Danny Amendola, Alex Smith among AFC players on the spot


With training camps opening across the NFL this week, players are beginning the final push for the 2013 campaign. While everyone is under the microscope at the dawn of a new season, some guys demand more attention than others. Below, you'll find one on-the-spot player listed for each AFC team. (Check out the NFC representatives here.) Whether they're rookies or 10-year veterans, each of the following individuals has something to prove in 2013:

Baltimore Ravens: Matt Elam, strong safety

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It's not often that a rookie is asked to immediately replace a likely Hall of Famer, but that is the case with Elam in Baltimore. Following in Ed Reed's footsteps, the former Florida standout will be expected to deliver big hits and timely playmaking from the deep middle while also acting as a leader in the back end. Although he'll surely experience some growing pains, Elam has to play like a veteran for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Buffalo Bills: Marcell Dareus, defensive tackle

As great defenses are strong down the middle, it's imperative for Dareus to emerge as a disruptive force if the Bills are to make a run in the AFC East. The third-year pro has shown flashes of dominance, but his play has been marred by inconsistent technique and effort. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is determined to get his young star going by using every motivational tactic in the book, including the removal of Dareus from the starting lineup -- though that move is viewed as a temporary measure. How Dareus responds to challenges presented by the defensive coaching staff will have a significant impact on this team's fortunes in 2013.

Cincinnati Bengals: Andy Dalton, quarterback

Cincy boasts a talent-laden roster with a host of dynamic weapons on the offensive side of the ball, but Dalton hasn't shown he can take the unit to the next level in the postseason. With the Bengals viewed as legitimate contenders in the AFC, Dalton must make that leap -- or the team could be looking for a new franchise quarterback in a deep and talented 2014 draft class.

Cleveland Browns: Leon McFadden, cornerback

New defensive coordinator Ray Horton wants to dial up the blitz early and often, but a barrage of pressure will routinely leave Browns cornerbacks in isolated coverage. Joe Haden certainly has the skills to thrive in the aggressive scheme, but leaving an unproven first-year player alone in coverage is a boom-or-bust proposition for Cleveland.

Denver Broncos: Shaun Phillips, defensive end/outside linebacker

Phillips is an accomplished pass rusher with a glossy résumé, but he encounters the daunting task of replacing the departed Elvis Dumervil, who notched 37.5 sacks over the past three seasons with the Broncos. Most importantly, Phillips must play the role of reliable sidekick to Von Miller to ensure the Pro Bowler doesn't face constant double-teams in pass protection. (And with Miller suddenly facing the potential of a four-game suspension, Phillips' role looms even larger.) If the veteran lives up to the hype, the Broncos' defense should remain among the NFL's elite.

Houston Texans: Matt Schaub, quarterback

Schaub has quietly emerged as one of the NFL's most efficient regular-season quarterbacks, but questions persist about his ability to lead the Texans to the Super Bowl, based on his penchant for shrinking in big games. Of course, some would suggest his numbers will never reflect his true impact in the Texans' run-based offense, but there is little doubt that he must grow from game manager to playmaker for Houston to make a legitimate run at the Lombardi Trophy.

Indianapolis Colts: Robert Mathis, outside linebacker

Mathis has totaled 91.5 sacks in 10 NFL seasons, but skeptics wonder if the four-time Pro Bowler can enjoy the same success without longtime Colt Dwight Freeney, who signed with the San Diego Chargers this offseason, attracting attention on the opposite side of the field. Although Mathis has been one of the premier sack artist in the NFL over the past decade, the burden of single-handedly anchoring the Colts' pass rush could overwhelm the veteran in 2013.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blaine Gabbert, quarterback

It's now or never for Gabbert in Jacksonville. The third-year pro has been a major disappointment since his arrival as the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, posting an abysmal passer rating of 70.2 and a 21:17 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Factor in his 5-19 career record -- as well as the arrival of a new regime headed by general manager David Caldwell -- and the pressure is on Gabbert to prove his worth as the Jaguars' franchise quarterback.

Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith, quarterback

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The Chiefs made a huge offseason gamble, handing the offensive keys to the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft. Smith is coming off a two-year run in which he compiled a 19-5-1 record, but he did fail miserably during his first five seasons in the NFL before connecting with Niners coaches Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. As a result, there are several concerns about Smith's ability to sustain his success, despite Andy Reid's reputation for maximizing the skills of his quarterbacks. Given a talented supporting cast and a coach adept at building an offense around the strengths of his triggerman, Smith must continue to play like an all-star to reverse Kansas City's recent fortunes.

Miami Dolphins: Mike Wallace, wide receiver

Entering this offseason, the Dolphins desperately needed a legitimate big-play threat on the perimeter to bolster an offense that lacked firepower. Wallace has been one of the most explosive playmakers in the NFL over the past four seasons, logging 32 touchdowns while averaging a whopping 17.2 yards per catch. The fifth-year pro will be expected to post similar numbers in Miami while also evolving into a No. 1 receiver capable of thriving as a short, intermediate and deep threat.

New England Patriots: Danny Amendola, wide receiver

Amendola already was facing a tremendous challenge in replacing Wes Welker in the slot, but the loss of Aaron Hernandez and questionable status of Rob Gronkowski could make this newbie the No. 1 option in the Patriots' passing game. That's a lot to expect of someone who has averaged just 8.8 yards per catch and scored seven touchdowns in 42 career games.

New York Jets: Antonio Cromartie, cornerback

Rex Ryan repeatedly pegged Darrelle Revis as the top corner in pro football, yet the Jets traded the premier cover man in the offseason for draft picks. The move elevates Cromartie to the No. 1 position, which assigns him to the opponent's top receiver. Although the veteran excelled as the designated eraser after Revis went down early in 2012, Cromartie has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career; many wonder if he can continue to play at an All-Pro level going forward. How well he responds to this challenge could determine Ryan's fate as the leader of Gang Green.

Oakland Raiders: Darren McFadden, running back

"Run DMC" is easily the Raiders' biggest offensive threat as a speed back with explosive burst, but injuries have limited his availability and impact. McFadden, who has missed 23 games in his five-year career, has yet to eclipse 13 contests in a season. While coach Dennis Allen is optimistic and hopeful that McFadden's durability woes are behind him, the jury is still out as to whether McFadden can carry the load as the team's workhorse runner.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Le'Veon Bell, running back

Mike Tomlin is committed to returning the Steelers to their power football roots, which would alleviate the pressure on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Bell is the key to that transformation; his rugged running style is ideally suited for grinding between the tackles. Factor in his underrated receiving skills, and Bell has the potential to emerge as Big Ben's most valuable cohort by season's end. Bell's development will play a major role in the Steelers' attempt to climb back to the top of the AFC.

San Diego Chargers: D.J. Fluker, offensive tackle

San Diego's offense must improve following a dismal 2012 season in which the Chargers finished 31st in total offense, and the pressure is on a rebuilt offensive line. The unit must keep Philip Rivers upright in the pocket, which is why Fluker must hit the ground running as a starting edge protector. Whether that means handling speed rushers off the edge or pummeling power players, Fluker will be counted on to perform like a seasoned veteran as a first-year starter. Fair or not, that's the expectation. Fluker must play at that level for the Chargers to be a threat in the AFC West.

Tennessee Titans: Kenny Britt, wide receiver

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There's no doubt that Britt is talented enough to be considered an elite receiver, but injuries and off-the-field distractions have prevented him from playing to that level consistently. In fact, Britt's inconsistencies have prompted the Titans to spend high picks on wideouts in each of the past two drafts (Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter). To retain his spot as the Titans' No. 1 receiver, Britt must step up his game and perform like the all-star many expect him to be, based on his immense talent and potential.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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