The NFL’s All Make-or-Break Team

Earlier this week, news came out that Nick Fairley — former national championship game hero for Auburn and Detroit’s 2012 first-round pick — was demoted to the second team during the Lions’ Monday practice. The issue, apparently, was his weight. After coming on at the end of his second season, Fairley ballooned last year and his play cratered. He showed up to camp in much better shape, but since, has put the pounds back on. Whether the move was a motivational ploy by Jim Caldwell or something permanent isn’t really the point. The Lions need Fairley this year.

Detroit’s defense is built around the line. In four drafts, the Lions spent three first-round picks on that part of their defense, often at the expense of other needs. This is a team that may start Rashean Mathis at cornerback; in related news, it is not 2008.

The plan, when the Lions took Fairley a year after taking Ndamukong Suh (and when they took Ziggy Ansah in wake of Fairley’s very good 2012 finish), was to make a very good part of their roster even better, while hoping that strength in one area would cover for weakness elsewhere. When the first part of that plan doesn’t work out, the rest of it begins to fall apart.

The Lions were 31st in adjusted sack rate last year, with a defensive line that includes three high-priced assets. Getting no pressure is a problem for a team that can’t cover anybody; Detroit finished 20th in pass-defense DVOA, despite DeAndre Levy being maybe the best pass-defending linebacker around.

Fairley is the type of player who could make or break the Lions’ defense, and that type of player exists all over the league. This list is the starting 11 — the lineup of guys who could define the success or failure of entire offenses or defenses. You’ll probably notice a theme among them: a lot of second- or third-year, highly drafted players who haven’t quite come into their own. Again, there’s a reason for that. Players like that were a central plan of the plan, foundational pieces around which the rest of a team is built. And now is when teams are hoping their plans start to come together.

Alec Ogletree, OLB, Rams

St Louis Rams v Houston Texans

What he’s been: The Rams were ecstatic to land Ogletree — whom just about everyone considered a top-15 talent — with the 30th pick last year. He came in and started immediately for Jeff Fisher. Taking a “former safety turned linebacker” is an idea people seem to love in this age, when every team is searching for three-down players, and Ogletree fits that bill. He’s fast, fluid, and generally just a much better athlete than most linebackers around.

Ogletree was solid as a rookie, but he never really looked completely comfortable. He looked lost occasionally in coverage, and all the fluidity in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Why he matters: We all know the Rams’ defensive line is terrifying, but their back end is lacking. The way a team like the Panthers dealt with that kind of roster, last year, is by pairing their excellent pass rush with two of the best pass-defending linebackers in the league. Nickel defenses are base defenses at this point, and having two linebackers that can cover goes a long way. St. Louis needs Ogletree to be that type of player this year. If he can, he can be for the Rams what Thomas Davis was for Carolina year ago.

Brandon Flowers, CB, Chargers

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills

What he’s been: Before last year, there was an argument to be made that Flowers was the most consistent cornerback in the entire league over the past five seasons. He was a reliable piece of Kansas City’s defense for a long time. If you need any more evidence that the Pro Bowl is worthless, just take the fact that Flowers finally made it last year, maybe the worst season of his career.

His problem in Kansas City, along with being a little banged-up a year ago, is that Flowers isn’t built for life in press, man-to-man coverage. He’s small. The Chiefs cut him this offseason to save about $7.5 million on their salary cap.

Why he matters: Flowers doesn’t fit the young-player bill that a lot of guys on this list do, but he steps into a position where the Chargers desperately need help. San Diego ranked dead last in defensive DVOA a year ago and 31st against the pass. Flowers is still just 28, and there’s good reason to think 2013 was an outlier. With first-round pick Jason Verrett and Flowers now in the fold to give Eric Weddle some help, there’s a chance that the thinnest part of the Chargers’ roster last year has actually become a strength.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans

Seattle Seahawks v Houston Texans

What he’s been: Hopkins is a steady, physical receiver with great hands who can work the sideline and be a reliable target that pairs well with Andre Johnson. The Texans’ passing game was a wreck last season, but Hopkins’s game did what it said on the package.

Why he matters: Bill Barnwell stole this point on Wednesday’s NFL podcast, but Hopkins is a real candidate to take the same leap this season that Alshon Jeffery did a year ago. He’s not quite as tall as Jeffery, but their games are very similar. What players without a lot of burst tend to struggle with, early on, are the subtle ways to create separation in the NFL. That’s where Hopkins’s development has to get to this year, and if it does, he and Johnson can help smooth out the transition from Houston’s zone-based run offense to what Bill O’Brien is looking to do.

Datone Jones, DE, Packers

Philadelphia Eagles  v Green Bay Packers

What he’s been: Green Bay’s first-round pick from a year ago, Jones was a player expected to fit in well with the Packers’ 3-4 defense, coming from playing a similar scheme in college. After looking great in training camp and the preseason, his snaps dwindled as the year went on, and he finished with just 3.5 sacks and eight tackles on the year.

Why he matters: When it comes to pass-rushing productivity, the interior of the Packers’ line has been a black hole since 2010. Part of that is the type of players Green Bay has trotted out in those positions — the Johnny Jollys of the world that aren’t exactly built for speed — but part of it is draft picks just not working out. Former first-round pick Justin Harrell was never heard from, and Wednesday, Green Bay dealt 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy to the Patriots for scraps. The Packers need Jones to be the type of player they haven’t had in a while.

Derrick Morgan, OLB, Titans

Arizona Cardinals  v Tennessee Titans

What he’s been: So far, he’s been a promising but unfulfilled defensive end whose talent hasn’t always equaled results. A 2010 first-round pick, Morgan is undeniably gifted. His pressure numbers have been good the past couple seasons, but they haven’t turned into sacks (16.5 in four years).

Why he matters: This is Year 5 for Morgan, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking we’ve seen what we’re going to see from him. But I have faith! With Ray Horton coming in as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, Morgan should be playing a lot more standup linebacker this year, and I’m choosing to hold out hope that it’s the sort of little change that can push him over the edge.

The Titans are going to need a healthy pass rush, too. Tennessee was apparently OK with letting Alterraun Verner walk and replacing him with their in-house options, so it’s reasonable to think the secondary might take a step back. That’ll matter less if other teams don’t have time to throw.

Kevin Minter, ILB, Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals Training Camp

What he’s been: Arizona drafted Minter in the second round last year out of LSU, but he barely got on the field for a very good Cardinals defense as a rookie.

Why he matters: Arizona had one of the better inside linebacker combinations in the league last season. Karlos Dansby was the best he’s ever been, while playing on a one-year deal, and Daryl Washington played like he has in past years.

Both Dansby and Washington are gone. Dansby played well enough to earn a long-term deal in Cleveland, and Washington has been suspended for the season for violating the league’s drug policy. That leaves Minter, who’s barely played, as the best linebacker on a defense that could be one of the best in football. Minter could be the difference between a top-five and top-10 unit, and that difference is huge.

Jeremy Maclin, WR, Eagles

Detroit Lions v Philadelphia Eagles

What he’s been: In the Eagles’ old world, he was a receiver whose averages would play out to 70 or so catches and 950 yards a season over 16 games. The problem is that he doesn’t play 16 games. Maclin’s been banged-up at some point every year, before missing all of last season with a torn ACL.

Why he matters: OK, so Jeremy Maclin probably isn’t going to make or break the Eagles’ offense, but Philadephia does need to replace DeSean Jackson’s production somewhere, and Maclin seems a likely candidate. By all accounts, he was torching Darrelle Revis yesterday, after Revis had been smothering Patriots’ receivers all training camp. We’ve never seen what Maclin can do with Chip Kelly, and I think we should be excited to find out.

Russell Bodine, C, Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs

What he’s been: We haven’t seen Bodine much. He was a fourth-round pick in May.

Why he matters: There’s a reason centers don’t often get taken in the first round (or the second round). Teams can find them elsewhere. Just ask the Ravens, who traded a sixth-round pick for a backup Bucs lineman and handed him the starting job.

What makes Bodine’s case interesting is that he’s taking over as a starter on one of the league’s best offensive lines, and he’s doing it in a season when the Bengals have admitted they want to pound the ball. Everyone on this list has a chance to be the pivot point for his offense or defense, but Bodine is literally the pivot point of his. The center can do wonders for a running game (ask the Cowboys about Travis Frederick), and the Bengals will need Bodine to.

Mark Barron, S, Bucs

Tennessee Titans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers

What he’s been: Tampa Bay took Barron in the top 10 in 2012. He was the most sought-after Alabama defender in a draft full of them. In two seasons, he’s never quite lived up to the hype. Last year was an improvement over what he did as a rookie, but my guess is that Mark Dominik and Greg Schiano — both of whom no longer work for the Bucs — were expecting more.

Why he matters: With Lovie Smith in charge, the Bucs’ defense has a chance to be pretty damn good. Gerald McCoy is going to be a monster; mark that down. And Lavonte David is perfect for what Smith is going to ask of him. With Michael Johnson on board and William Gholston going into his second year, the pass rush should be a little better, too. That leaves us with the secondary.

Schiano never let Darrelle Revis be Darrelle Revis last year, but Revis was still one of the best corners in the league by season’s end. Alterraun Verner should work well in Smith’s defense, but any way you look at it, the move is still a downgrade. If Barron can take a step forward this year, it would go a long way at making every level of this defense a strength. And considering the problems they’re having on offense right now, they’re going to need it to be.

Harrison Smith, S, Vikings

Cleveland Browns v Minnesota Vikings

What he’s been: As a rookie, he was a revelation. Smith was excellent, especially in coverage, after going 29th in the 2012 draft. He had a legitimate argument for Defensive Rookie of the Year, which is why last year was tough. Smith went on IR recall last year with a turf toe and missed eight games in the middle of the season.

Why he matters: There’s a world in which it’s easy to imagine the Vikings’ defense being very, very good. Their defensive line should play well, they drafted Anthony Barr in the top 10 to play outside linebacker, and their cornerback spots — which have plagued them for a while, outside of Antoine Winfield — look just fine with Xavier Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn. If Smith can be something closer this year to the player he was in 2012, there’s a real chance Minnesota, under Mike Zimmer, could put together a unit that ends up near the top 10.

Ja’Wuan James, OT, Dolphins

Miami Dolphins Rookie Minicamp

What he’s been: Well, nothing, yet. James, the Dolphins’ first-round pick from May, is the only rookie on the list.

Why he matters: It might seem unfair to expect James to contribute like the second- or third-year players here, but the Dolphins are asking him to. James has been Miami’s right tackle since he got there, and anyone who read Barnwell’s breakdown of Ryan Tannehill knows he can use all the protection he can get. Miami ranked third to last in adjusted sack rate a year ago, and no team gave up more sacks. If the Dolphins are going to figure out whether Tannehill is their guy, they’re going to need to keep him standing up long enough to throw a few times. Branden Albert will be a big help on the left side, but they’re going to need James to do his part.

Filed Under: NFL, Robert Mays, Ja'Wuan James, Alec Ogletree, Nick Fairley, Jeremy Maclin, Russell Bodine, Mark Barron, Derrick Morgan, Harrison Smith, 2014 NFL Preview

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays