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The Schein Nine

Darrelle Revis, Joe Flacco among most fascinating players in '14

There's no shortage of noteworthy players in the NFL, but looking ahead to the 2014 campaign, who are the most interesting individuals across the league landscape? Who provides the most riveting storylines? Who captivates the football-thinking mind? Who is, quite simply, fascinating?

I'm glad you asked.

Here are nine highly intriguing figures to follow in the coming season:

1) Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots

When he's healthy, Revis is the best corner in the game -- plain and simple. But the Patriots' biggest offseason addition hasn't enjoyed a full season at full strength since 2011.

In 2012, he tore his ACL in Week 2, an injury that preceded a nasty contractual impasse between Revis and the New York Jets in the following offseason. Eventually, general manager John Idzik traded Revis to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who promptly provided the corner with a $96 million mega-deal. Despite making his fifth Pro Bowl, Revis clearly was not 100 percent last year. Following the season, Tampa Bay fired Greg Schiano and brought in Lovie Smith. The new coach, clearly opposed to committing that kind of money to one cornerback, proceeded to jettison Revis from the roster. And given Lovie's system -- the Tampa 2, which typically deploys cornerbacks in zone schemes -- the move made sense.

Predictably, the great Bill Belichick, who is very tight with Schiano and had just lost Aqib Talib to free agency, jumped at the chance to sign the former nemesis. Belichick knows how fantastic Revis can be.

If Revis reclaims elite status, it changes everything at the back end of the New England defense. This would allow the savvy Belichick to be creative and innovative with defensive schemes, and consequently, allow the Pats to win more games and (again) compete for the AFC title.

Revis Island hasn't truly been open over the past two years -- the cornerback has to be motivated to re-establish himself as the best of the best. And the Patriots need him to do just that in the hunt for a fourth Lombardi Trophy. I'm riveted.

2) Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Will the real Joe Flacco please stand up?

Last offseason, the Ravens quarterback got *paid* -- and he deserved every penny after brilliantly guiding Baltimore to the franchise's second Super Bowl title, posting an 11-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the 2012 postseason.

Last season, though, was a disappointment.

In Flacco's defense, there were extenuating circumstances. Anquan Boldin, who provided a beastly effort of his own in the 2012 postseason, was traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Dennis Pitta, the quarterback's security blanket, was injured and missed the first 12 games of the season. Ray Rice struggled, Bernard Pierce never got started and the offensive line was just plain poor. The 2013 Ravens just couldn't form an identity on offense. In a related story, the 2013 Ravens missed the playoffs.

Fortunately, Pitta is now healthy and expressing his intention for a "breakout year." And Baltimore wisely scooped up veteran wideout Steve Smith.

Last season was a honeymoon campaign for Flacco. 2014? Buckle up!

3) Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After a thunderous rookie season, Martin's sophomore season was curtailed by a shoulder injury. Even before the injury, during the first six weeks of the season, the running back's production was down, thanks in part to subpar line play.

Well, Tampa infused that line with some new faces this offseason -- most notably, tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith -- and Martin has a clean bill of health.

I love watching Martin plow through the opposition, and love hearing Smith refer to him as his "bell cow." Tampa has playoff potential and I'm captivated by Martin's role in the cause.

4) Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants

Eli Manning threw 27 picks last year -- five more than anyone else in football -- and posted a ghastly 69.4 passer rating. It was the worst full season of his career (not counting an abbreviated rookie campaign).

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Being fair, the line was awful. (Are we sensing a trend in this piece? Yes, O-line play is kind of important.) The running backs were injured and didn't help. Hakeem Nicks wasn't himself (again). And the Giants apparently had a tight end named Brandon Myers, though he was akin to Big Foot -- you heard rumors, but never saw him.

Still, there's no avoiding that Eli just didn't deliver the goods in 2013. After the season, the Giants smartly went outside of Eli's comfort zone and plucked the young, savvy Ben McAdoo from the Mike McCarthy tree to be the new offensive coordinator. In free agency and the draft, Big Blue added talent at receiver, running back and along the line.

Is Eli shot? Was last year a fluke? Will he take to McAdoo's teaching? Is he healthy after offseason surgery? Will the Giants bounce back?

I'm engrossed by this plot line.

5) Eric Fisher, LT, Kansas City Chiefs

No, really: I am fascinated by Eric Fisher.

Branden Albert isn't walking through that door; he took his talents to South Beach. Thus, Fisher is tasked with taking over the blind side.

In last year's draft, Fisher was the No. 1 overall pick by default. Some wonder if he would've even been one of the top three or four offensive linemen in the 2014 draft, let alone the top pick. He doesn't project to be Jonathan Ogden.

But he had better be solid.

The Chiefs really need him to be a consistent rock. I'll be paying close attention to Fisher's progress ... while stacking up his play against Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan and Zack Martin -- the top four OTs off the board in May's draft.

6) EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills

Earlier this month, I wrote a column on why the Bills are on the cusp of breaking their lengthy playoff drought. I think Manuel can be their quarterback and leader. But he needs to prove it and play at a high level for a full season.

Buffalo surprised many by taking EJ Manuel with the 16th overall pick of the 2013 draft. Now the second-year man needs to validate the move, with so much hanging in the balance for this franchise. Doug Marrone's Bills appear ready to answer the bell, but is EJ?

7) Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals

"Honey Badger" was enjoying a stellar debut season -- establishing himself as a viable Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate -- before tearing up his knee in December. General manager Steve Keim said on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that he wouldn't rule out a return for Week 1. Head coach Bruce Arians, on the other hand, is thinking more along the lines of October 1. Either way, Arizona needs the young defender's ball-hawking and play-making skills.

After a tumultuous run at LSU, Mathieu has quickly become a leader in Arizona, on and off the field. I was awe-struck by his rookie showing and can't wait to see him hit the field again.

8) Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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Greg Jennings says Patterson will be featured by new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, which supports what Adrian Peterson expressed on my radio show a few weeks back. And it makes complete sense. Patterson can fly. He oozes talent.

Turner's offense revolves around exploiting vertical threats like this guy, and Matt Cassel has the arm to make it happen. I think Patterson will put together quite a highlight reel this fall.

9) Michael Sam, DE, St. Louis Rams

If he makes the Rams, Sam will be the first openly gay player to hit the NFL gridiron. Yes, this is bigger than sports, and I'm happy to share my personal feelings on the matter: I hope Sam makes the team and plays well as a situational pass rusher.

I believe both will happen.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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