You can feel it. You can taste it. Training camp is right around the corner.
To help whet the appetite, let's take a look at the most important player for each team in the NFL. We'll start with the AFC today and hit the NFC on Friday.
Now, this isn't intended to be a simple presentation of the best player on each roster. (In many cases, that would be obvious.) We are diving deeper. We're identifying the guy who needs to achieve -- and overachieve -- for the team to reach its potential.
It's a new era for the Baltimore defense. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed aren't walking through that door. Key Super Bowl contributors Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams left for big paydays. Dumervil has a knack for getting to the quarterback. He left Denver after a fax snafu abruptly made him a free agent. There will be big pressure to deliver. I bet he will.
After signing a megabucks free-agent deal in Buffalo, Williams suffered through a mess of year in 2012. He wasn't 100 percent healthy. He didn't earn his money. And he had a nasty and dramatic separation from his fiancée that played out in the public domain and stirred up questions about his focus.
Now, Buffalo has a new head coach, Doug Marrone, who smartly tabbed Mike Pettine to run his defense. If the Bills are going to make a push, if the defensive line is going to live up to its potential as one of the league's best units, Williams must not only sack the quarterback at a rapid rate, but he needs to hurry the QB, deflect passes, cause fumbles and make splash plays.
We listed Geno Atkins as the most indispensable defensive player in the NFL. For the Bengals to take a step forward, Dalton needs to be better in big spots and in the playoffs. (I penned a column last month on this exact topic.) Cincy could be a sleeper Super Bowl team ... or miss the playoffs altogether. It's all about Dalton. Count me as a skeptic.
This could be an example of a collision between the "best" and "most important" designations. I think Haden is a budding star. He has something to prove after getting suspended last year for violating the league's policy on banned substances. Cleveland's offense could be flat-out offensive. But with new defensive coordinator Ray Horton at the helm, the D might be better than you think. Haden needs to be the anchor. And he will be.
With Wes Welker aboard and Peyton Manning in top form, the Broncos have the look of a juggernaut, Bucky Brooks writes. **More ...**
Peyton Manning needs balance. Willis McGahee was shown the door. I never liked last year's third-round selection of Ronnie Hillman. I don't think John Fox is buying Knowshon Moreno -- and he shouldn't. I love Ball's upside, but he better grasp Manning's ways quickly as a rookie.
I called Brian Cushing the second-most indispensable defender in the NFL, and he just got a clean bill of health. Great news for the Texans; it changes everything on defense.
In theory, I could go outside the box and talk about the lack of talented depth at receiver, and whether or not it will cost Houston. But in reality, it's all about Johnson. Do you realize he is 32 years old?!?! Houston has Super Bowl potential. Johnson can't be nicked up. Johnson needs to perform, regardless of who lines up at receiver on the opposite side. He needs to be the all-world Andre Johnson -- not the guy who logged just four touchdown grabs last year.
He's been an underrated player for a while. Bethea is a very good defensive back, and like most of his teammates, he's entering a second year in Chuck Pagano's defense. Bethea boasts significant playmaking skills, but his importance extends to the leadership realm, too.
I spent some quality time with MJD at the SiriusXM Fantasy Football Draft on Wednesday. He looks healthy and expects to be cleared for training camp. That's huge for the Jaguars. Jones-Drew is a stud. His holdout and injury derailed last season. New Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch runs the offense MJD ran at UCLA. He is going to pile up a ton of carries and catches in his contract year. And with the Jags' quarterback situation being bleak, MJD is everything.
If I told you a year ago that Eric Fisher was going to be the top overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, you would've laughed very hard. Well, he earned it. Now, Fisher joins a line that struggled mightily last season. The great Andy Reid assumed coaching duties for the Chiefs, and Fisher was his first pick. In Reid's first bold move, he wisely traded for quarterback Alex Smith. Fisher must step in and be an anchor right away, fair or unfair.
Last week, I listed Ryan Tannehill as one of the NFL's nine most fascinating players in 2013. I think he will be fine. But either way, Miami needs to run the ball with authority. They let Reggie Bush scoot away via free agency. Miami coach Joe Philbin is high on Miller, and for good reason. To give Tannehill balance (and the Miami defense a blow), Miller needs to carry the mail.
Tom Brady will be Tom Brady, even without four of his top five pass catchers from last season. But New England must be well-rounded to make a playoff run. Jones started his rookie season flying -- quickly becoming a true candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year -- but injuries limited him to six sacks in 13 starts. The Pats need him to be the monster he is capable of being.
Holmes likes to talk about "Tone Time," but the receiver has resembled a broken watch of late. After signing a huge deal, Holmes has been injured and/or a malcontent over the last two years. The Jets are paper thin. Mark Sanchez zaps hope. But in fairness, Sanchez (and/or Geno Smith) needs help at receiver. Holmes must get healthy and contribute like a No. 1 receiver. If he doesn't, the Jets' passing attack won't have any sizzle.
When healthy, he's a star. But there's a problem: He's never healthy. McFadden is in a contract year. A few months ago, I said it was time for Oakland to part ways with the running back. Problem is, the Raiders' talent pool is shallow. McFadden is a game changer when, you know, he's in the game. That's kind of a big deal.
Remember him? It feels like it has been a while since we've seen the dominant, playmaking safety we came to love. Polamalu played in just seven games last year for Pittsburgh. He's on the downside of his career at age 32. Pittsburgh has holes, but Polamalu could cover them if he went back to picking off passes, forcing fumbles and issuing bone-crushing hits. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening in 2013.
Frankly, the last two years have been a brutal turnover fest. Injuries at receiver, running back and offensive line -- as well as uninspiring coaching -- didn't help.
Norv Turner and A.J. Smith are out. It's all on Rivers' shoulders now. New head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt have arrived to help. Rivers has no more excuses. The last few years have been a far cry from the days when he was discussed in the same breath as 2004 draft classmates Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.
No, really: Andy Levitre. Tennessee backed up the Brink's truck and paid Levitre a ton of cash in response to the bad line play in 2012. (Not to mention, another subpar season from Chris Johnson, and the running back's ensuing public undressing of the offensive line.) Levitre is good. Rookie Chance Warmack can be special. These guys have to produce -- like, now -- for Tennessee to win and to save Mike Munchak's job.
If Levitre can't perform, Johnson can't run. If Johnson can't get back to form, it falls on Jake Locker. And if it falls on Jake Locker ...
(I take this opportunity to remind you, for the third straight week, that the Titans are my sleeper drama team in the NFL this year. I can't wait to watch it all play out.)