Whether it’s John Fox, Norv Turner or Alex Smith, there are countless household names facing pressure-packed situations in 2010. What about the guys the ESPN talking heads aren’t screaming about every minute with just as much to lose? In the NFL, it’s often the guys you're least familiar with who shape the outcome of the season. It’s the quiet left tackle — not the cover boy QB — carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, or the unrecognizable GM — not the bombastic head coach — whose job is on the line when offseason gambles don’t pay off. “Under Pressure?” You bet. Peter Schrager calls out the no-names who have a lot riding on the 2010 season.
Chris Carr and Dominique Foxworth, CBs, Baltimore
We’ll count Carr (pictured) and Foxworth as one person for this list, though you could probably add second-year man Lardarius Webb, too. With veteran acquisitions Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth joining the offense and rookies Sergio Kindle and Terrence Cody added to the D, the Ravens are thinking Super Bowl in 2010. The Achilles' heel? The defensive backfield. Ed Reed's coming off a serious injury and the corners ... well, to be kind, they stink. Carr/Foxworth has to be one of the NFL’s worst starting CB duos, and you better believe opposing QBs will test them early and often. The Ravens pass rush — always a team strength — must be even better than usual in 2010 if they hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next February.
Brian Xanders, GM, Denver
With arguably the coolest name in the NFL (apologies, Stylez G. White), it’s amazing how few NFL fans are familiar with Xanders. Josh McDaniels (pictured) gets the pub, but it’s Xanders in the GM role out in Denver. Over the past few months, he signed off on trades sending 100-catch machine Brandon Marshall to Miami and TE Tony Scheffler to Detroit. A Florida State alum, he also manned the war room when Denver picked Florida Gator Tim Tebow at No. 25 overall. It's been a wacky offseason in Denver, to say the least. And, oh yeah, 2009 Pro Bowl pass rusher Elvis Dumervil remains unsigned, as well. Xanders and Co. had their second busy, headline-worthy offseason in a row. There’s more work to be done.
Greg Bensel, VP of Communications, New Orleans
Bensel's job would be a lot easier if the media was just talking about a Super Bowl defense and a productive offseason for the champs. Instead, he's spent the past few weeks serving as the Saints' mouthpiece on an ugly issue involving a former team employee, a lawsuit and allegations of a cover-up involving multiple “senior staff members” (including allegedly Sean Payton, pictured) concerning the theft of prescription pain pills from the club's drug locker. Vicodin, not Drew Brees' arm or Reggie Bush's legs, seems to be all anyone's talking about these days when it comes to the Saints. Bensel's one of the best in the business. This issue will keep him plenty busy in 2010.
Jeff Backus, LT, Detroit
As fellow rookie Mark Sanchez flourished and led the Jets to their first AFC championship game in 11 years, Matt Stafford suffered through three injuries, threw 20 picks and ran the NFL's 27th-ranked offense. This offseason, Detroit added weapons across the board, notably RB Jahvid Best, TE Tony Scheffler and WR Nate Burleson. But the starting left tackle in Detroit is unchanged. Backus has started 139 games in Motown. He's won just 31 and never suited up for a playoff game. No one's realistically expecting a playoff run, but they're expecting a vast improvement from last year's forgettable 2-14 campaign. At the very least, they want their starting QB (and $72 million investment) on the field and on his feet. That's on Backus.
Jonathan Goff, MLB, New York Giants
When the Raiders picked Alabama MLB Rolando McClain with the No. 8 pick in the draft, there was an audible groan in Radio City Music Hall. That peculiar sound was the Giants’ fan base letting out a collective sigh of disappointment. They wanted McClain. So did the front office. Without the do-everything All-American, there’s a perceived giant hole in the middle of the once proud Big Blue defense. With Antonio Pierce’s days done, the Giants turn to Goff as the likely starter in Perry Fewell’s revamped D. New York gave up 427 points last season, more than any team in their 85-year history except for the 1966 squad that went 1-12-1. Needless to say, that won’t be acceptable in 2010.
Chris Miller, QB coach, Arizona
Cards fans have had it good the past two years. Back-to-back NFC West titles, four playoff wins, three home playoff games and a Super Bowl berth — not too shabby for a franchise that with just one prior playoff game since 1975. Fans also had the luxury each week of watching Kurt Warner, who was just about as good as it got in the NFL. In his post-retirement wake, Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson are the top QBs on the depth chart. To be frank, nobody’s exactly doing cartwheels over either option. Insert QB coach Chris Miller. In Leinart, he has a former top-10 pick with a bruised ego, questionable arm and an even more scrutinized work ethic. In Anderson, he has a guy coming off a disastrous two-year run as the sometimes starter in Cleveland. Good luck. A 10-year NFL veteran and a former Pro Bowl QB with Atlanta, Miller’s got his work cut out for him.
Mike Reinfeldt, GM, Tennessee
The longer Chris Johnson (pictured) refuses to show up to Titans camp, the more eyes will be focused on Reinfeldt. Though owner Bud Adams is the longtime face of the Titans front office and Jeff Fisher, the league’s longest-tenured coach, often times serves as its mouthpiece — Reinfeldt’s the man with the GM/Executive VP nameplate on his door. Despite rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009, the Titans have yet to restructure Johnson’s undersized contract. Reinfeldt’s other options at RB in 2010? Alvin Pearman (no carries in 2009) and second-year man Javon Ringer (eight carries). Make no doubt about it, the Titans can't afford to let this drag on any longer. Mr. Reinfeldt, it’s on you to get it done.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego
It’s one thing to be the guy replacing LaDaininan Tomlinson in San Diego. It’s another being the guy replacing L.T. who also cost the organization the 40th pick in the draft. Playing behind one of the NFL’s best lines and handed a starting role in an offense with Pro Bowlers at almost every position, Mathews is expected to be a star from his first carry. And, oh yeah, just about everyone and their mother has the Chargers winning the AFC in 2010. To recap, rookie Ryan Mathews — he of three seasons at mid-major Fresno State — cost the team a valuable second-round pick, is replacing a first-ballot Hall of Famer and is expected to carry the rock 300 times for a Super Bowl frontrunner. Nah, there’s no pressure on the kid.
Mike Tannenbaum, GM, New York Jets
Fresh off a surprising AFC Championship appearance in 2009, the Jets spent the offseason stockpiling veterans and building for a Super Bowl run. Enter Santonio Holmes and his looming four-game suspension, L.T. and his 30-year-old legs, Jason Taylor and his history of criticizing Jets fans and Antonio Cromartie with his myriad of children born to a myriad of women. Tannenbaum's elected to go with talent -- locker room chemistry, off-the-field concerns and age be damned. The Jets are a “win now” team of big names and personalities. Like the 1998 Yankees or the 2008 Celtics, it could work out. If the locker room explodes and the experiment fails, Rex Ryan’s job won’t be on the line. Tannenbaum’s, however, might be.
Carl Johnson, NFL VP of Officiating
For nine seasons, Mike Pereira held the NFL’s prestigious title of VP of Officiating. Following the ’09 campaign, the esteemed Pereira stepped away from the post. Considered the most progressive head of officials the league's ever seen, Pereira went above and beyond to help bring the league’s rulebook to the everyday fan. Johnson, an NFL line judge who officiated in Super Bowl XLII, takes over with little media fanfare or national recognition. By October, everyone will know his name. Like death and taxes, NFL officiating controversies are unavoidable. Replacing a man many in league circles consider a legend, Johnson’s got his work cut out for him.
Matt Moore, QB, Carolina
Despite glimpses of greatness and closing with an 4-1 record as the starter, Matt Moore's already dealing with the "Jimmy Clausen Watch" in Carolina. The local media’s abuzz about the rookie, and you can bet the national media will be, too. It's only May, and Moore's already dealing with questions about the golden-armed Golden Domer. A lot of folks like the young Panthers in 2010, but Moore will do himself no favors if he starts the year shaky.
Doug Free, LT, Dallas
Though the Flozell Adams Era came to a close with his release April 2 before $7.5 million in bonuses kicked in, there was little doubt it was over following the 34-3 playoff drubbing the Cowboys suffered in Minnesota. He left that game early with an injury and Tony Romo was sacked six times. His replacement? More than likely, Doug Free. A four-year vet, Free started the last seven games at RT in 2009 and played well. However, it's one thing to serve off the bench; it's another protecting Romo's blindside. Want more pressure? The Super Bowl's in Dallas this season. There's nothing Jerry Jones wants more than to have America’s Team playing in it. They also just traded for LT Alex Barron, an underachieving enigma with tons of potential. Good luck, Mr. Free. -- Peter Schrager