Football might be the ultimate team sport, but the NFL is dominated by larger-than-life talents -- those players who, through sheer force of skill and personality, seem able to single-handedly drive their squads. A player like that can become everything to his organization, defining its identity and dictating its fortunes. In other words, he becomes the face of the franchise. Of course, though, one man can carry the franchise torch for only so long, as time is a cruel thief. Eventually, the onus falls on someone else.
Looking ahead to the 2014 season, Bucky Brooks has identified the face of each franchise, along with a player waiting in the wings to potentially take up the mantle in the future. Below you'll find analysis for each NFC South team. Click here to access the homepage of this division-by-division series.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan
Upon arriving in Atlanta in 2008, Ryan almost immediately became the unquestioned leader of the Falcons, navigating the franchise through the fallout of the Michael Vick scandal with aplomb. In six seasons with Ryan under center, the Falcons have posted five winning campaigns and reached the playoffs four times, winning division titles in 2010 and '12. Sure, critics can take Ryan to task for the Falcons' 1-4 postseason record under his watch, but the two-time Pro Bowler deserves credit for his overall record of 61-38 as a starter. Factor in his savvy in the clutch (24 game-winning drives and 17 fourth-quarter comebacks), and it's clear "Matty Ice" is on the cusp of joining the ranks of the elite at the quarterback position.
Next in line: Julio Jones. Ryan is firmly entrenched as the Falcons' face of the franchise, but Jones is blossoming into one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL. The fourth-year pro has already earned Pro Bowl recognition on the strength of a sophomore campaign in 2012 that saw him snag 79 balls for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. That season, Jones teamed up with Roddy White to form the NFL's top receiving tandem (they combined for 2,549 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns). Jones was off to a spectacular start last season, racking up 580 yards in five games and surpassing White as the Falcons' most dangerous receiving threat on the perimeter -- but a foot injury sent him to injured reserve in October. If Jones can just shake the injury bug that's plagued him through the years, he will fully showcase the immense talent that strikes fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators around the league.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton
The former No. 1 overall pick certainly has lived up to the hype that preceded his arrival in Carolina. Newton claimed the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year Award following an awe-inspiring debut season that saw him shatter numerous records, including passing yards by a rookie (Cam posted 4,051) and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14). He followed this up with a pair of solid campaigns that showcased his growth as a passer and playmaker from the pocket. Although some have questioned Newton's leadership skills and maturity -- largely due to his flamboyant playing style -- the Panthers' run to the 2013 division title has silenced many critics, including general manager Dave Gettleman. If Newton can continue to refine his game within the pocket while continuing Carolina's winning ways, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner will be entrenched as the team's franchise player for a long time to come.
Next in line: Luke Kuechly. For all the credit Newton receives for the Panthers' resurgence in the NFC, Kuechly's emergence as one of the NFL's most dominant defenders played an enormous role in the team's recent run to the top of the NFC South. After receiving Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, Kuechly took home Defensive Player of the Year in '13, tallying 156 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions. Most crucially, the linebacker was the leader of a Panthers defense that led the NFL in sacks and ranked second in both yards and points allowed. Given the importance of defensive production on championship contenders, Kuechly's rapid development as an elite talent gives him a strong voice in the Panthers' locker room.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees
There is no doubt about Brees' status as the face of the franchise in the Big Easy. The perennial Pro Bowl quarterback has transformed New Orleans into a heavyweight contender in the NFC behind an offense that often appears unstoppable under his direction. He has topped the 5,000-yard mark four times in eight Saints seasons -- including each of the last three -- while guiding the team to an 80-47 regular-season record and snagging the franchise's only Lombardi Trophy. Superb leadership skills have truly endeared him to Who Dat Nation; Brees' presence on the field inspires confidence in his teammates and coaches, which raises the level of play for the Saints in every area. And, of course, Brees is unquestionably the guy the Saints lean on in the clutch.
Next in line: Jimmy Graham. Don't let the ongoing contract dispute between the Saints and Graham diminish the pass-catching tight end's importance to this team. Graham has notched 41 touchdowns in 62 NFL games, leading the team in receptions in each of the past three seasons. With a game built on athleticism and versatility, the former basketball player has developed into a matchup nightmare. Offensive guru Sean Payton has tapped into Graham's unique talents by deploying him as a hybrid wide receiver in spread formations. With few defenders capable of defending him one-on-one, Graham's dominance on the perimeter -- particularly in the red zone -- makes him an essential chess piece for the Saints' dynamic attack.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Gerald McCoy
McCoy quietly has become one of the top interior defenders in the NFL; just ask his peers, who ranked him 28th overall in NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2014." The 2013 First-Team All-Pro honoree certainly deserves the accolades after notching 50 tackles and 9.5 sacks despite consistently facing double-teams on the interior. With new head coach Lovie Smith installing the Tampa 2 scheme that allowed Warren Sapp to set the standard for 3-technique defensive tackles, the NFL world could soon see McCoy become the premier defensive tackle in the league -- and the face of a burgeoning defensive juggernaut.
Next in line: Lavonte David. While McCoy is poised to play Sapp's part in the Bucs' new Tampa 2, David will assume the role of Derrick Brooks. Yes, David was named First-Team All-Pro last season, but few recognize his name and game on the big stage. That might well change in 2014, with the Buccaneers poised to become a legitimate contender in the NFC on the strength of their defense. With a dynamic (and disruptive) game built on instincts, awareness and speed, David should finally get the recognition and respect that he deserves on the national level.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.