by Robert Ferringo - 08/22/2005
Of course quarterbacks and running backs get all the attention. They score touchdowns, they sell Chunky Soup, and they get to bang the homecoming queen. They're the ones with the big contracts and the guys who can be rewarded with either too much blame or too much credit.
Then there are the dozens of free agents that meander into your team's locker room each year. One team's trash is another team's treasure kind of deal. These hired guns are generally heralded as the Missing Link, and you know you're guilty of over-hyping some journeyman nickel back or offensive tackle to your wife or co-workers.
Then there are the rookies. The quick fix. The hotshots. They are the future and the present. Every team is hoping that they scored not only that first-round blue chipper, but that late-round gem that can turn a team from wannabe to world champs quicker than you can say "signing bonus".
This season in the NFL there are a slew of guys whose performances will have a direct connection to their team's win-loss records. It will be very interesting to see how guys like Kurt Warner (Arizona), J.P. Losman (Buffalo), Deshaun Foster (Carolina), Randy Moss (Oakland) and Mike Williams (Detroit) will perform. Very interesting indeed.
That being said, right now I have no interest in any of those subcategories of players. I'll leave the big-name free agents, cocky rookies and pretty-boy quarterbacks to be talked about by the gossip mongers and bobble heads.
Instead, I've compiled a list of players who might make for exciting talk at the water cooler but will play a crucial role in determining the course of their team's franchise in 2005. Some are names you know, some are names you may have heard in passing. In my estimation these guys represent the types of storylines - veterans holding on to that last chance, disappointing draft picks seeking salvation, unheralded role players trying to break into the big time - that make the NFL worth watching.
Ryan Sims, DT, Kansas City
Remember back in 2002 when the debate between which North Carolina defender - Sims or Julius Peppers - should be taken first nearly reached Manning-Leaf proportions? Well, their NFL careers have almost been as lopsided. Sims is in his contract year, and is the most naturally gifted player on a defensive line that has been a sieve for the last four seasons. The Chiefs will feature as many as five new starters on defense, including two new linebackers and two new bodies in the secondary. But if Sims can't hold down the point of attack (only 30 tackles and two sacks in 2004) those guys will be getting a lot of work.
Darrell Jackson, WR, Seattle
Dropped passes grounded the Seahawks last season, and Jackson was as guilty as anyone. Koren Robinson is in rehab and no longer with the team, leaving Jackson as the true No. 1 guy in the Seattle passing game. Jackson had 87 catches for 1,199 and seven touchdowns last season. That's not enough. Jackson will need to not only achieve those numbers again, but set an example by holding onto just about anything he gets his hands on and making clutch catches that keep the sticks moving.
Nate Kaeding, K, San Diego
Kaeding, the cherub-faced kicker for the Chargers, was a revelation as a rookie in 2004. Kaeding was 54 of 55 making extra points, and 20-for-25 with field goals. However, he was also responsible for missing the kick that more or less ended his team's season. He shanked a 40-yarder in overtime in a first-round playoff loss at home to the Jets. That's forgivable, but Kaeding missed his first three kicks off the preseason. Those three kicks were between 40-46 yards and in a steady rain, but if there's one thing a kicker can't have, it's wavering confidence.
Seth Payne, NT, Houston
People are expecting big things out of the Texans this season. If that's going to happen, the defense needs to perform better than its 23rd overall ranking in 2004. Payne will be a huge part of that. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound nose tackle is the fulcrum in the Texans 3-4 system. With young linebackers behind him, Payne needs to cause some havoc up front to take some pressure off guys like Jason Babin. Payne has had injury problems in the past, but the ninth-year man out of Cornell impressed Houston brass enough to warrant them resigning him in the offseason.
John Tait, LT, Chicago
Tait was the Bears prized free agent signing in 2003, inking a $33.65 million deal. Tait, who was part of those dominating Kansas City lines a few years ago, was solid at right tackle for Chicago last season. However, the Bears yielded a league-high 66 sacks which prompted Tait to approach coach Lovie Smith and offer to switch to the critical left tackle position. Well, with Rex Grossman out for the year Tait's importance becomes even greater. If the Bears are going to win with Chad Hutchinson he's going to need plenty of time to survey the field.
DeAngelo Hall, CB, Atlanta
The electrifying Hall suffered a hard-luck hip injury last year that caused him to miss six games. He came back for the end of the season and the playoffs and performed admirably, intercepting two passes and scoring one touchdown. Atlanta had the 23rd-ranked pass defense in the league last season, and didn't make any noticeable upgrades. In a division with Joe Horn, Steve Smith and up-and-coming Mark Clayton, the Falcons are hoping that Hall can be the shutdown corner that their defense has been missing.
Chad Brown/Monty Beisel, LB, New England
Its got to be pretty tough to come in as a low-key free agent and find yourself filling in for the heart-and-soul of the two-time defending Super Bowl Champions. Well, with Tedy Bruschi sidelined as a result of his offseason stroke and tough-as-nails Ted Johnson retired, that's precisely where Brown and Beisel find themselves. To make matters worse, Mike Vrabel suffered a lower leg injury and has been sidelined for the Pats. Beisel came over from Kansas City and their pathetic defense, and Chad Brown is hoping to recapture a bit of the nastiness that he exuded throughout the mid-90's. However, they're replacing two New England legends and better come out of the corner swinging.
Jimmy Smith, WR, Jacksonville
The 36-year-old Smith is hoping that he can keep the magic going for one more season. Smith showed no signs of slowing in 2004, finishing with 74 catches for 1,172 yards and six touchdowns. He is the only proven wide receiver that the Jaguars have and one of the few guys that quarterback Byron Leftwich trusts in the clutch. The Jaguars defense is going to be one of the best in the AFC this season. But the question mark is whether or not this team can put up enough points to earn a playoff berth. The only way that happens is if Smith stays healthy and tutors some of the Jags young receivers.
Jonathan Ogden, LT, Baltimore
The guy is an eight-time Pro Bowler and potentially a Hall of Famer. However, he looked as if injuries and age may have robbed him of a step last season. The Ravens restocked their offense at the skill positions this offseason, and Todd Heap, Jamal Lewis, Derrick Mason and rookie Mark Clayton are ready to put up some points. However, center Casey Rabach and left guard Bennie Anderson both split this summer, and temperamental Orlando Brown declined sharply in 2004. If the Ravens are going to make another push for the AFC crown, they're going to need Ogden to anchor that offensive line.
Roy Williams, SS, Dallas
Last season the Cowboys yielded 31 passing touchdowns, fourth-worst in the league. They addressed that problem by signing Anthony Henry from Cleveland this offseason. With Henry and Terrance Newman holding down the outside, Williams should be free to roam the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc in the way that he did in 2003. Williams is at his best when he's delivering vicious hits on running backs and receivers coming across the middle, or flying through the line on a safety blitz. With Dallas switching to the 3-4, and time running out on the Tuna, Williams need a big year.