Preseason action puts a spotlight on position battles, schematic tweaks and almost everything but the final score, but certain players won't get the attention they're due until the games start counting in the regular season. Whether they're rookies set to be thrown into the fire in Week 1 or veterans with something to prove, these players enter the 2014 season with more than the standard amount of intrigue. Our latest Cover-Two singles out the players from each division our writers can't wait to watch this season.
Why Tannehill? Because I want to know if he's really legit.
When he wasn't getting buried by the lack of protection from his own line last season, the young quarterback definitely took several steps forward in 2013. Tannehill's numbers improved across the board, and he began to show increased effectiveness driving the ball downfield and to the sideline. Miami brought in left tackle Branden Albert and rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James to help keep Tannehill upright and added reliable running back Knowshon Moreno. The arrival of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, Nick Foles' quarterbacks coach last season in Philadelphia, may flip the switch on Tannehill's career.
Doug Farrar: Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
Revis was one of the NFL's best defensive backs -- if not the very best -- before the knee injury that led to the end of his time with the Jets ahead of the 2013 season. With the Buccaneers, Revis was asked to play zone and off-coverage, which is a bit like asking Eddie Van Halen to sit in the back and play a few chords. Now with the Patriots, Revis will be back where he belongs -- playing one side of the field in press-and-trail coverage -- and locking down most of the receivers he faces. Bill Belichick didn't get where he is today by fouling up the strengths of his players, and it will be very interesting to see how Revis bounces back in Belichick's system.
A not-so-well-kept secret: Pierce is about to steal Ray Rice's job. Some of that is of Rice's own doing, with a two-game suspension awaiting him when the regular season begins. But Pierce pushed Rice for playing time in a wholly disappointing Baltimore run game last season, and his running style is better-suited than Rice's for new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme. Add it all up, and Pierce's third NFL season should be his best yet, even if Rice comes back strong in Week 3.
Okay, Mr. Dalton -- you're up. Recently signed to a lucrative contract extension that could pay him as much as $40 million over the next three years, Dalton must now up his game to the next level. To date, he's been a highly productive player benefiting as much from a stout offensive line and great targets as they've benefited from his presence. Now, he must iron out the rough spots -- he's spotty on key downs, his performance under pressure has been mediocre at best and he doesn't see the entire field on a consistent basis. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, an eternally optimistic coach, believes that Dalton is on a path to greatness. The upcoming season will tell a lot.
Wayne, 35, has been one of the more enjoyable receivers to watch for some time now, but an ACL injury robbed him of the majority of his 2013 season and left the Colts thin and scrambling at wide receiver. Wayne's return (along with the signing of Hakeem Nicks, draft selection of Donte Moncrief and continued development of T.Y. Hilton) should have Andrew Luck geared up for 2014. And if Wayne can rediscover any of his pre-injury form, which saw him catch 100-plus passes four times from 2007-12, defenses will have all sorts of issues trying to stop Indianapolis' aerial attack.
Wayne is creeping ever closer to a future spot in the Hall of Fame. Another huge season, with some added team success, might do the trick.
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When the Jaguars selected Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft out of UCF, it was thought that he was a full season away from being ready for the starting job. But the work he's done in the preseason has turned heads all around the NFL -- he's completed 64 percent of his passes, has thrown some great deep balls and looks especially solid when on the move. Some in the Jags' front office now believe that the time for Bortles may be sooner than later, and the tape doesn't lie, at least so far -- there are Roethlisberger-esque aspects to Bortles' play that could put the team in good position for years to come.
Few draft prospects generated the amount of buzz last season that Mack did at Buffalo, as he announced his presence with a huge game against Ohio State and then carried that momentum through April. Without question, he is one of the favorites for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award this season. Last month, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie even went so far as to compare him to four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews Jr.
"He's one of those guys that knows how to set the edge, and he has length and power and some tools to rush the passer," McKenzie said, via the San Francisco Chronicle. "He's got that first step, he can bend, he's relentless."
After they were gobsmacked in the Super Bowl by Seattle's hyper-aggressive defense, the Broncos went to work on their own defensive unit by signing free agents Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware and selecting Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of the draft. But the acquisition that could pay the biggest dividends is the signing of former Browns safety Ward, one of the hardest-hitting players in the league. Ward can cover fairly well, but his primary attribute is his ability to lean up in the box and punish slot and slant receivers. He'll bring a toughness to Denver's defense that the Broncos haven't seen since the days of Dennis Smith and Steve Atwater.
I have admitted this before and likely will again: Sproles is one of my favorite players to watch in the NFL. Something about the way he jitterbugs his 5-foot-6 frame around the field with such ease gives off the quality of a video game come to life. And the things he does best -- namely, catching the ball in space out of the backfield -- will make him an invaluable weapon for Chip Kelly. Following a relatively sluggish 2013, Sproles has the potential in this Philadelphia offense to top 1,000 yards from scrimmage for just the second time in his career.
It's easy to see why the Redskins were eager to take Jackson in after Chip Kelly decided he'd worn out his welcome in Philadelphia -- Washington's Pierre Garcon led the NFL with 181 targets in 2013, and it was clear that the Redskins needed more targets in their passing game. Jackson brings a dangerous deep threat to his new team -- in 2013, he led the league with 16 receptions on passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, and his eight touchdowns on such passes tied Cincinnati's A.J. Green for the league lead. Robert Griffin III has a rare ability to hit downfield targets, and the Griffin-Jackson connection could light up the division.
Suh is a three-time Pro Bowler, two-time All-Pro and, despite his reputation for being ornery, without question one of the best defensive tackles in football. So what might we see from him in a contract year? The answer is anyone's guess, but the specter of impending free agency has a habit of bringing out the absolute best in players. Should Suh tap into his full potential for the entirety of the 2014 season, teams will be lining up to throw offers at him next offseason, if the Lions really do let him test the market.
Patterson was one of Minnesota's three first-round picks in 2013, and of those three players, he made the biggest difference on the field. He was selected to the Pro Bowl, but as a return man instead of a receiver. It took a while for the Tennessee alum to get the hang of Bill Musgrave's offense, so he caught just 13 passes in the first two months of his rookie season, and just 32 thereafter. With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner in charge, Patterson has the potential to be a rare weapon in Minnesota's vertical passing attack, which will be based on heavy play action. Such schemes could create one-on-one matchups for Patterson, who's as fast and agile as any receiver in the league.
Maybe not the most exciting player on this list. Matthews, though, stayed cemented atop most draft boards throughout his final season at Texas A&M and now has inherited the Falcons' starting left tackle spot with Sam Baker downed by a knee injury. The Atlanta O-line was a mess in 2013, one of myriad problems that led to a 4-12 finish. While Matthews alone will not turn the team's fortunes around, he might be about to embark on a long and storied career protecting Ryan's blind side.
Farrar: Alterraun Verner, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Selected in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, Verner was a decent player in his first three seasons, but he went off -- at least from a statistical perspective -- in 2013, allowing a 55.8 opposing quarterback rating and just two touchdowns with five interceptions. Now that he's on Lovie Smith's defense, Verner could be even better, because Smith understands how to play to the strengths of his defensive backs, and Verner can play press and off-coverage. Can he be a point man in a Bucs defense that looks very much improved? We can only wait and see.
We are all aware of what Harvin can do. We're just not sure for how long he can do it.
The electrifying receiver/kick returner/running back/whatever-else-you-need has offered mere glimpses of his abilities over the past two seasons -- he played nine games in his final Vikings season, then caught one pass during the 2013 regular season before suiting up in the divisional round (and leaving with an injury) and Super Bowl. The marriage of Harvin's all-around game with Seattle's offense remains a tantalizing one. Hopefully, Harvin can provide more than the occasional teaser this year.
Harvin suffered a hip injury in training camp last year, leaving him with just a handful of snaps in the regular season. The Seahawks had to wait until the Super Bowl to see the kind of difference he could really make -- and then, he rocked Denver's defense and special teams with quick returns and killer placement plays. If he's in this offense for a full season, Harvin will be a great target on quick passes (he's a yards-after-catch machine) and in pre-snap motion to open up Seattle's already-dominant run game.