On Tuesday, we took a look at the collection of offensive talent headed for potential bounce-back campaigns in 2014.
Let's get down to business on the defensive side of the ball:
OLB Von Miller, Denver Broncos: Last year was a messy affair for Miller. After serving a six-game suspension to open the campaign, the Broncos pass rusher blew out his knee three days before Christmas. What he accomplished in between is why he tops our list: Despite missing those six starts, Miller led all players at his position with 27 quarterback hurries before his season was cut short. An underrated run-stopper and outstanding cover man, Miller also topped all starting outside 'backers with just 23 yards allowed after the catch. He's shed 20 pounds and told reporters this week that he's "100 percent positive" he'll be ready for camp. Miller is primed for a monster year.
DE DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos: Ware's presence on this list has plenty to do with the fellow we just mentioned. The Elvis Dumervil void has been filled. With Von and DeMarcus on the same field, Denver has the manpower to overload opponents with the league's nastiest tandem of pass rushers. After seven straight double-digit-sack seasons, Ware was held to just six takedowns in 2013, partly the result of quad and thigh injuries. He's also coming off arthroscopic elbow surgery, but told reporters last month that he "already feels better" and promised to be ready for organized team activities. He's on the wrong side of 30, but after four All-Pro seasons, Ware has the tools to add a fifth.
DT Henry Melton, Dallas Cowboys: Coming off major knee surgery, Melton is expected to be full-go for training camp. Reuniting with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli as a 3-technique pass rusher in Dallas, the former Bears tackle is being counted on to anchor a line that saw Ware and Jason Hatcher walk out the door. In Melton, the Cowboys have landed an athlete with unique speed and size who piled up 13 sacks over two seasons, culminating with his 2012 trip to the Pro Bowl. He won't be confused with Geno Atkins -- and the injury raises concerns -- but Melton is in position to match Hatcher's 773 snaps from a season ago.
ILB Brian Cushing, Houston Texans: Cushing's a tricky one. On the field, he's one of the game's truly special inside linebackers. A rare physical specimen, he's entering the prime of his career on a defense armed with J.J. Watt and, potentially, Jadeveon Clowney come May. Devastating knee injuries in back-to-back seasons have limited Cushing to just 12 games over the past two years, but his Instagram account suggests that he's ready to roll. Citing an "instant connection" with new coach Bill O'Brien, Cushing remains a defensive centerpiece after Houston signed him to a six-year, $55.64 million extension last September. If he can stay on the field from wire to wire, that money will be worth it.
OLB Paul Kruger, Cleveland Browns: Signed to a five-year, $40.5 million contract, Kruger was billed as a conquering Super Bowl hero set to bring bite to Cleveland's pass rush. Instead, he finished the season with just 4.5 sacks and saw his snaps decline down the stretch. The arrival of coach Mike Pettine should have a positive effect on Kruger. Pettine last season helped turned Buffalo's defensive front into a force of nature that tallied a franchise-record 57 sacks. Despite his low takedown totals, Kruger finished sixth in the league with 39 quarterback hurries. There's talent to work with here.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants: Expected to be 100 percent healthy for the first time in many moons, Pierre-Paul enters his contract year with plenty to prove. After a whopping 16.5 sacks in 2011, a swarm of shoulder and back issues limited him to just 8.5 takedowns over the past two seasons. But with Justin Tuck off the grid, this is JPP's defense now. Assuming a clean bill of health, we expect Pierre-Paul to wreak havoc as one of the NFL's most complete ends. His closing speed is outrageous, and he's shown premier run-stuffing abilities. If he can stay on the field, look out.
OLB Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers: After piling up double-digit sacks in three of his first four campaigns, 2013 was a down year for Matthews. Badgered by a fractured thumb and limited to 7.5 sacks over 11 games, he graded out negatively as a pass rusher, per Pro Football Focus. The future, though, is bright. Just 27, Matthews has the physical tools to dominate opposing linemen for years to come. The addition of Julius Peppers -- who nearly made this list -- should help. After 50 sacks over 69 games, a return to double-digit territory is realistic for the golden-maned CMIII.