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 AFC North team. Click here to access the homepage of this division-by-division series.
The Ravens have been defined by their defense for years, so it's fitting for the face of the franchise to be a hard-nosed linebacker with a dynamic game and personality. With Ray Lewis walking off into the sunset following the Super Bowl triumph of two seasons ago, Suggs has assumed the role. The 12th-year pro is the team's all-time leader in sacks (94.5) and forced fumbles (27), with an NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award (2011) under his belt, to boot. Most importantly, though, Suggs is still a difference maker. While his 2012 season was marred (and seriously abbreviated) by an offseason Achilles injury, Suggs bounced back with another double-digit-sack season in 2013. Thus, he remains the face of the Ravens.
Next in line: Joe Flacco. Discussed at times as the Ravens' franchise player, the Super Bowl XLVII MVP certainly flourished in the 2012 postseason -- but he has yet to prove himself as an elite quarterback who consistently delivers the goods. Although the seventh-year pro is sitting on a $120.6 million contract that suggests he is a rare find at the position, Flacco's fresh off a season in which he recorded a career high in interceptions (22) and a career low in quarterback rating (73.1). Oh, and the Ravens finished 29th in total offense. With a new offensive coordinator (Gary Kubiak) building the offense around Flacco's impressive arm talent, this could be the year he takes that next step -- as a player and a leader -- in Baltimore.
The Bengals have made three straight playoff appearances with Andy Dalton under center, but everyone in the NFL knows Cincy's offense revolves around Green. With extraordinary ball skills and hands, as well as three Pro Bowl nominations in three NFL seasons, Green is clearly one of the most talented pass catchers in the league. He is a dominant No. 1 receiver capable of taking over the game at any time, which allows the rest of his teammates (including Dalton) to thrive in their respective jobs. This is a quarterback-obsessed league, and Dalton drives a lot of discussion -- with much of it, of late, focusing on his uncertain financial future -- but Green is the most transcendent figure on this offense.
Next in line: Vontaze Burfict. Granted, Burfict might continue to be "next in line" for the foreseeable future, as Green's still just 25 years old. But Cincy's other emerging young face merits your attention, too. Credit coach Marvin Lewis and his staff for having the guts to take a chance on Burfict, the linebacker who went undrafted in 2012 due to character concerns that arose during a roller-coaster ride at Arizona State. The third-year pro has been an exceptional addition to the Bengals, exhibiting tremendous leadership skills and playmaking ability while establishing himself as a menacing presence in the middle. Those traits not only embody the preferred mentality of the Bengals' defense, but they're part of the large-scale mental makeover that has helped this team become a legitimate contender in the AFC.
Haden quietly has become one of the top cover corners in the NFL, exhibiting outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills. The former No. 7 overall pick embraces his role as the Browns' defensive leader and has stepped up his presence at the front of the room. Given the lack of consistency and continuity throughout the program, Haden's excellent play and authority make him an ideal representative for a team in desperate need of an identity. But of course, a certain rookie is suddenly garnering a bit of attention ...
Next in line: Johnny Manziel. Like it or not, Manziel took center stage in Cleveland the moment the Browns traded up to select him with the 22nd overall pick. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner is a rock star with an electric game that energizes everyone on the field. Additionally, his improvisational wizardry could make him a nightmare to defend as a pro. Manziel, though, has yet to take an NFL snap and will need some time to adjust to the pro game. But his playing style, personality and enthusiasm already have Cleveland buzzing about the possibilities. And if his exhilarating approach does indeed translate to Sunday success, it won't be long before the quarterback's wielding the franchise torch all by himself.
Whenever a quarterback leads a team to three Super Bowl appearances -- including a pair of victories -- he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the league's true franchise players. Roethlisberger has keyed much of Pittsburgh's success during his decade with the team. Over the last few years, he carried an offense that struggled along the line and lacked a consistent running threat (until Le'Veon Bell began to produce as a rookie last season). Additionally, Roethlisberger has been a clutch performer in big situations, posting 32 game-winning drives and 23 fourth-quarter comebacks in 10 seasons. Roethlisberger's ability to provide poise when the Steelers need it most only confirms his status as The Man in The 'Burgh.
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Next in line: Ryan Shazier. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has a knack for transforming instinctive, athletic players into monsters on the gridiron. He helped veteran safety Troy Polamalu become a force of nature through clever deployment within the Steelers' aggressive scheme. Shazier could be the next star in this system. The rookie linebacker provides a versatile game that allows him to play anywhere along the second level, as a pass rusher or cover guy. Given Shazier's ability to blitz from a variety of spots, it's easy to imagine the Ohio State product becoming a splash-play machine -- and household name -- early in his career.