Last season produced its share of All-Pros, overachievers and breakout artists, but not everyone touched the sun.
For players coming off down campaigns -- triggered by injury, poor performance or fate -- September brings the chance to erase ill memories of 2013 and rewrite the narrative.
So who's on the way back up? Here's our list of potential bounce-back candidates for 2014:
QB Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins: His speed and elusiveness ticked up as the season wore on, but Griffin was never himself on the heels of major knee surgery. A full offseason should help. So will the addition of DeSean Jackson, who joins Andre Roberts, Pierre Garcon and young Jordan Reed to give Washington a collection of pass-catchers the equal of any league-wide. Coach Jay Gruden and the 'Skins have used this offseason to surround their young quarterback with weapons, and we expect RGIII to pick up where he left off before the injury.
WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers: Cobb was sideswiped by a broken leg in 2013, but a monster campaign looms. With James Jones heading to Oakland, the Packers plan to free Cobb of his return duties and make him a bigger part of the passing game. The 23-year-old receiver led NFL wideouts last season with a 77.5 catch percentage after finishing second in that category (78.4) the season before, according to Pro Football Focus. With Aaron Rodgers back in the saddle, Cobb is a candidate to surpass the 100-catch barrier in 2014.
RB C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills: Spiller is running and cutting on the ankle that bothered him all last season and told the team's official site last month, "I definitely feel that explosion coming back to how I was in 2012." One former scout suggested the X-factor was never healthy during a campaign that saw Spiller fall from 6.0 yards per carry in 2012 to 4.3 one season ago. Spiller's 456 yards after contact in 2013 were a shadow of the 742 he dialed up the year before, but that didn't stop Chip Kelly and the Eagles from wanting him in a trade. Buffalo wasn't about to part ways with their most explosive weapon.
Table set for success
WR Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts: Giants coach Tom Coughlin acknowledged in March that, two years ago, Nicks "was one of the best receivers in the NFL." After a season that saw him held to 56 catches and zero touchdowns, Big Blue didn't even try to re-sign him. Despite criticism that the 26-year-old was playing timid to avoid injury and showed an "inability to get open," Nicks landed in a prime spot with the Colts. Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton and Nicks form one of the AFC's most intriguing trio of wideouts. Playing on another one-year deal, a motivated Nicks has the chance to enter next offseason as one of the NFL's prized free agents.
RB Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: New coach Lovie Smith wants to use more than one back from game to game, but we expect Martin will get the bulk of the work after a torn labrum ended his 2013 season. When healthy, he's a hard-charging, downhill runner just two seasons removed from a rookie campaign that saw Martin rank third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford urged that Tampa must have an "identity of running the football," leaving Martin in a good spot to rack up touches.
Bound to improve
QB Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens: Flacco will benefit from Baltimore's active offseason. After locking up left tackle Eugene Monroe, the Ravens acquired Jeremy Zuttah as an upgrade over center Gino Gradkowski. That should aid an interior line that contributed to Flacco being sacked 48 times and throwing 22 picks, both second most in the league. Flacco also gets a healthy Dennis Pitta back along with tight end Owen Daniels. Steve Smith playing the Anquan Boldin role is a coup. Look for new, run-happy coordinator Gary Kubiak to reduce Flacco's pass attempts and plug him into a scheme that results in fewer mistakes.
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: He hasn't dialed up a 1,000-yard campaign since 2011 and might wind up elsewhere before long if Michael Floyd continues to evolve as a potential No. 1. While Fitzgerald's explosiveness is trending downward, his cap number -- an outrageous $23.6 million in 2015 -- is set to explode. Still, the 30-year-old owns some of the finest hands in the league. Look for Bruce Arians to line Fitz up inside and out, mirroring Reggie Wayne's 2012 role with the Colts. If he can stay healthy, he's a logical pick to improve on last year's 82-954-10 stat line.
RB Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts: Despite Richardson's catastrophic season, coach Chuck Pagano told Around The League at the combine that the "sky's the limit" for the third-year back. Tight end Coby Fleener stressed that Indy's offense is "one of the most complex in the NFL," urging that Richardson will benefit from a full offseason. Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard provide insurance, but the Colts want T-Rich to be their bell-cow. For that to happen, he'll need more of the explosiveness he once showed at Alabama. Richardson started out as a tackle-breaker with the Browns, but his slow decision-making in Indy was concerning. He's one of the league's biggest question marks.
RB Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens: The offseason arrest was an ugly footnote to a disastrous campaign. To his credit, Rice shed 15 pounds after admitting he was "definitely too heavy last year." He never shook off an early-season hip injury and finished dead last (among runners with 160-plus carries) with 3.1 yards per rush. Chris Wesseling called him "a little kid in a snowsuit running in the open field," because Rice didn't make tacklers miss in 2013. Baltimore's O-line upgrades help, but Rice has taken a beating over the years. After averaging a whopping 277 carries per season between 2009 and 2012, the Ravens need to think about a committee approach in 2014.
QB Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders: The Silver and Black overrated Schaub, but his contract gives Oakland an escape hatch if the 33-year-old quarterback picks up where he left off. Last season's tape showed a tentative passer lacking arm strength and crumbling to bits when his surroundings weren't ideal. As Wesseling noted, Schaub -- at 33 -- would be defying history to bounce back from last season's benching. We don't like his odds.
QB Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: Bradford's career has been a milquetoast carnival of the bland. Handed mega-millions to save St. Louis from mediocrity, it's hard to imagine the Rams sticking by the fifth-year passer if he doesn't light the world on fire in 2014. I don't love his chances for big numbers in Brian Schottenheimer's hyper-conservative attack. Coming off major knee surgery doesn't help. Bradford might be playing elsewhere a year from now.
In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast", the guys discuss "Draft Day," then break down who got better (and who got worse) in the AFC East.