One of the most memorable periods of last season was when I was dispatched to Cincinnati, and later suburban New Orleans, to report on the unfortunate death of Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry. It was indescribably sad and moving because you saw the life supersede the game and young and old people left in the wake trying to cope.
Amid this, Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, like Henry, from Louisiana, stood up as the team spokesman and the guy a lot of players -- and non-players -- looked to for guidance. I just can't forget how this guy, who I only knew in pads and in the middle of a pile, appeared as such a beacon. He really made me take notice of him in a lot of ways, even to where I watched him more closely on the football field.
Five flying under the radar
I should have been paying close attention sooner. He was, after all, the player in training camp that coach Marvin Lewis deemed the starting left tackle, squashing all projections that No. 6 overall draft pick Andre Smith would assume the spot as a rookie last season. I saw Whitworth, who moved to left tackle from guard, emerge as a player my colleague Gil Brandt and I felt might have been one of the most overlooked in the NFL.
Brandt has more football knowledge in his shirt pocket than I'll ever have, so when he spoke highly of Whitworth, I knew my perceptions didn't seem preposterous.
"I've played with a chip on my shoulder," Whitworth told me this week. "I'm educated enough to read about players around the league and knew people said I was a guy who couldn't play tackle in the NFL. If I could, I'd have to play right tackle. I've had a chip to show I can play left tackle in the NFL and play it really well. I have an even bigger chip on my shoulder this season."
According to Whitworth, so do the rest of the Bengals, who seem to be getting overlooked as a serious threat to emerge among the top teams in the AFC.
"We've all jelled together to where we are a team," the five-year veteran said. "Last year, we loved football -- every guy. I started some things with the older guys after games. Win or lose, we'd have dinner together (in Cincinnati). We really became a football team. The coolest thing for me going into this season is not one person mentioned what we did last year. We swept our division and no one has mentioned it.
And with that, besides the Bengals, let's look at some other teams and players who could threaten the establishment:
While the Vikings and Packers look like the top two teams in the NFC North, the Bears could throw a wrench into things. Defensive end Julius Peppers is a dominant player against the run and pass. Since he is capable of playing on either side, he could be put in favorable matchups. If middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is healthy, the defense should be better, even though the secondary has to improve. Quarterback Jay Cutler can't make as many mistakes as he did last season, but if he improves in the red zone, the offense could take a significant step. The early schedule is unforgiving (at Cowboys, vs. Packers and at Giants in Week 2-4); however, the Bears could make up ground in October and early November.
On the uptick: Left tackle Chris Williams played well after being moved from the right side last season. A lot will be asked of him in Mike Martz's system, but he seems to have gained the confidence and experience to anchor the line.
The offensive line, even without longtime center Kevin Mawae, is good enough to make the offense one of the most dangerous units in the game. Running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Vince Young need to build on their fusion from last season. Questions at cornerback (opposite Cortland Finnegan), linebacker and defensive end (rookie Derrick Morgan needs to develop quickly) could be problematic. However, with three of their four games at home, all of which are winnable, the Titans can generate momentum and enough confidence with new players to pave the way to a playoff berth.
Besides the switch to quarterback Matt Leinart, the losses on defense of defensive back Antrel Rolle and linebackers Bertrand Berry and Karlos Dansby seemingly have knocked the back-to-back NFC West champs down a peg or two. As odd as it sounds, losing Anquan Boldin might not hurt as much if Steve Breaston and Early Doucet continue to step up. Defensively, Arizona's front, spearheaded by defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, is going to have to cover for possible holes at linebacker and in the secondary. There will be more attention on the running game, a shift coach Ken Whisenhunt has been moving towards. We should know what Leinart is made of after Week 5, when, after playing three road games, he faces the Saints, who he completed seven of 10 passes against in relief of a concussed Kurt Warner in last season's 45-14 divisional-round loss.
On the uptick:Calais Campbell is an emerging star as a 3-4 end. His role is to make things happen for others, but he had seven sacks and five passes defensed last season to go with 48 tackles. He could just be scratching the surface, too.
My colleague, Michael Lombardi, is really in love with the Dolphins. I don't know if I am feeling them as much as he is, but I like their discipline and physicality. Adding Brandon Marshall should prove to make a huge difference because he is happy and motivated. Regardless of his behavior in Denver, he is a rare, special talent. The defense is why the Dolphins could be right there with the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East. Rookie defensive tackle Jared Odrick could turn out to be one of the better defensive linemen in the division because of his versatility. I also believe the Dolphins could generate 30-plus turnovers with new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in charge. Denver copped 30 turnovers last season and Nolan might have more potential playmakers in Miami.
On the uptick: Cornerback Vontae Davis had four interceptions as a rookie. With his size and athleticism, he could be used more in blitz packages to help generate more turnovers. Davis might have more this season because Nolan will do more with the front seven to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.