Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 7/13/12
1. Breakout Player of the Year

DT Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills

The 3rd overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft made an instant impact as a rookie defensive end in Buffalo's 3-4 scheme.

He started all but one game and recorded 43 tackles and 5.5 sacks - both above average statistics for a 3-4 DE.

Dareus was also without Pro Bowl DT Kyle Williams for the entire season because of a season-long injury.

Now, Dareus is switching back to his more natural 4-3 defensive tackle spot, where he is expected to make an even bigger impact rushing the passer from the interior and plugging up the middle at the same time.

Besides the scheme change, Dareus also welcomes back Williams - his partner in crime - as well as free-agent acquisitions/defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.

The Buffalo Bills' defensive line has the personnel to be something special, but only time will tell. If these four Pro Bowl-caliber players hit their strides, it could be a long season for opposing quarterbacks. Each player has a chance to make the other players around them better.

Before long, we could be talking about Dareus as one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.

2. Rookie of the Year

DE Chandler Jones, New England Patriots

The first-round selection of Syracuse product Chandler Jones (21st overall) signals that the Patriots are moving permanently, at least significantly, to a 4-3 look. Jones is a big, athletic defensive end who possesses the ability to play 3-4 outside linebacker if so needed, but is actually more of a traditional 4-3 get-to-the-quarterback pass-rushing specialist.

However, the freakish Jones (6-foot-5, 265 pounds, 4.7 speed) has drawn comparisons to former NFL star Jevon Kearse and current Giants stud, Jason Pierre-Paul. As such, the expectations are sky high.

Bill Belichick thankfully addressed the pass-rush in this year's NFL Draft, including moving up twice in the first round (uncharacteristically) to acquire Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. With DE Mark Anderson bolting to division rival Buffalo, and Pro Bowl DE Andre Carter still unsigned due to a season-ending quad injury, there is a major hole at defensive end (both sides for that matter).

Therefore, if the Patriots do keep more of a 4-3 look, Jones will be asked to step in and produce right away. All signs, ultimately, point to him having a big rookie year.

3. Most Improved Player

CB Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

There are a number of players that I could peg for this predication (Buffalo's C.J. Spiller, New York's Muhammad Wilkerson, etc.), but I feel that Devin McCourty has a lot to prove - and improve. It's tough to put McCourty here because of his fantastic rookie season, but after last year's horrendous regression, it's certainly fathomable to see McCourty improve vastly.

From a team's perspective, he better improve. Lord knows the Patriots need all the help they can get in the secondary. In any case, McCourty can't get much worse. I see him getting back to his rookie form in which he earned a Pro Bowl nod and notched seven interceptions.

The sophomore slump tag hit McCourty particularly hard, but the third year usually is a charm. I think the lockout may have affected his game somewhat, along with a marginal pass-rush. It also didn't help that he had no real "coverage" talent around him.

Patrick Chung is a fantastic run-stopper, but can be a liability in pass coverage. The other safety spot - don't even get me started. Cornerback Kyle Arrington had a strong season for a former undrafted player, but he's better suited as a nickelback. Therefore, the return of 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, along with other significant additions, should take some pressure off of McCourty and thus allow him to perform to his fullest potential. 

4. Most Disappointing Player of the Year

QB Mark Sanchez, New York Jets

Mark Sanchez may have led his team to two straight AFC Championships (both losses), but everyone, including Jets' fans themselves, know that this is a make-or-break year for the former No. 5 overall pick.

Many Jets' fans have been disgusted with Sanchez's play, particularly last season in which he regressed once again (each year since his rookie year has been a regression from the year before), and have even called for his ousting this past season. Then, of course, is the addition of Tim Tebow, which surely will raise some questions and create another media circus.

Given the Tebow factor and the fact that the Jets are moving to a more "run-oriented" offense, it appears difficult for Sanchez to prove his doubters wrong. Sanchez also has a new offensive coordinator in town (former Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano).

Brian Schottenheimer is no more. Santonio Holmes is a potential headache and a half. Shonn Greene is an average running back. The list goes on and on. Put all of these factors together and the result is another tough upcoming season for Sanchez. He'll have to fight a ton of adversity. However, I don't think he'll win.

5. Best Free Agent Acquisition

DE Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills

Mario Williams is supposed to be the best free agent acquisition of the year. He better be considering that hefty contract. All the hype surrounding the biggest free agent prize in recent years should pay off if Williams returns to his Pro Bowl form; yes, the one before he recorded 5 sacks in 5 games, the one before his 2011 season was cut short by a one-way ticket to the injured reserve list.

Williams certainly picked a unique destination to play out the prime years of his career, but at the same time, there might not have been any better option.

The man got paid. The man is back in the 4-3 scheme. Most importantly, however, the man is surrounded by superb talent on an up-and-coming, young defense. As stated before, Williams is the backbone of a potentially lethal pass rush.

With book-end Mark Anderson arriving in town, former Pro Bowler Kyle Williams returning from injury, and the progression of second-year mammoth Marcell Dareus, the Bills' front four can be straight-up scary. Super Mario, of course, is a human machine who should wreck havoc all season long. That being said, I'm sure Mr. Tom Brady is well-aware.

6. Game of the Year

Week 15: New England Patriots vs. San Francisco 49ers, 12/16, 8:20 PM (Sunday Night Football)

This game should be a dandy. If projections mean anything, the Patriots and 49ers will sit atop their divisions (if not conferences) in Week 15. We should get to see one of the best offenses in the league (NE) versus one of the best defenses in the league (SF) - on Sunday Night Football.

Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Co. facing off against Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Donte Whitner, and the rest of this ferocious defense; what could be better? Don't forget about the intriguing coaching match-up: Future Hall of Famer Bill Belichick versus the up-and-coming Jim Harbaugh.

It will also be interesting to see how this shakes up the playoff race so late in the season. Then, of course, is the weather factor. How will a team that's used to sunny delight compete in the hostile, frigid environment known as Gillette Stadium?

What if there is snow in the forecast? Recent history shows that teams from hot, dry areas such as Miami, Jacksonville, and San Diego have had numerous troubles with the weather in New England. Thus, how will mother nature impact this mid-December war? We shall see what we shall see.

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