Pretty soon the entire NFL will be at rest, vacationing before returning for the opening of training camps. There are still some stars waiting for some more money, skipping the final organized team practices in hopes of a better contract. While no player is probably worth more this season to a team than QB Drew Brees because of the Bountygate penalties, here are 10 men who must perform this season for their teams to reach New Orleans, site of this season’s Super Bowl. — John Czarnecki
Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
With all the buzz about Carolina’s Cam Newton in the NFC South, most fans have forgotten how good Freeman was in his sophomore season of 2010. With a kiddie corps of receivers, Freeman produced 10 wins and threw for 25 touchdowns. He also protected the ball, throwing only six interceptions. But 2011 was a disaster for Freeman, whose interceptions jumped to 22 as his quarterback rating dropped more than 20 points from 95.9 in 2010. New coach Greg Schiano will have Freeman well-grounded this season and the big kid has all the talent in the world to deliver.
Matt Cassel, Chiefs
There is a lot of talk in Kansas City about using a two tight-end offense, which could be great for the quarterback who missed seven games last season. The Chiefs need everyone healthy again and need Cassel to deliver like he did in 2010 with 10 wins and 27 touchdown passes. Players like tight end Tony Moeaki and running back Jamaal Charles are expected back and that means Cassel has enough weapons to compete with Manning, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers. The defense has a few holes, so that means Romeo Crennel needs Cassel and his offense to dominate.
Asante Samuel, Falcons
The Falcons have made some bold moves the last few seasons to get into Super Bowl contention and this right cornerback may be the final ingredient. He has 45 career interceptions, including 10 with the Patriots in 2006. Granted, he was guilty of allowing Plaxico Burress to get open in Super Bowl XLII, but he still has shutdown skills. The Eagles didn’t like him much as a tackler, but the Falcons simply need him to keep opposing receivers in check while hoping that Matt Ryan can deliver enough to keep the Falcons ahead.
Brandon Marshall, Bears
Chicago’s defense isn’t getting any younger and this trade for Jay Cutler’s favorite receiver in Denver was a bold decision. In his last five seasons, Marshall has caught 474 passes. He’s had seasons with 104, 102 and 101 receptions and in Chicago’s long history nobody has ever done that. It’s been 10 seasons in Chicago since a wideout caught 10 passes (Marty Booker) in a single game. Yes, the Bears need Matt Forte to run wild, but the NFC North is all about throwing the football with opponents like Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. Chicago can’t win without another super season from Marshall.
Tony Romo, Cowboys
The Cowboys blew so many fourth-quarter leads last season — and a couple came thanks to the interception-prone arm of Romo. Once again, Dallas was the best team that didn’t make the playoffs. Jason Garrett has improved his offensive staff and Jerry Jones signed some younger, more physical offensive linemen. Now, Romo must deliver and improve on that 1-3 playoff record. He’s never thrown for 300 yards in a playoff game. He’s been in charge since 2006 and he’s 17 games above .500 as a starter. He’s got to find a way to make it happen because the defense remains solid.
Chris Johnson, Titans
Never was a stud running back more disappointing than Johnson was last season for Tennessee. He missed training camp after demanding a rich contract. But once he was paid, Johnson fizzled out, apparently joining the team out of shape. He managed only four 100-yard rushing games and in the other 12 games his high total was 64 yards. He barely averaged four yards a carry and rarely turned on his after-burners. He needs to be closer to 2,000 yards a season (2009) than a measly 1,000 yards for Tennessee to have any chance. When he does, Tennessee can be a factor even with a young quarterback.
Mario Williams, Bills
Next to Peyton Manning, this was the biggest and most expensive offseason development. The Bills showed their fans they are willing to spend on one of the game’s best defensive ends and now there is chatter about Buffalo competing with New England, who has dominated the AFC East for a dozen years. Granted, Buffalo needs Ryan Fitzpatrick to play well, but Buffalo’s best side of the ball is its defense, which has switched to a 4-3 front to enable all the pass rushers, including ex-Patriot Mark Anderson and a supposedly healthy Shawne Merriman. Rookie Kelvin Sheppard will be the middle linebacker and first-round pick Stephon Gilmore will be an upgrade to the secondary, but Williams must lead and perform big-time.
Alex Smith, 49ers
The 49ers signed Randy Moss and the Giants’ super hero, Mario Manningham, and suddenly San Francisco is talking Super Bowl. It’s the 1980s all over again. Coach Jim Harbaugh is dodging the talk, but he knows how close he came last season with that great defense. Harbaugh coddled and pushed Smith to his finest NFL season in 2011 and now the former No. 1 pick must deliver on these higher expectations. Maybe Smith has truly turned the corner on his career (17 touchdowns compared to five interceptions last season), but if he hasn’t, it could be a very long year for these West Coast favorites.
Peyton Manning, Broncos
After dumping Tim Tebow for this future Hall of Famer, the Broncos have basically told their fans it's Super Bowl or bust this season. From all indications, Manning is on schedule for a full right-arm recovery. His deep ball velocity still isn’t 100 percent, but Peyton is working overtime to make sure he’s ready to go when the season starts. Peyton always delivered in Indianapolis, spoiling those fans with so many playoff seasons. Basically, he has to live up to his own hype. But if he can’t stretch defenses deep, Peyton might not win the AFC West. Heck, Tebow accomplished that and Peyton must do more to make Denver happy.
Michael Vick, Eagles
Eagles fans are still numb over last season. They still remember Vick’s showcase performance in 2010 when he scorched the Redskins for four touchdown passes and 333 yards on a mere 20 completions. The franchise rewarded him with $20 million in 2011 and he proceeded to become a red-zone turnover machine. He lost the ball 18 times, matching his total for touchdown passes. Vick is saying now that these Eagles, with a richly-paid DeSean Jackson at receiver, are his best team ever. The defense is jacked up. The NFC East is loaded with quarterbacks now and Philadelphia needs Vick to start this season like he closed last year - with four straight wins and a 7-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He simply has to stay healthy and play smart.