguars

QB Blake Bortles: I understand the Jags would love to redshirt the third overall pick and how much faith they have in Chad Henne and all that. Makes some sense. But this team isn't going to compete for the playoffs no matter what, despite all the undisputed progress already made. And having Bortles miss meaningful work until 2015, when expectations just might start to expand, doesn't seem like the way to go. This franchise is desperate for a quarterback, and this kid has so many of the characteristics you look for. You can only hold him back for so long. So, after drafting a bunch of receivers, why not give this kid a nice long look behind what should be a decent offensive line while the pressure is still off, relatively speaking?

Kansas City Chiefs

LT Eric Fisher: There is plenty of intrigue in contract extension talks with quarterback Alex Smith. Let's not kid ourselves, this was always a rent-to-possibly-own situation here, even with all the Chiefs gave the 49ers to land Smith. That situation will be closely monitored, but he has won his share of games and he is going to need help this season, regardless of whether he returns for 2015. With Branden Albert gone, Fisher -- the No. 1 overall pick who had trouble staying in the starting lineup as a rookie -- needs to be a plenty capable pass protector at left tackle. He is going to see a steady diet of pass rushers as the Chiefs face a much tougher schedule than a year ago and the first draft pick of the Andy Reid/John Dorsey regime must show serious improvement over last season.

Miami Dolphins

WR Mike Wallace: The Dolphins have mulled trading him only a year after they made him one of the league's highest-paid wideouts. They need Wallace to be a guy who does more than occasionally latch on to a deep ball, and his inability to mesh with my-way-or-the-highway coach Joe Philbin has had much to do with why he might not be in South Beach all that long. Can Wallace be a true No. 1 receiver who shows up throughout the route tree, elevates those around him and helps a young quarterback develop? Or is he more of a one-trick pony who will quickly pout and moan if things don't go his way? The Dolphins need to do something other than top out at patent mediocrity, and this guy needs to be part of that. A big part of that. If not, I wouldn't be surprised to see him elsewhere come 2015.

Minnesota Vikings

TE Kyle Rudolph: I figure Matt Cassel gets a good portion of this season under center, and I continue to hear offensive coordinator Norv Turner is plenty comfortable with him. And Turner is an absolute guru when it comes to finding ways to get tight ends to do things they never have done before. A year ago he had Jordan Cameron on an amazing productive streak before Cameron's injury, and Rudolph could be this season's beneficiary of Turner's mastery. This system will get the ball to the tight end. I expect Rudolph to lead the team in targets and receptions. Since the Vikings still look like a team very much in transition, they're going to require career years out of more than a few people on offense and Rudolph needs to be one of the first to respond.

New England Patriots

DT Vince Wilfork: There was a time when it looked like this longtime defensive fulcrum -- the man whose heft, dexterity and superiority in the biggest games defined this defense -- would be gone. Ultimately he returned, but after missing much of last season and the Patriots still reaching another championship game, some might consider that Wilfork is less important. I disagree. This defense is still hardly loaded with individual brilliance, and if Wilfork can cull something and give Bill Belichick one more excellent season, then I really like the odds of the Pats being a top seed and being able to show that 3-4 front they prefer more times than not opens things up for guys like Chandler Jones and Don't'a Hightower off the edge.

New Orleans Saints

S Jairus Byrd: The Saints spent some crazy money on the former Bills safety, who missed his fair share of playing time with Buffalo, including last season. Now, he's already dealing with a back issue. The Saints are banking on him forming a Pro Bowl tandem with second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro that allows them to overcome what appears to be a shaky group of corners and limited pass-rushing options. Byrd needs to be that Ed Reed-type in Rob Ryan's defense. Look, he isn't close to being Ed Reed, but he needs to force quarterbacks into the kind of difficult decisions Reed did for Ryan's brother, Rex, for this group to continue to overachieve as it did a year ago. That means getting your hand on balls in midair, quarterbacking the secondary and anticipating where the ball is going. And being in the lineup on a weekly basis. For a team with the cap issues New Orleans faces to spend the kind of money it did on a safety, the returns must be immediate.

New York Giants

DE Jason Pierre-Paul: It looked like this dynamic pass rusher would be the new template by which other hybrid ends would be measured. At times he is downright unstoppable, and when this franchise has won its titles, it has done so in large degree by dismantling the other team's quarterback. Injuries have worn him down. His large frame seems to be a target for physical contact and health issues, and JPP has just 8.5 sacks over the past two seasons after posting 16.5 in 2011. With Justin Tuck now gone and the defensive front fairly reconstructed, Pierre-Paul will be counted upon to be an elite pass rusher once more. The left side of the defensive line is all youth, with some 2013 draft picks being expected to break through. With the linebacker group still carrying its fair share of questions, JPP needs to be the face of this defense and do the things that make a secondary seem a little better than it is by harassing the dude throwing the football.

New York Jets

DE Muhammad Wilkerson: There aren't many better in the game than this disruptive specimen. J.J. Watt surely is, and Watt is best of breed. But how much money is Big Mo worth, particularly if Watt doesn't get his new mega-deal this offseason? Wilkerson, like Watt, has that fifth-year option hanging over his head for 2015, but the Jets don't have many other young players worthy of an extension and GM John Idzik, who came to town in 2013, will be under some pressure to show the kind of commitment a difference-maker of Wilkerson's stature warrants. With this defensive front being so exceptional, it wouldn't surprise me to see this dude rack up 16 sacks or so and continue on his pattern of breakout seasons. If the Jets are going to be any factor in the AFC, and Rex Ryan is going to stick around, that front three will have to lead them there. It is the heart and soul of a team that still is likely to be pretty limited on the opposite side of the ball.

Oakland Raiders

LB Khalil Mack: Like with quarterbacks, I am avoiding too many rookies for this exercise. Obviously, we all will pay attention to which first-year players make things happen. But I'm not buying how much impact the influx of older veterans actually will have on this perennial cellar-dwelling franchise, and Mack has the potential to be a rookie of the year-type and alter the face off this defense off the bat. If the Raiders are smart they will move him around a little bit and have some fun with his athleticism. And if, and this is a big if, the new defensive front the Raiders bought in free agency can provide sufficient cover, Mack might be able to make some major forays into the opposing backfield. Should be a lot of fun to watch.

Tight end Zach Ertz could become an impact receiver in Philly's fast offense. (USATSI)
Tight end Zach Ertz could become an impact receiver in Philly's fast offense. (USATSI)

Philadelphia Eagles

TE Zach Ertz: The Eagles offense had no shortage of players putting up career years in 2013, the first under coach Chip Kelly. Ertz seems to be a tremendous fit in Kelly's offense, but he had a relatively pedestrian rookie season. This season, with no DeSean Jackson, and a bunch of targets up for grabs, Ertz could be the recipient. We could see a lot of two-tight end sets from the Eagles and Brent Celek is not getting any younger. I'm not sure the starting receiving group of Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, coming off knee surgery, is making anyone sweat. The two tight ends will demand a lot of looks from any defense, and if Nick Foles is going to come close to last season's numbers then you can expect plenty of balls going in the tight ends' direction.

Pittsburgh Steelers

CB Ike Taylor: Many thought the Steelers might do whatever it took to draft a potential No. 1 corner, but they instead stuck to their mantra and took a linebacker. This leaves Taylor, who was often picked on last season and clearly has lost a step, in a position again to be a key player for Pittsburgh. Given how much they blitz, corners are left on an island, and teams started picking on Taylor, who would have been released had he not agreed to a major pay reduction. This secondary is a little long in the tooth and one of these older guys is going to have to experience a renaissance of some sort.

St. Louis Rams

QB Sam Bradford: Another season, another make-or-break year for Bradford. He hasn't stayed healthy, been consistent and you can say he hasn't had great protection or weapons -- and I would agree with those final two statements -- but you can make excuses for only so long. Bradford has two years and about $28M left on his rookie contract. The Rams considered Johnny Manziel in the first round this year, and if this team continues to get better at positions other than quarterback, it only makes sense at some point to upgrade the most critical position. Bradford must bounce back from an ACL injury, and he should be playing behind the best offensive line he has enjoyed. The defense looks downright gnarly, and I suspect he benefits from plenty of sacks and turnovers generated by that unit. He has to cash in and take hold as a team leader as a big-play quarterback. Former No. 1 overall pick or not, loyalty in this league only goes so far. There aren't too many kids who are easier to like and root for than Bradford, an extraordinary young man. But at some point you have to play up to your draft position or you risk engendering change.

San Diego Chargers

TE Antonio Gates: How much does he have left? Given injuries and bad luck to this wide receiver group, and given how much time he has spent with quarterback Philip Rivers -- much, much more than anyone else on this roster -- the Chargers are going to need a strong season out of Gates to remain a playoff club. Facing NFC West defenses will test this team. Gates caught 77 passes last season -- his most since 2009 -- but other options prevailed in the red zone; he had only four touchdowns, the fewest since his rookie year when he was a former basketball player making a very difficult transition. In fact, Gates had caught at least seven TDs in every season since his rookie year. Gates managed to avoid the kind of season-sapping injuries that have dogged him the past few years, but we'll see if he is able to stretch the field and command the kind of defensive attention he did earlier in his career.

San Francisco 49ers

TE Vernon Davis: Hell hath no fury like a tight end scorned. Actually that's not true at all. And, given how stiff CBA rules are against holdouts for players under contract, I'm not sure Davis allows his displeasure with the state of his contract to bleed into the preseason. He's not alone with money issues. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick was deserving of a big raise and guard Alex Boone is staying away based on his bargain-basement contract, and Davis has certainly proved more than either over his career. Carrying this many unhappy campers so soon in the offseason has the potential to make for a caustic locker room. Davis might be the best tight end in football -- depending on what you consider Jimmy Graham to be; and an arbitrator might just rule he's a receiver -- and without him in top form mentally and physically this offense might not make strides it needs to, as it seeks to offset what could be some major absences on defense.

Seattle Seahawks

RB Christine Michael: Marshawn Lynch if getting deep into his contract. He has served the Seahawks well as a human battering ram who has helped change the offense's entire culture and identity. But time catches up to us all and Michael fits the Lynch mold, only he does it with more youthful legs and at a much cheaper rate and I expect him to see a lot more of the field this season. In fact, if he is something of a feature back by the end of the season I wouldn't be shocked. The Super Bowl champs bring back most of the same cast, but this organization has been anything but static and they are always seeking to getter better and deeper from within. Michael represents one way to do that.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

G Carl Nicks: The Bucs overloaded their offensive line, which was aging and had many starters entering the final year of contracts. Nicks was a rare holdover, and at his best, he was perhaps the most dominant guard in the game. He is the kind of guy who can help set a physical tone and give this unit an identity ... that is if he can play at all. Nicks was robbed of last season from MRSA, a potentially deadly infection, and it remains to be seen what he can do in 2014. If he can get close to his old form, then all the more reason why I believe the Bucs can be one of the surprise teams in the NFL (with rookie GM Jason Licht perhaps duplicating the first-year heroics of Arizona's Steve Keim from 2013; Licht working under Keim at the time). This offense has no shortage of size and potential playmakers, but being stout up front is always a prerequisite.

Tennessee Titans

QB Zach Mettenberger: I'm not buying new coach Ken Whisenhunt will particularly care how high Jake Locker was drafted and how recently that selection transpired. He inherited a weak roster and this team, even playing in such a poor division, is unlikely to come close to contending. So evaluating the quarterback and getting that right will be the most important thing Whisenhunt does. He drafted Mettenberger, who has all of the physical stuff you look for in a big-time NFL quarterback and fits the mold of what the coach wants in many regards. How he absorbs the offense and whether he can distance himself from mistakes in college remains to be seen. But I suspect he ends up playing a fair amount of football in what probably will be a forgettable season. Getting a new quarterback show can show signs of being up to the role would be a huge win for the franchise.

Washington Redskins

QB Robert Griffin III: I'd love to say Brian Orakpo, playing on the franchise tag and trying to show he does more than collect sacks in bunches against poor tackles in advantageous match-ups, or tight end Jordan Reed, and how he comes back from multiple concussions, will go a ways to determining the extent of this offense. But everyone is waiting to see if RG3 can stay healthy, if he can avoid clashing with the coaching staff over the things he says and does, how his relationship with owner Dan Snyder continues to evolve (and it will eventually dissolve, as has been the case with all of the owner's pets there over the years). It's fairly juicy stuff, and with Jay Gruden a first-time head coach -- the exact opposite of veteran former coach and taskmaster Mike Shanahan -- being the man caught in the middle of the RGIII/Snyder vortex, it will be interesting to see how the interpersonal dynamics play out in DC, where it's never boring. Can Griffin return to the form of his rookie year? Is he on some level damaged goods? Will his parents be a subplot there? Even when this team stinks, it's rarely boring, and Griffin seemingly has a way of being a story all the time.

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