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.
When the Bills lavished Williams with a six-year, $100 million contract as the marquee free agent of the 2012 class, the skeptics wondered if the three-time Pro Bowl selection would be able to take the team to another level. Although the Bills' disappointing win total hasn't matched Williams' disruptive impact, his production (23.5 sacks, seven passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries) and performance since joining Buffalo two seasons ago certainly makes him the team's biggest difference-maker on either side of the ball. With the Bills poised to make a major move in 2014, the rest of the NFL world might soon remember how dominant Williams can be off the edge.
The Bills made one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 NFL Draft when they selected Manuel with the No. 16 overall pick. While most viewed the selection with skepticism, the second-year signal-caller showed flashes of being a franchise-caliber player in limited action during his debut season. The Bills have certainly positioned their young quarterback for success by surrounding him with a talented cast of playmakers, including Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. If Manuel avoids injury and continues to advance his game in his sophomore campaign, he could help the Bills finally end the 14-year playoff drought that's haunted the franchise.
When the Dolphins plucked the two-time CFL Defensive Player of the Year from north of the border, few observers expected him to blossom into a Pro Bowl-caliber defender. Yet, Wake has not only become one of the best players at his position, but he has also been one of the most dominant defenders in the game. He plays at a frenetic pace and intensity that overwhelms opponents over the course of 60 minutes. Additionally, Wake delivers the kind of disruptive production that elicits respect from his teammates and peers. If Wake can convince his teammates to follow his lead, this could be the year that Miami whisks the AFC East crown to South Beach.
Joe Philbin handpicked Tannehill in 2012 to be his franchise quarterback, despite the signal-caller starting just 19 games at Texas A&M. Thus, it's not a surprise that it has taken him a while to become comfortable as the leader of the offense. Entering his third season as the starter, Tannehill must take his game to the next level. Although he has gradually improved his accuracy and efficiency from the pocket, Tannehill needs to deliver more "explosive" plays to ensure the Dolphins keep pace with the AFC's high-octane offenses. If he can make strides in this area, Tannehill could enter the conversation as one of the young gunners set to take over the league.
The NFL's Lord of the Rings is the unquestioned leader of the franchise. Brady has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments in the past 13 seasons, winning three Super Bowl rings and a pair of NFL MVP awards. Additionally, Brady has won more than 77 percent of his regular-season starts and helped the Patriots keep a vice grip on the AFC East since taking over in 2001. Given his résumé, production and competitive leadership, there is no question about his status as "the man" in New England.
Gronkowski's party boy reputation and goofy antics occasionally garner national headlines, but it's his spectacular game that makes NFL defensive coordinators cringe when they study the Patriots' offense. The fifth-year veteran is a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, particularly in the red zone -- where his superior size and strength overwhelm smallish defensive backs. Additionally, Gronkowski's knack for creating separation from linebackers and safeties on seam routes has made him Brady's top target in critical situations. Although Gronkowski's latest injury (torn ACL) threatens to keep him off the field early in the season, there's no doubt his presence energizes the unit and leads to better offensive production. Simply put: Gronkowski is the Patriots' most important player not named Tom Brady.
For a Rex Ryan squad, the defense will always set the tone for the team. Wilkerson has quickly developed into one of the league's premier interior defenders, exhibiting a combination of size, strength and athleticism that makes him impossible to handle at the point of attack. In fact, Wilkerson's dominance on the field prompted his peers to place him at No. 42 on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2014." Given his respected status around the league, it's easy to see how the All-Pro has quietly become the face of the Jets' menacing defense -- a unit that single-handedly kept the team in playoff contention last season.
Some would argue that Geno Smith or Michael Vick should be in the conversation as the leader of the team, but Richardson's disruptive style has endeared him to his teammates and peers. The 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year finished the season with 3.5 sacks and 78 tackles, third-most in the NFL among defensive linemen. With Richardson also chipping in a pair of rushing scores to complement his disruptive defensive production, the feisty playmaker displays the kind of athleticism and versatility that could turn him into a household name around the league. If he builds on his spectacular debut performance and becomes a more vocal leader, Richardson and Muhammad will soon share the marquee as the Jets' premier players.