As we get ready for the 2012 season, it looks to be the kind of season where the favorites — the Packers, Patriots, Giants, 49ers, Ravens and so on of the league — are looking pretty good.
It might be a “chalk” kind of year where there are not as many surprising teams coming out of the woodwork to shock the NFL.
But those are teams. Individually, there are plenty of great stories that are ready to emerge.
Here’s my list of 25 “starters” — 11 each on offense and defense, plus a kicker, punter and (why not?) special-teamer. Some might be more well known than others on the list, but they all deserve greater mention for their skills and could be far better known at the end of this season than at the start.
We’re running a two-TE offense, as is vogue in the NFL these days, and a 4-3 scheme on defense, which remains the most prominent alignment on that side of the ball.
QB: Joe Flacco, Ravens — Coming off a season in which he had a career high in turnovers (18), and saw his TD passes, yards per attempt and completion percentage all sink, Flacco is ready for his best season to date. Come again? Yes, Flacco is going to back up his bold talk this offseason and turn in a Pro Bowl season. Year Five often is where quarterbacks reach that level (or never get there at all), and Flacco had his team primed and made the throws needed to get his Ravens to the Super Bowl. With a hurry-up attack kick-starting things this season, look for a terrific jump in numbers that should earn him an elite-QB salary, too.
RB: Fred Jackson, Bills — I was prepared to go with Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, who runs just as effectively in the first quarter (4.1 yards per carry last season) as he does in the fourth (4.1), but his bad (chronic?) back injury and his offseason DUI put me off too much. Instead, I’ll pick Jackson, who can do it all. He's a sneaky runner, able to get into space and do damage. He can pass block with the best of them. Jackson's also a very good receiver. I was shocked he got as little money from the team, even coming off an injury, as he did. Jackson is one of the very best complementary backs, not special at any one thing but extremely valuable, right up there with the Saints' Pierre Thomas.
WR: Marques Colston, Saints — How he’s underrated, I’ll never figure out. But every season, he’s Mr. Consistency: Not counting his injury-shortened 2008 season, Colston has put up between 1,022 and 1,202 receiving yards, between seven and 11 TD catches and only has lost four fumbles in his career. He also makes plays downfield (13.9 yards per catch in his career) better than people realize, and he often does it in traffic. Colston is big, reliable and decidedly un-sexy — a perfect fit for this team that gladly will accept his game-changing skills.
WR: Jeremy Maclin, Eagles — Although he has yet to truly break out, Maclin is a very good possession receiver with good speed after the catch. You won't see him running a ton of "9" routes, but we don't care about that. All he does he get open, make tough catches and hang onto the ball. He has learned how to go over the middle, and Maclin works the sideline expertly with ballerina feet. This could be his finest season to date.
TE: Aaron Hernandez, Patriots — More of a detached slot receiver, Hernandez is almost a unique weapon. He might not offer the same blocking skills that some tight ends do, but the Patriots don’t even try to use him that way. And why would they? After being a screen specialist in college, Hernandez has expanded his pass-catching repertoire and now might be the third-best receiving option at his position behind teammate Rob Gronkowski and the Saints’ Jimmy Graham. Hernandez is a healthier version of Antonio Gates, really.
TE: Heath Miller, Steelers — Maybe one of these days he’ll get his due. A team-first player who sometimes takes a back seat in the Steelers’ vertical passing attack but also comes up with clutch catches when thrown to, Miller also is a plus-blocker, an extremely hard worker and a quiet locker-room leader. You need those kind of guys.
OLT: Michael Roos, Titans — Sometimes knocked by scouts for his less-than-ideal arm length (32 inches), Roos nonetheless has some of the best feet in the game. The Estonian-born Roos stays in great shape, has naturally quick feet, works hard in the offseason and quietly dominates despite not being overly gifted athletically or naturally bull-strong. The Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth almost took this award.
OLG: Mike Iupati, 49ers — He’s almost too well known to make this list, but I still feel like people don’t appreciate the work he did last season and how good a player he has become. A perfect fit in the 49ers’ power-running scheme, Iupati also grades out well in pass protection, appearing to improve each of his first two seasons in the league. He’s as big and immoveable as a house (6-5, 331) and as strong an ox. Iupati got a little grabby last season (three holding penalties), but he’s the kind of foundational player who quietly dominates weekly.
C: John Sullivan, Vikings — The league suddenly is pretty well stocked at center, which helped make the work Sullivan did last season go a bit unnoticed nationally. He played with more power than he did previously, improved dramatically as a pass blocker, handled pass-protection calls with rookie QB Christian Ponder and helped open big holes inside for Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, where they averaged a fairly astonishing (especially in Peterson’s case) 5.5 and 4.1 yards per carry, respectively. On a group that struggled overall last season, Sullivan stood out — and quietly earned a five-year, $25 million extension in the process.
ORG: Mike Brisiel, Raiders — A zone-blocking standout who is tough and fierce. He’s an old-school scrapper, but he’s also pretty quick, able to get out to the second level and somewhat strong for a relatively undersized (298 pounds) guard. The Texans allowed him to walk after last season, but he was an unsung member of their potent line — just watch the work he did against Ravens DLs Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody in the playoff loss. The Raiders got a good one, and for below-market value, too.
ORT: Packers ORT Bryan Bulaga — Right tackles by nature are underrated, and I had a tough call choosing between Bulaga and Bengals ORT Andre Smith, who had a far better season in 2011 than people realized. But I went with Bulaga because he appears to be the better pass protector and doesn’t have the weight-flurry concerns that Smith carries. Both were first-round picks, incidentally, but Bulaga slid down lower than Smith, who was the sixth overall choice in 2009. The Packers don’t tend to give Bulaga a ton of pass-blocking help, and he has rewarded them with mostly clean pockets. A very nice player who goes below the radar unfairly.
DLE: Red Bryant, Seahawks — First of all, he’d be one of our key special-teamers, having blocked four kicks last season, and on defense he showed his athletic ability (especially for a man who stands 6-4 and 323 pounds) when he picked Caleb Hanie in Week 15 and ran it back 20 yards for a touchdown. That was his second INT of the season, but Bryant primarily is a run stuffer — and maybe the best in the NFL. You won’t get much of a pass rush out of him (two career sacks), but he’ll shut down most teams’ right-handed run games. And you’ll figure out quickly just how good he is this season.
NT: Isaac Sopoaga, 49ers — It used to be that Justin Smith was underrated on that front, even as a former top-five pick, but you can’t say that anymore. Now he’s bearing down on Hall of Fame mention. But now people are appreciating just how good Sopoaga is. He’s a compact, immovable plugger who is an anchor capable of pushing back centers, wrecking run-blocking schemes and clearing the way for others to make plays. We like those types of players. No one would run on this front.
DLT: Jurrell Casey, Titans — The 2011 third-rounder is a bit short with smallish hands, but Casey is a quick, penetrating, hard-hitting undersized nose tackle. If you don’t know him now, you soon will. He’s a top-flight run stopper who has been working closely with Titans pass-rush specialist Keith Millard, who is teaching Casey all the little tricks he can to increase his ability to get to the quarterback. Expect a breakout season. Another guy to watch: Eagles DT Derek Landri, one of the best inside rushers on a per-snap basis.
DRE: Chris Clemons, Seahawks — Well, we need an edge screamer, and there are few sack artists who are truly underrated. And though I was going to try to avoid having more than one player from a single team at the same position, we were not going to make a video about this guy and then not select him to the team. Otherwise, the lathered-up Seahawks fans surely would let us know. But Clemons just provides an underrated rush, and even though the Eagles were loaded at defensive end, having watched him last season in Seattle it makes you wonder why they ever let him go.
SLB: Daryl Smith, Jaguars — Smith, who has been productive and durable (four missed games) for eight seasons, is shockingly underrated. Coming into his own the past four seasons, he has contributed to the pass rush (11 sacks) and pass defense (three INTs, 22 PDs), and he has forced seven fumbles in that time and had more than 97 tackles in three of those four seasons. Yet few really appreciate how good the guy is. A close second: Giants SLB Mathias Kiwanuka, who is coming into his own.
MLB: Colin McCarthy, Titans — I swear I have no special love for the Titans. There are not a ton of overrated inside linebackers, and the other two I considered — Arizona’s Daryl Washington and Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons — play in 3-4 schemes. Could they both be good 4-3 “Mikes”? Oh, sure. But we like McCarthy, who has played very well since earning a starting job and can cover as well as he hits. The glue on a good, young defense.
WLB: Jarrett Johnson, Chargers — We’re taking some serious liberty here. Johnson is a 3-4 outside linebacker, which actually makes him closer to a weak-side defensive end in a 4-3. But let’s say we’re running an “over” scheme and we have Johnson in a Predator-type of role, where he’s up on the line a majority of the time. We can still have him operate as one of the best run defenders in the NFL (as he is), and he still can carry out duties covering backs and tight ends, which he also excels at. Is he a great pass rusher? Not really, but he can disrupt plays in the backfield. Johnson does a little of everything at 260 pounds (and moves very well at that size) but was allowed to walk rather unceremoniously from the Ravens to the Chargers this offseason. It’s San Diego’s gain.
SS: George Wilson, Bills — Do fans know his name? I think so. Do they realize just how good he has become? I don’t believe so. After a slow start to his career, Wilson has blossomed into one of the more heady strong safeties in the NFL. He’s also a good leader for the Bills’ defense and a strong worker who sets the tone. Wilson can deliver a pop and also make a game-changing play — witness the game he had against the Patriots in Week Three, racking up 11 tackles and a fourth-quarter pick right on the goal line, helping turn what would have been a 14-point New England lead into a stunning, 21-point comeback for the Bills.
FS: Antoine Bethea, Colts — The AFC South love affair continues. At one time, Bethea was regarded as one of the league’s better safeties. But he’s back to underrated status because the team has been stripped of a lot of its best players, and few realize how solid he remains. He made a ton of tackles last season (that, frankly, others missed), and the Colts’ defense would have been even more miserable without him out there. In a young, patchwork secondary, Bethea is a rock. He covers a lot of ground, captains the ship and comes up with his share of plays, too.
CB: Richard Sherman, Seahawks — Aaaaand, the Seahawks love affair continues. Sherman is big, physical and totally unheralded, a fifth-round pick who played like a first-rounder a year ago. The former Stanford wide receiver matched up with big receivers as a rookie and typically locked them down. Watch the tape of Sherman getting under Larry Fitzgerald’s skin in Week 17 before the Cardinals moved Fitzgerald around some to get him free in that game. Brandon Browner earned the Pro Bowl nod with six picks, but Sherman (no slouch with four) appears to be the better player.
CB: Sean Smith, Dolphins — Maybe “Hard Knocks” has shown you what others have known for a while: He’s big, active and instinctive and tough to throw on. There were few better corners in the league, and we have two of the tallest who also can run with the fast guys. Smith once was an inconsistent player, but he came into his own in 2010 and has not fallen much since. Few quarterbacks test him often, and there’s a reason why: he’ll take the ball away from you, or at least prevent your receiver from getting it. Few corners defend the jump ball or the fade better than Smith.
PK: Lawrence Tynes, Giants — He doesn’t have a bazooka for a leg (his range goes out to 53 yards, maybe) but is wonderfully consistent and has a track record for making clutch kicks, with two game-winners in overtimes of both of his NFC title games. Yes, the first one against the Packers in January of 2008 came after two misses, but they were the only two postseason FG misses of his Giants career, and he showed mental toughness in coming back (in sub-zero temperatures, mind you) to make a franchise-changing kick on the road at Lambeau. Tynes fits Tom Coughlin’s mold of steady as she goes quite well.
P: Zoltan Mesko, Patriots — It’s nearly impossible for a Patriots player to be overlooked based on all the winning and attention they get, so it figures that our choice is a punter. People know Mesko’s name, and they might even know his personality, which is fascinating. But he’s also a terrific punter who could have a Pro Bowl-type season if he ever kicked it more than 3-4 times a game. Twenty-four of his 57 punts, nearly half, landed inside the 20 and his net average of 41.5 yards ranked him third in the NFL a season ago. What a seldom-used (but quite valuable) weapon.
ST: Tim Shaw, Titans — Thought about the Jaguars’ Montell Owens, but he has made the Pro Bowl twice. Too much notice for an underrated list. We’ll go with Shaw over the Bears’ Blake Costanzo. Shaw blocked a punt against the Steelers and has led the Titans in special-teams tackles the past two seasons. Shaw seldom plays on defense and has carved out a role as one of the NFL’s best special-teamers.