With so much riding on each and every week of action, the NFL has some of the best storylines of any major professional sport. Whether it's a fresh start with a new team, a return from a serious injury or a shot at redemption following a subpar campaign, nearly every NFLer has something to play for - and these 10 guys may have the most at stake:
Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
Now 36 and coming off four neck surgeries, Manning
is one of the league's biggest unknowns as he embarks on his post-Indianapolis
career. If Manning can remain healthy - and that "if" is bigger than the Rocky Mountains - he could be the difference-maker in what is expected to be a competitive AFC West
. If he's injured or ineffective, Broncos
fans will surely remind ownership of the $95 million investment
they made in a creaky, wonky signal caller.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
wasn't the first quarterback taken in this year's NFL draft,
but he could be the most electrifying first-year player in the league. Fresh off a sensational college career with Baylor
, The 2011 Heisman Trophy
winner already represents a major upgrade at a position that has traditionally been one of the Redskins
' biggest weaknesses. He can run, pass and think like a superstar - the only question is how quickly all three tools will translate to the NFL.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
fans must be one of the most conflicted fan bases in the league. While they're likely jubilant that Peterson
appears to have recovered quickly
from last year's season-ending knee ligament tear, the fact that he's still just eight months removed
from major surgery has many concerned that Minnesota may be rushing its franchise player back into action. If he can't be the AP of a few seasons ago, the Vikings likely won't go anywhere.
Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns
represents a glimmer of hope for a Browns
fan base saddled with mediocrity - or worse - for most of the past 13 seasons
. Cleveland traded up
to nab the Alabama superstar, who is considered the most polished rookie running back in the league. Considering it cost Cleveland four draft picks for the chance to advance one spot, the pressure could be on Richardson to perform right away.
Randy Moss, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Here's a guy who might just rival Manning for the role of biggest question mark. Moss
spent the entire 2011 season on the sidelines after toiling for three different teams a year earlier. The 35-year-old is supremely talented but has worn out several franchises already. If he keeps his head straight, he could be a revelation for a 49ers
team that has struggled to produce top-flight wide receivers since you-know-who
toiled between the sidelines.
Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants
Of all the players to stun the football world in 2011, none did so as thoroughly as Cruz
. In just his first full season, the diminutive wideout broke the Giants' single-season record with 1,536 receiving yards - culminating in this extensive profile piece
on ESPN the Magazine that made it clear Cruz had indeed arrived. The biggest question in Giants
fans' minds: Is he the next Calvin Johnson
, or the next David Boston
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Just 23, Gronkowski
has already established himself as an elite NFL tight end
, a supporter of shirtless partying
and a public seeker of female companionship
. And while his ever-growing resume may endear him to TMZ
, it likely won't win him many points with head coach Bill Belichick
. The Patriots traditionally eschew attention grabbers, so Gronk may have to tone things down if he hopes to remain a major part of the New England offense.
Billy Cundiff, K, Washington Redskins
has nowhere to go but up after suffering one of the more humiliating endings to a season in recent memory. Cundiff wore the goat horns all offseaon after missing a 32-yard field-goal attempt
in the final minute that would have moved the Baltimore Ravens
into a tie with the New England Patriots
, who went on to win and advance to the Super Bowl
. The Ravens cut Cundiff
late last month, and he quickly caught on with the Redskins
. Cundiff is a decent kicker - evidenced by his 28-of-37 showing
last season - but it will be interesting to see if he can erase the memory of last year's choke job.
Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo Bills
entered the offseason knowing full well that a defensive upgrade was a must. Enter Williams
, a former first overall pick
and current sack machine who played just five games last season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle
. Williams adds instant legitimacy to a defense that surrendered a franchise-record 5,938 yards
, leaving a quick start to the season in the dust. Williams was considered a bust in the early part of his career, but has long erased that label and enters his age-27 season in the best shape of his life.
Jason Pierre-Paul, LB, New York Giants
How good can Pierre-Paul
be? Let Giants
teammate Mathias Kiwanuka
set the bar, as he did in an interview
"A 30-sack guy? He could be. Absolutely. He definitely has the potential to be one of the best ever."
Pierre-Paul recorded a whopping 16.5 sacks in just his second NFL season - and he thinks he can still get a whole lot better
, as he recently told Jorge Castillo of the Newark Star-Ledger. That should make 31 other teams very nervous.