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 NFC South team. Click here to access the home page of this division-by-division series.
After ripping up the NFL with six 1,000-yard seasons in his first eight years in the league, Fitzgerald's numbers fell off in 2012 when the Cardinals cycled through quarterbacks. The eight-time Pro Bowler improved last season with Carson Palmer under center, but still couldn't crack the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight year. Although the stats might suggest Fitzgerald's game is on the decline, Cardinals officials remain convinced he is a No. 1 receiver with the skills to carry the passing game. Additionally, Fitzgerald is the consummate leader, displaying a tireless work ethic and setting a terrific example for his teammates. Given the Cardinals' re-emergence as a playoff contender in the NFC, Fitzgerald's leadership might be more valuable than his production at this point.
The Cardinals' shutdown corner is pushing for recognition as the No. 1 cover corner in the NFL after snagging 12 picks during his first three seasons. Peterson exhibits tremendous ball skills and instincts, blanketing the opponent's top receiver each week. In fact, Peterson's exceptional athleticism prompted the team to use him as a designated playmaker on offense and in the return game to take advantage of his extraordinary running skills in the open field. Although the Cardinals plan to reduce his role as a gadget player in 2014, Peterson will continue to shadow the opponent's top pass catcher, allowing the team to be more aggressive with its exotic blitz tactics. If Peterson can continue to thrive as the Cardinals' defensive eraser, he could surpass Joe Haden, Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis as the top dog at the position.
The critics might question whether Kaepernick is truly a franchise quarterback after the 49ers lavished him with a blockbuster contract in June, but his stellar résumé already includes appearances in one Super Bowl and two NFC Championship Games. Sure, skeptics point to the 49ers' stout defense and powerful running game as key factors behind the team's success, but don't discount Kap's role; without his dynamic talents as a dual threat playmaker, the offense would lack the sizzle to compete against the league's heavyweights. The fourth-year pro has compiled a 31:11 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past two seasons, while also rushing for 939 yards during that span. In addition, Kaepernick has guided the team to a 21-8 overall record as a starter and shown a diverse skill set that's adaptable to any game situation. With the 49ers looking to open up the playbook to take advantage of a talented receiving corps, the rest of the NFL might develop a greater appreciation for Kaepernick's talents as a franchise player.
The 49ers' ascension to the top of the NFC has been fueled by stellar play from their suffocating defense. Willis has been the centerpiece of that unit for the past seven seasons, and he remains its leader based on his consistent performance and menacing presence between the hashes. Willis has finished with 100-plus tackles six times, while also delivering 20.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles and seven interceptions in his career as the monster in the middle. Although the team has seemingly turned over the controls to Kaepernick as the face of the franchise, the wily veteran remains the focal point of a hard-hitting defense that keeps the 49ers in title contention.
Sherman's bluster and ultra-competitive personality might turn off some observers, but the fourth-year pro has quickly become one of the most disruptive defenders in the NFL. Sherman led the league with eight interceptions in 2013 and has snagged 20 picks in three seasons. Those are remarkable numbers for a bump-and-run corner playing with little safety help over the top. Sure, there have been detractors, including Patrick Peterson, who have questioned whether Sherman is truly a premier cover corner, but it's hard to dispute his production and the respect opponents show him by avoiding targets on his side. With that in mind, it's apparent that Sherman and the "Legion of Boom" embody the culture Pete Carroll has created in the Pacific Northwest.
Wilson's numbers aren't on par with some of his peers, but there is no doubt about his status as the Seahawks' franchise quarterback after guiding the team to a title in his second season. The diminutive playmaker sports an impressive career record as a starter (24-8) and has already claimed four playoff wins in five tries. Although his critics point out that he has just two 300-yard games in his career, the Seahawks are built to win on the strength of their defense and punishing running game. Thus, Wilson's superb game management skills and leadership ability outweigh his statistical output in the Seahawks' game plan. Given Wilson's success and overall performance, the Seahawks have the right leader in place to keep the team in the title hunt for the next few seasons.
Robert Quinn might be the better player, but Long still represents the "heart and soul" of the Rams' defense. He energizes the unit with his relentless effort and energy, and still makes enough disruptive plays to earn the respect of his peers as a "baller." Long has recorded at least 10 sacks in three of the last four seasons and has grown into his role as the team's leader. With the St. Louis still trying to find its way in the ultra-competitive NFC West, Long's leadership and playmaking will be essential to the team's success in 2014.
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It took Quinn a little while to adjust to the pro game after sitting out his final season at North Carolina, but he has grown into one of the NFL's most feared defenders. The fourth-year pro, who was the runner up for the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award, impressed coaches and scouts around the league last season with his combination of speed and athleticism off the edge. Additionally, Quinn's uncanny ability to pry the ball loose with a crafty tomahawk chop on sacks -- of which he had 19 last year -- resulted in seven forced fumbles. While it's unrealistic to expect Quinn to duplicate those numbers in 2014, it's certainly possible that he continues to produce disruptive plays that help the Rams become legitimate playoff contenders.