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 home page of this division-by-division series.
Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning
When John Elway and John Fox convinced Manning to join the Broncos shortly after his release from the Colts, the five-time league MVP immediately became the face of the franchise. As one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, Manning brought instant credibility to the Broncos' offense. The veteran passer has completed more than 68 percent of his passes since joining Denver, while posting a 92:21 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Most important, Manning has guided the Broncos to a Super Bowl appearance and helped the team reign supreme over the AFC. Now that the defense has been restocked with legitimate playmakers, the Broncos will continue to be a title contender during the Manning era.
Next in line: Von Miller
There's no two ways about it: Miller had a disappointing 2013 season. He was suspended for the first six games, was involved in an off-field issue and then suffered a season-ending injury. Still, Miller remains one of the most talented players on the Broncos' roster. The 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year has tallied 35 sacks in 40 career games, exhibiting exceptional speed, quickness and disruptiveness off the edge. Sure, some will question Miller's readiness to assume a bigger leadership role based on his missteps, but his spectacular production and performance carries significant weight in the locker room. If he can display the work ethic and maturity to match his extraordinary talent, Miller will become the unquestioned leader of the Broncos when Manning departs in a few seasons.
Kansas City Chiefs: Eric Berry
The quarterback typically represents the face of the franchise, but the Chiefs rely on their defensive "quarterback" to spearhead their squad on game days. Berry is a hybrid safety capable of defending receivers and tight ends in space, while also acting as the enforcer against the run. Most important, he is a proven playmaker with a penchant for taking his game up a notch in critical situations. Given Berry's status as a perennial Pro Bowl selection and his presence as a dynamic leader, there's little wonder why his teammates turn to him when the game is on the line.
Next in line: Justin Houston
For all of the attention Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Dontari Poe received for sparking the Chiefs' return to prominence, it is the emergence of Houston as a premier pass rusher that has scouts and coaches around the league taking notice. The fourth-year pro is a disruptive force off the edge, with 26.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in 43 career games. He overwhelms opponents with his combination of speed, quickness and burst yet also displays the strength and power to outmuscle blockers at the point of attack. Although Houston's domination has flown under the radar, his performance and production have him poised to become a household name in 2014.
Oakland Raiders: Charles Woodson
The leader of the Raiders' secondary represents the bridge to the future for the franchise. One of Al Davis' all-time favorite draft picks, Woodson remains a productive player heading into his 17th season in the league. The wily veteran consistently uses his guile and instincts to deliver game-changing plays, leading young players to admire his preparedness and intuition. In addition, Woodson has captured every significant individual honor (seven-time All-Pro, 2009 Defensive Player of the Year and 1998 Defensive Rookie of the Year), which makes him an ideal role model for a team in search of leadership.
Next in line: Derek Carr
Matt Schaub is in line to be the Raiders' starting quarterback in Week 1, but the clock is already ticking on his tenure. Carr is viewed as the future at the position, and he has all of the tools to be a difference-maker down the road. In fact, there are some observers who believe that Carr could wrestle the job away from Schaub over the summer with a strong camp performance. Given the need for the Raiders to identify a long-term solution at quarterback, it's only a matter of time before Carr becomes the unquestioned leader in Oakland.
San Diego Chargers: Philip Rivers
Rivers' country-boy swagger turns off opposing fans, but it certainly breathes life into the Bolts when the game is on the line. That was evident in 2013, when Rivers engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks and helped the Chargers derail at top speed in the postseason. There is little doubt in the locker room that Rivers remains a clutch performer -- even if critics regularly point to his 4-5 playoff record to suggest otherwise. With the Chargers pegged as a dark-horse contender heading into 2014, Rivers will have another opportunity to show the NFL world that he is worthy of being in the discussion as one of the league's elite quarterbacks.
Next in line: Keenan Allen
There are plenty of evaluators who regret passing up Allen in the 2013 NFL Draft after the big-bodied playmaker ripped up the league as Rivers' No. 1 receiver. The third-round pick snagged 71 balls for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns, displaying a crafty style that made him a nightmare to guard in one-on-one matchups. Allen quickly emerged as the focal point of the passing game, replacing Antonio Gates as the Chargers' primary option on critical situations. If the second-year pro continues to prove that he can come through in the clutch, he will soon join Rivers as one of the Chargers' marquee players.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.