Around The League has analyzed the NFL's strongest rosters, as well as winners and losers in freeagency and the 2013 NFL Draft. Beyond those obvious avenues, there's another way for teams to improve: returning to full health. With that in mind, let's examine the teams that stand to benefit the most from players returning after missing significant action in 2012 because of injuries.
Analysis: It's hard to separate Vick's struggles last season from the decimated Eagles offensive line. For half of the season, left guard Evan Mathis was the only healthy starter up front. December was not kind to three of the team's most potent weapons, as McCoy missed three of the five games that month, Vick missed four and Jackson missed all of them.
Analysis: The Cowboys surrendered nearly 30 points per over the final six games of last season, as two of the game's best young linebackers sat out, along with four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ratliff, starting strong safety Church and nickel back Scandrick. Lee will patrol the middle of Monte Kiffin's defense, while Carter is being counted on to fill the old Derrick Brooks role at weak-side linebacker. Both are candidates to earn their first Pro Bowl berths in what should be one of the NFL's most improved defenses.
Analysis: If it seems like the Steelers lose an offensive lineman or their quarterback every time they're on television, you're not alone. The offensive line finally could be a team strength this season with recent early round picks DeCastro, Adams and Gilbert returning to join center Maurkice Pouncey and guard Ramon Foster.
Pittsburgh gets knocked for fielding an aging defense, but the real problem with this strategy is that declining players are more prone to injury. Polamalu says he's in his best shape since his USC days after battling calf injuries the past two seasons. Woodley couldn't get to the quarterback after ankle and hamstring injuries early in the season. He's reportedly re-committed to having a career year. The Steelers need their two most important defenders at full strength to regain control of the AFC North.
Analysis: Orakpo is the Redskins' most valuable defensive player. When he's sidelined, there is no consistent pass rush, leaving an already vulnerable secondary more susceptible to the big play. Similarly, Garcon and Davis are Robert Griffin III's lone consistent big-play threats in the passing game. Without Garcon, in particular, the Redskins are a one-dimensional offense. It's no coincidence that the late-season winning streak occurred once Garcon returned to the lineup.
Green Bay Packers
Analysis: Bishop was one of the lone defensive bright spots two years ago, leading the Packers in tackles despite missing three games. Brad Jones filled in admirably, but neither he nor A.J. Hawk can match Bishop's penchant for big plays. There's enough young talent in the secondary to turn the pass defense around as long as Matthews, Shields and House don't miss long stretches again.
Nelson missed just four games, but the entire second half of his season was basically a wash because of his hamstring, ankle and knee injuries. He'll return as Aaron Rodgers' top vertical threat. The other major injury on offense was to Bulaga, who will guard Rodgers' blind side this season. Marshall Newhouse will switch to the right side, where he's a better fit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Analysis: Joseph and Nicks are two of the best guards in the NFL. The Bucs are counting on Clayborn and Bowers to provide the pass rush this season after losing Michael Bennett in free agency. Tampa Bay also reaps the benefit of Darrelle Revis' presence, though he counts as a trade rather than an injury return because he wasn't on the roster last season.
Analysis: Locker's shoulder was an issue all season after he sustained a separation in the opener. Britt missed just two games, but his knees never were right in 2012. By all accounts, he appears to be back on track this offseason. Throw in major upgrades on the interior of the offensive line, and the Titans should have a more consistent and well-rounded offense. Getting McCarthy back at middle linebacker will help after Tennessee surrendered the most points in the NFL last season.
Analysis: The Texans couldn't recapture their early season defensive dominance once Cushing went down. They surrendered 25-plus points in five of the last 11 games after not allowing it to happen once in the first five. Cushing will be a favorite for NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2013. Tate's return will keep Arian Foster's legs fresh after his per-carry average plummeted to a career-low 4.1 yards last season.
Analysis: The Panthers were lucky to have NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly to plug in at middle linebacker when Beason couldn't return from a knee injury. With Beason and Thomas Davis healthy and two early round picks available to anchor the defensive front, Carolina should have an imposing front seven this season. The return of Kalil and Stewart will enable new coordinator Mike Shula to commit to the run after the ground game failed to find an identity last season.
New York Giants
Analysis: It's not the quantity, it's the quality. Formerly elite players at their respective positions, Nicks and Tuck were liabilities for the majority of last season while battling a steady stream of injuries. Eli never missed a game, but he failed to throw more than one touchdown pass in eight of the final 11 contests amid whispers of a tired arm. Whether it was the upheaval at wide receiver or arm-strength concerns, Eli should bounce back with a strong season in 2013.