Football is considered the ultimate team sport, but a singular talent having a career year can make any club a postseason contender and a contender a Super Bowl champion. The following 20 players are the proof. Expect this list to change by the week, with guys rising and falling until a Super Bowl champion is crowned.
Here are the 20 most important players, league-wide, before pro football begins anew in Week 1. Hint: A few quarterbacks made the inaugural list.
— The Daily
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
The cool, collected Ryan has a pounding running game, a future Hall of Famer at tight end and Pro Bowl-caliber receivers at his disposal. What he doesn’t have: excuses for not getting at least one playoff victory this season.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans
The 2010 rushing leader was a great rags-to-riches story, a former practice-squad player who ran for 1,616 yards and 16 TDs. But the league is littered with one-year wonders at his position. Can he match his 4.9 yards per carry average in 2011?
Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
With that breakaway speed, Johnson may become the first in NFL history to post two 2,000-yard rushing seasons in his career. That is, if he decides to end his holdout this season — Johnson reportedly wants a new contract with $30 million guaranteed.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
Rivers was nearly a one-man dynamo last year, passing for 4,710 yards and 30 TDs. He’s also coming off a 9-7 season, and he would love to improve that to 11-5 or 12-4 and stay in the hunt for a Super Bowl title. But those extra two or three wins are the toughest to come by.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions
As a rookie, Suh tore up the NFL, bull-rushing past offensive lineman with his brute strength and quickness. In his second season, despite the double-teams he's sure to face, Suh will be asked to be the type of dominant defensive presence that defines teams.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
He must combat the stigma of the Super Bowl loser and once again fight off the Ravens in the division and the Jets, Patriots and Colts in the AFC. Roethlisberger also will need his improvisational talents more than ever behind an average offensive line.
Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay Packers
If the Packers are to win back-to-back Super Bowls, Matthews must continue to play relentlessly every week. Sounds easy enough, considering Matthews’ motor, but most two-time Super Bowl champs say the second title is a tough haul mentally.
Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens
One of the great middle linebackers in NFL history wants one more title. This Ravens team may be the 36-year-old Lewis’ last great shot at it. The defense as a whole is still a fiery unit, and QB Joe Flacco has just enough playoff seasoning.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans
The textbook package at wide receiver. At 6 feet 3 and 223 pounds with good speed and splendid hands, Johnson is a 90-catch threat every season in the Texans offense. The only issue early in camp was Johnson’s dislocated left index finger.
Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie make up a terrific Eagles defensive secondary, which could be the difference amongst the NFC powers. He could play slot corner if the other two are more comfy on the outside.
James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s been a colorful offseason for Harrison, bashing his own quarterback and blasting commissioner Roger Goodell. All will be forgotten in Steelers country if the All-Pro linebacker continues to compete like a Roman gladiator.
DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys
The league’s sack master wants to put Dallas back on the map in the NFC. While the offense in Big D is explosive, Ware’s defense is not nearly as talented. He’ll be asked to take down the quarterback quite a bit under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals
The perennial Pro Bowler may be the biggest winner of the free agency period, with his Cardinals trading for quarterback Kevin Kolb. If the two mesh quickly, Arizona could have a formidable pitch-and-catch offense in the weak NFC West.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
So the Jets lost the Asomugha sweepstakes. They still possess Revis, who is just as sticky a cover corner with a bit more muscle. The tandem of Revis and Antonio Cromartie will allow New York to continue to blitz whenever Rex Ryan pleases.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson will be asked to power the Vikings offense with two newcomers at QB in Donovan McNabb and rookie Christian Ponder. Camp reports suggest Peterson, the NFL’s dominant runner, also will catch more passes out of the backfield this year.
Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Manning would be even higher here if he were not on the mend after neck surgery. When he’s finally at full strength, or near it, the four-time league MVP makes the Colts a playoff lock no matter the offense around him.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl title and a few months removed from a jarring playoff exit in Seattle, Brees, arguably the NFL’s greatest leader and pure passer, will be doubly motivated to hold aloft the Lombardi Trophy.
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
The reigning NFL MVP, Brady has the benefit of a motivated Chad Ochocinco on offense and Albert Haynesworth and former nemesis Shaun Ellis on the team’s newfangled defensive line. Brady’s battles with the Jets should be epic this year.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Can he repeat? Only QBs Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, John Elway and Tom Brady have pulled off the feat — and all of them are in the Hall of Fame besides Brady. Rodgers seemingly has the makeup to join them.
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
He's the leader of the NFL’s new “Dream Team” in Philadelphia, though Vick and his teammates hate the term. A capable runner-passer with Super Bowl aspirations, it seems as if the entire free agency class wanted to play with Vick this season.