More than 1,600 players will take the field this week as the NFL kicks off the regular season - but few will be watched more closely than the 10 listed below.
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 RedskinsGriffin 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 VikingsVikings 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 BrownsRichardson 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 RedskinsCundiff 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
The 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 with NFL.com:
"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.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com