Jordy Nelson, DeMarco Murray among NFC players on the spot


Who's on the spot in 2013? On Monday, I identified one player on each AFC team. Now it's time to spotlight the NFC representatives. Some are green, some are seasoned vets, but all of the players listed below head into the 2013 campaign facing a great deal of pressure to perform.

Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer, quarterback

After struggling through a miserable three-year stretch with scattershot quarterback play, the Cardinals made a bold offseason move in trading for Palmer. While some view the acquisition as a major coup that could fuel a playoff run, the former No. 1 overall pick hasn't played at an elite level since the 2006 season. There are serious questions about what he can still accomplish at this stage of his career. (Can he be anything more than a game manager?) Regardless, the Cardinals definitely view his arrival as an upgrade. But in the ultra-competitive NFC West, that might not be enough to stimulate a playoff run.

Atlanta Falcons: Osi Umenyiora, defensive end

The Falcons are counting on the 11th-year pro to spark an anemic pass rush, but it is hard to imagine Umenyiora providing a bigger impact than the departed John Abraham. Although the veteran has totaled 75 career sacks over nine seasons*, including 26.5 since 2010, those numbers pale in comparison to the outstanding production of his predecessor; Abraham racked up 122 sacks in 13 seasons, including 32.5 sacks over the past three. Without another established pass-rushing threat on the defensive line, the Falcons need Umenyiora to take his game up a notch.

* Umenyiora missed the entire 2008 campaign after suffering a preseason knee injury.

Carolina Panthers: Jonathan Stewart, running back

Cam Newton has been the Panthers' most dangerous rushing threat over the past two seasons, but coach Ron Rivera wants the team to return to a traditional ground game fueled by running backs. That puts the onus on Stewart and DeAngelo Williams to carry the load in a power-based running scheme that punishes opponents between the tackles. Given Stewart's physicality and toughness, he's the ideal runner to handle the bulk of the burden -- if he can avoid the injury bug that plagued him in 2012.

Chicago Bears: D.J. Williams, middle linebacker

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The middle linebacker spot in Chicago is typically reserved for Hall of Fame-caliber players. While Williams has been a solid player throughout his career, he will be hard-pressed to match the production and playmaking ability of the recently retired Brian Urlacher. Additionally, he must fend off a challenge from rookie Jon Bostic, who brings an old-school game and a nastier disposition to the field.

Dallas Cowboys: DeMarco Murray, running back

With the endless criticism of coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo, people forget how vital the running game is to Dallas' success, especially when Murray is running well. The team sports an 8-0 record when Murray finishes with at least 20 carries. A balanced offensive attack alleviates the pressure on Romo to carry the Cowboys on the strength of his right arm. Unfortunately, Dallas' workhorse runner has been plagued by an assortment of injuries throughout his young career, leading him to miss nine games over two seasons. Given the impact Murray's availability has on the Cowboys' fortunes, there is little doubt the team's offensive hopes hinge on his presence on the field.

Detroit Lions: Nick Fairley, defensive tackle

Fairley spent the offseason making bold proclamations about the Lions' potential and crowned the defensive tackle tandem of himself and Ndamukong Suh as the NFL's best. The bodacious claims heap pressure on the shoulders of a third-year pro who has teased team officials with flashes of dominance but has yet to maintain consistency. With head coach Jim Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew under the gun to win in 2013, it's time for Fairley to put up or shut up in Motown.

Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson, wide receiver

The losses of Greg Jennings and Donald Driver make Nelson the No. 1 option in the passing game. The sixth-year pro displayed big-time ability in 2011, when he totaled 1,263 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, but he found it difficult to duplicate those numbers when opponents shifted coverage in his direction a season ago. However, a year of experience dealing with the pressure of being the go-to guy should help Nelson re-emerge in 2013.

Minnesota Vikings: Christian Ponder, quarterback

Despite quarterbacking the Vikings to a surprising playoff appearance, Ponder enters the season under the microscope due to his inconsistent play under center. While Ponder completed 62.1 percent of his passes and put up a respectable 18:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2012, the Vikings' over-reliance on Adrian Peterson kept them from legitimately contending in the NFC. For Minnesota to take the next step, Ponder must become an effective playmaker in the passing game, capable of winning games on the strength of his right arm. With a few new weapons on the perimeter (Greg Jennings and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson), Ponder must step up his game this season.

New Orleans Saints: Martez Wilson, outside linebacker

The Saints are shifting to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan, making the outside linebackers the focal point of the pass rush. With Victor Butler sidelined by a torn ACL, Wilson will be relied on to deliver big results as a hybrid playmaker on the edge. The third-year pro flashed playmaking ability last season, collecting three sacks in limited action, and his combination of size and speed could make him a disruptive force in a blitz-happy scheme. Of course, Wilson hasn't been named the official starter at outside linebacker, but the Saints undoubtedly are counting on him to make a significant contribution as a pass rusher off the edge.

New York Giants: David Wilson, running back

Wilson might've ranked as the Giants' most explosive playmaker in his rookie campaign, based on his remarkable production as a returner/change-of-pace back. The second-year pro averaged 26.9 yards per kick return while also producing five runs of 20-plus yards on just 71 rushing attempts. That's the kind of production that prompted Big Blue to move on from Ahmad Bradshaw, despite Bradshaw's consistency, toughness and physicality as a feature back. Although Wilson clearly has flashed potential as a runner, the jury is still out on whether he can handle a heavy workload without wearing down prior to season's end.

Philadelphia Eagles: DeSean Jackson, wide receiver

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The Eagles reluctantly paid Jackson handsomely to serve as the team's No. 1 receiver in 2012, but the mercurial playmaker was a relative non-factor. He failed to top the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season and produced just nine receptions of at least 20 yards (after averaging 17.8 receptions of 20-plus yards during his first four NFL seasons). With Chip Kelly installing a fast-paced offense designed to produce big plays on the perimeter, Jackson must rediscover his playmaking ways to help Philadelphia return to relevance in the NFC East.

San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis, tight end

Injuries suffered by Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham leave the 49ers with an unproven receiving corps outside of Anquan Boldin. While second-year man A.J. Jenkins and rookie Quinton Patton might emerge as legitimate contributors, Davis' explosiveness and versatility could make him the focal point of the passing game. The 49ers have flirted with a variety of formations and passing concepts designed to make it easier to get Davis the ball, from lining him up as a traditional tight end to splitting him out wide as a quasi-receiver. If masterful game planning can help the former Pro Bowler thrive as the No. 1 option with Colin Kaepernick under center, the 49ers' offense won't skip a beat.

Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch, running back

Despite all of the attention Russell Wilson has received for sparking the Seahawks' resurgence, there is no doubt that Lynch remains the most important offensive player in the lineup. The seventh-year pro has averaged 1,397 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in his two full seasons with Seattle, setting the tone for the offense with his toughness and physicality as a runner. Most importantly, Lynch commands the attention of opposing defenses, alleviating the pressure on Wilson in the pocket. Although Wilson appears ready to take on the challenge of playing as a franchise quarterback, the presence of a steady and dependable Lynch will definitely make life easier for the young star.

St. Louis Rams: Tavon Austin, wide receiver

As the eighth overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, Austin is expected to energize the Rams' offense with his explosive speed and burst. Team officials are counting on him to fill Danny Amendola's role as a slot receiver, giving Sam Bradford a dynamic playmaker to target between the hashes. Of course, NFL history suggests it is hard for a receiver to make an immediate impact as a rookie, particularly a diminutive one listed at 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds. While there are exceptions to every rule, the odds seemingly are stacked against Austin thriving as a No. 1 receiver in Year 1.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Da'Quan Bowers, defensive end

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The Buccaneers have completely revamped the secondary to shore up a defense that ranked dead last against the pass in 2012. However, the lack of a consistent pass rush also played a role in these struggles. The Bucs didn't add an impact rusher in the offseason and let defensive end Michael Bennett walk in free agency, making it apparent that the franchise is confident in Bowers' ongoing development. Although the third-year pro has displayed raw talent and potential during his brief career, the Buccaneers need him to develop into a dominant playmaker off the edge. How close Bowers comes to achieving that goal will have a significant impact on the defense's success (or lack thereof).

Washington Redskins: Pierre Garcon, wide receiver

The Redskins' offense was one of the most explosive units in the NFL when Garcon was on the field. In his first year with Washington, Garcon made an immediate impact as a No. 1 receiver, notching 10 receptions of 20-plus yards (including a pair of grabs that covered at least 40 yards) in just 10 games. But that last note is instructive: A series of nagging injuries (shoulder and foot) kept him from contributing over key stretches and required offseason medical attention. Garcon received a clean bill of health heading into training camp, and the Redskins need their top receiving threat on the field for the team to go from good to great in 2013.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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