Football is the ultimate team sport, there’s no question about that. But every NFL team has at least one player the front office and coaching staff are biting their collective nails about as Week 1 approaches, knowing that player’s performance will tell the tale of the season.
Here’s a look at each of those nerve-racking players heading into 2016 (and no, we didn’t include quarterbacks—that’s too obvious):
Buffalo Bills: Corey Graham, FS. There is no more crucial position in Rex Ryan’s defense than the free safety, who is the nerve center for all communication and checks. Graham had his share of issues last season after converting from cornerback. Communication was a big issue for the defense last season, Ryan’s first in Buffalo, and that has to become a strength for the unit to take the next step.
Miami Dolphins: Xavien Howard, CB. The entire cornerback position is a huge question mark for the Dolphins from No. 1 cover man Byron Maxwell to sixth-round pick Jordan Lucas. Walt Aikens has shown some ability in the slot, but it appears that Howard, a second-round pick out of Baylor, is going to get the No. 2 spot. Howard is really raw, and he missed a large portion of training camp due to off-season knee surgery. Nothing like baptism by fire.
New England Patriots: Nate Solder, LT. With new starters at three of the other five line positions, the Patriots could really use a strong, mistake-free season from Solder. Three years ago he looked like a franchise left tackle, then he survived testicular cancer in 2014 and was put on injured reserve after four games last year. Solder had a really shaky preseason.
New York Jets: Darrelle Revis, CB. In his return to New York last season, Revis appeared to be basking in the glow of his Super Bowl with the Patriots. He was no longer Revis Island, as receivers such as DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins had their way with the now 10-year veteran. For the Jets to make a run at the Patriots, the 31-year-old has to be closer to his old shutdown self.
Baltimore Ravens: Terrell Suggs, OLB. Once Suggs went down in the season opener with an Achilles tear, the Ravens’ defense had a tough time getting much pressure on the quarterback last year. Can he make the difference at 33 coming off major surgery? Baltimore is counting on it.
Cincinnati Bengals: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB. After the Bengals waited patiently for their 2012 first-round pick to develop, Kirkpatrick got his chance to start last season, and while it wasn’t an abject failure, it wasn’t good. With this defense getting older up front, the secondary is going to need to be better this season and that starts with Kirkpatrick.
Cleveland Browns: Cameron Erving, C. The Moneyball Browns didn’t attempt to retain veteran center Alex Mack, who was one of the best in the game at the position. Now the job falls to Erving, the team’s first-round pick in 2015, and so far he’s been mediocre at best. Nothing ruins an offense like a terrible center, the team can’t run the ball or pass block as a result. If Erving isn’t adequate, the Browns will be atrocious on offense.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarvis Jones, OLB. With Bud Dupree out for at least eight weeks (IR), Jones figures to get the first shot at right outside linebacker, and the pass rush–challenged Steelers could use anything from Jones, the 2013 first-round bust who didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up. Jones flashed in the postseason last season, so there’s hope.
Houston Texans: Will Fuller, WR. Listed as a starter opposite DeAndre Hopkins, the first-round pick needs to make an instant impact in a scheme that is difficult for rookies because of pre- and post-snap route adjustments. Houston jettisoned valuable veteran Cecil Shorts and others because it thinks Fuller and fellow rookie Braxton Miller can do the job. They better, or this offense will continue to sputter, even with a host of new players.
Indianapolis Colts: T.J. Green, S. The Colts have no choice but to start the raw second-round pick until starter Clayton Geathers (foot) returns to the lineup, and no one is sure when that will happen. Green is known as a good tackler in the run game, but his coverage is very suspect. Considering the Colts still have zero pass rush, that could be a huge problem.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Dante Fowler, Jr., DE. The team has waited a long time for the 2015 No. 3 pick to make an impact, and if the Jaguars are to become a serious playoff contender, Fowler will need to be a terror coming off the ACL surgery.
Tennessee Titans: Rashad Johnson, FS. You wouldn’t know it, but the Titans are quietly solid in the front seven and at cornerback when healthy. But in Dick LeBeau’s scheme, the free safety is an important element as the last line of defense, and is often put in compromising positions by opposing offenses. Johnson was O.K. with the Cardinals, but he had fallen out of favor and wasn’t re-signed in the off-season. If he isn’t better with Tennessee, there will be a big hole in the middle of the defense.
Denver Broncos: Jared Crick, DE. The former Houston Texan gets the call to help replace Malik Jackson, who dominated in the postseason. Crick was not good his final two seasons in Houston (he does not hold the point of attack well), but there’s optimism that he’ll be better under his former position coach, Bill Kollar, and in a scheme that better fits his style of play.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford, OLB. With Justin Houston on the PUP list after off-season ACL surgery (there’s a chance he might not be effective even once he’s back this season), the Chiefs’ defense might not be as formidable unless Ford produces on the left side. Ford, a first-round pick in 2014, doesn’t have to replace Houston, but he needs to be better than he’s shown, or else it becomes a lot easier to handle Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson.
Oakland Raiders: Ben Heeney, ILB. Not sure if I’ve ever heard of an every-down middle linebacker that is 6 feet and 230 pounds, but Heeney will attempt to be that for the Raiders. He’s a sideline-to-sideline type and flashed in the second half last year, but if Heeney doesn’t hold up or do the job, I don’t care what Khalil Mack does, it’s going to be another long season on defense in Oakland.
San Diego Chargers: Joey Bosa, DE. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you are drafted, if you miss that much of training camp in a contract squabble, you better come in and produce. The Chargers desperately need him.
Dallas Cowboys: Morris Claiborne, CB. Mostly a bust to this point, the No. 6 pick in 2012 looked like a different player this preseason. If that continues (and he’s had flashes of success, like against Odell Beckham Jr. last season), the Cowboys will be much better on defense. And they need to be.
New York Giants: Nat Berhe, S. It looked like third-round pick Darian Thompson was going to be the starter next to Landon Collins, but a shoulder injury to the rookie opened the door for the ’14 fifth-round pick, and Berhe hasn’t let go of the job. The Giants have the makings of a great defensive line, and the cornerbacks look promising. The safeties played well in the preseason, but the regular season is a different beast.
Philadelphia Eagles: Leodis McKelvin, CB. With C.J. Smith waived and Eric Rowe traded, the Eagles are relying on the former Bill to lock down the spot opposite Nolan Carroll, with only veteran Ron Brooks and seventh-round pick Jalen Mills in reserve. Considering some of the receiving firepower in the division, good luck to McKelvin, who was nothing more than middling in Buffalo.
Washington Redskins: Preston Smith, OLB. With eight sacks in limited time last year as a rookie, Smith showed a lot of potential to be an impactful every-down player, and he’ll get that chance this season. Smith has the prototypical size and speed to become a very good pass rusher.
Chicago Bears: Kevin White, WR. The seventh pick in 2015 missed his entire rookie season after leg surgery, and Alshon Jeffrey could really use a running mate or he’s going to be double-teamed all the time. White needs to show more than he did in the preseason. A lot more.
Detroit Lions: Marvin Jones, WR. He was given a $40 million contract to help replace the retired Calvin Johnson. No pressure at all. If he doesn’t produce, the Lions are going to wonder what they’re paying for.
Green Bay Packers: Blake Martinez, ILB. The Packers have been a revolving door of mediocrity at inside linebacker for years, to the point that they had to move Clay Matthews inside from his preferred outside spot to stop the bleeding. Now the Packers are counting on a fourth-round pick to be an immediate starter and play every down. The spotlight is on.
Minnesota Vikings: Terence Newman, CB. After Teddy Bridgewater’s injury, the Vikings are going to need their defense to be even better to make the postseason. It’s still up in the air if Newman or Trae Waynes will start opposite Xavier Rhodes, but the Vikings have to get Newman to play like he’s 28, not his actual age of 38.
Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones, MLB. The Falcons will dive into the pool with two rookies, Jones (second round) and De’Vondre Campbell (fourth), starting at middle and weakside linebacker, respectively. More will be expected of Jones, the small but very fast linebacker tasked with patrolling the middle. He’s got great potential—the only question is how long it takes him to reach it.
Carolina Panthers: James Bradberry, CB. The Panthers could end up starting two rookies (Daryl Worley) at cornerback to begin the post-Josh Norman era, but Bradberry, the second-round pick, is almost certain to get one of the nods. With the firepower in this division, Bradberry will have to acclimate himself quickly.
New Orleans Saints: Paul Kruger, DE. The Saints are so bad at rushing the passer that they quickly signed Kruger after his surprise release by the Browns and are inserting him right into the starting lineup. Not optimal.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Donovan Smith, LT. The 2015 second-round pick played like a rookie last season: some good moments, some moments where he looked overwhelmed. If Jameis Winston and the offense is to take the next step this season, Smith needs to be much more consistent. The preseason wasn’t promising.
Arizona Cardinals: A.Q. Shipley, C. When you have a 36-year-old pocket quarterback, defenses know the best way to pressure him is up the middle. While the rest of the Arizona line looks stout, Shipley is a career journeyman who has yet to prove he can be an every-game starter. The Cardinals are placing a lot of faith that Shipley can be that now.
Los Angeles Rams: Maurice Alexander, S. The Rams let Rodney McLeod walk in free agency, and Alexander won the job to replace him. He’s a hard hitter and received valuable experience at the end of last season. Considering the goals of this defense, Alexander will need to be very good for the unit to be great.
San Francisco 49ers: Vance McDonald, TE. The 49ers have been waiting for McDonald to fulfill his promise as an athletic pass-catching tight end, but the 2013 second-round pick has taken his time. The 49ers can’t wait anymore. McDonald has to be good for this offense to have a chance.
Seattle Seahawks: Bradley Sowell, LT. You could actually put the entire offensive line in that spot because yeesh, it looks awful on paper. Sowell, the former Cardinals backup, gets the start at left tackle, and if this unit is to function early in the season, it’s going to need man the blind side of Russell Wilson to not be a sieve.
Week 1 matchup to watch
Patriots LT Nate Solder vs. Cardinals OLB Chandler Jones: Welcome to Outside Linebacker Storyline Sunday Night Football, where you get your pick of either Cris Collinsworth fawning over Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins (who should eat a lot when matched up against Shipley inside), or Jones facing off against the team that traded him away! Solder has not looked good in the preseason, while the Cardinals have turned Jones loose. Expect him to be eager to impress against his former team.
Goff is not a bust yet: I’ve never been the biggest Jared Goff fan, and he was not impressive when I visited Rams camp, but just because the No. 1 pick didn’t win the starting job (or the backup job) with the Rams in camp, he should not be hammered. The Rams gave up way too much for him, but they’re doing the smart thing here. He’s obviously not ready yet, and that’s O.K.
Wentz shouldn’t start: Oh, how the tables have turned. After the draft, it looked like the Rams were going to rush Goff to be the starter, and the Eagles appeared to be taking the smart route with the No. 2 pick sitting for his entire rookie season behind Sam Bradford and Chase Daniels. But now, despite Wentz throwing just 23 passes in the preseason and missing a slew of practice reps while dealing with a cracked rib, the Eagles have jumped Wentz over Daniels after trading Bradford to the Vikings. Wentz can’t possibly be the most prepared to start—Daniels has been in Doug Pederson’s offense for years and should have been given at least the first few games. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has made a lot of great moves in his return to power, but this feels like a misstep.
The Seahawks’ line woes are real: As noted above, the state of the Seattle O-line is one of the least talked about X-factors heading into the season. It looks like, when injuries shake out, the Seahawks will start LT Bradley Sowell, LG Mark Glowinski, C Justin Britt, RG Germain Ifedi and RT Garry Gilliam. Line coach Tom Cable certainly has his work cut out for him. However, it should be pointed out that Seattle’s line hasn’t been good for years, and the abilities of Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have covered the deficiencies. Can Wilson and the running back by committee replacing the retired Lynch continue that?
Sitton gets Belichick’d by the Packers: I don’t mind that the Packers released former All-Pro guard Josh Sitton because he’s developed back issues and has never been the picture of fitness (although I don’t understand foregoing a compensation pick or trading him and getting nothing in return). I just don’t like the timing of the move, and other teams are guilty of this. The Packers had to have been thinking about this for a while. Why not trade him a week earlier and get something in return? Or if they didn’t want to go that route, why not show some respect for a veteran player and release him during the first cuts so it would be easier for him to find a new place to play?