One important note: These are not players we believe should be writing down "Acquire real estate license" as a New Year's resolution in a few months. Rather, these are guys we believe could hit a valley in 2014. In most cases, there will be every opportunity to bounce back. In most cases.
- -- Gregg Rosenthal*
There was a time when Fitzgerald was the greatest wide receiver on the planet. Who could forget the 2008 postseason, when Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner nearly willed the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl title? Fitzgerald is no longer the same dominant playmaker, and the emergence of Michael Floyd threatens to relegate Fitzgerald to second banana status.
On the plus side, Fitzgerald has the potential to be football's tastiest second banana. The best-case scenario has Fitzgerald's post-age 30 career evoking comparisons to Reggie Wayne, who adapted to his game with age and found extended success playing under -- wait for it -- Bruce Arians. This is a time of transition for Fitzgerald, and his numbers may reflect that.
- -- Dan Hanzus*
It's hard to imagine he'll see the ball enough to repeat his 1,277 yards from scrimmage from a year ago. C.J. Spiller is going to be the Bills' lead back, and the team traded for Bryce Brown with the intent to give him work. Jackson has been one of the most underrated players in the league since 2007, but he's likely to transition into being a role player.
- -- GR *
Gates' name no longer comes up when discussing the best tight ends in football. Age and foot problems have robbed the Chargers stalwart of his old explosion, but he remained a productive player last season and deserves credit for modifying his game as his skills have deteriorated.
We're on board with colleague Chris Wesseling, who placed Gates in the middle of his "solid starter" tier in our preseason positional rankings. We're not convinced Gates remains in that category by this time next year, however. Ladarius Green is ready to make the leap, which represents bad news for Gates' long-term prospects. A 50/600/4 slash line in 2014 could be generous.
- -- DH *
As a huge Newton fan and believer, this season sets up as worrisome. The weapons around Newton are miserable; the Panthers have the worst wide receiving crew in the league, even if rookie Kelvin Benjamin is effective. The offensive line lost two effective starters in Travelle Wharton and Jordan Gross. The Panthers are counting on their defense and running game to carry them, but it's hard to imagine the defense playing better in a division where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons should improve.
In short: We expect Newton to do his part. He's a young, improving franchise quarterback. But he's probably going to get blamed when the team around him sags.
- -- GR*
We understand the logic behind the Broncos' decision to shell out $20 million guaranteed to land Ware in free agency. Denver is football's ultimate now team, and the thought of a defense with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware firing off the edges was too tempting to pass up. That said, Ware finished with just six sacks last season and missed the first three games of the season. Red flags.
Nagging injuries are now to be expected, and there isn't a deep history of great pass-rushers raising their game as they get deeper into their 30s (Ware turns 32 on July 31). Can Ware still be an above-average pass-rusher? Probably, but the days of him flirting with the sack record might be over.
- -- DH *
- -- GR*
Foster is the last of a dying breed, a true workhorse back in an age of time shares and committees. Unfortunately, that workload -- which included an NFL-high 1,115 touches between 2010 and 2012 -- may have played a role in a truncated 2013 season that ended with back surgery.
It appears as if Houston still intends to lean on Foster as a 350-plus touch back, especially with Ryan Fitzpatrick prominently involved. The logic makes sense, but you wonder if Foster's body is still sound enough to take that kind of pounding. It would behoove the Texans to keep Andre Brown in the mix. If not, Foster is a candidate for a breakdown.
- -- DH *