To make the 2014 All-Hinge Team, you just have to have the whole season riding on you.
Maybe you are the cornerstone of a new strategy, or a crucial veteran star returning from a serious injury. Maybe your team gutted your supporting cast, or spent the free-agency period and draft making sure there is no Plan B. You may be an unknown new starter for a Super Bowl contender or a dependable veteran asked to do even more this year for a team that probably should have provided you a little more hope. No matter the circumstances, you are the hinge your team's fortunes will swing upon in 2014.
To make the All-Hinge Team, a player's squad must have some reasonable playoff expectations: Jaguars and Raiders need not apply, though teams with quick turnaround potential can supply hinge players. Most rookies are also ineligible. This is an all-star team of veterans who must get better, get healthier, adapt or evolve. For better or worse, these players will become the "story" of their teams' 2014 season. With the draft dust settling, their hot-seat status has come into sharp focus.
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Panthers. Newton helped the Panthers row their boat deep into the NFC playoff picture last year. The team rewarded him by snapping his oars in half and marooning him in a life raft with an empty water bottle. Newton's receiving corps consists of unprepared rookies and aging fourth-receiver types; meanwhile, the NFC South has gotten more competitive. Newton has a chance to prove his critics and advocates of the wisdom of surrounding a quarterback with half-decent weapons wrong. It's the Spartan Baby method of player development, and while it may appeal to our get-tough sensibilities, it is important to note Sparta has not won a war in more than 2000 years.
Running back: Trent Richardson, Colts. If Richardson fails to live up to expectations, it will set off an incredible chain reaction of failure and unemployment. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson could lose their jobs, perhaps in that order, if Richardson fails to earn his. Of course, "lives up to expectations" may not be the proper phrase, since most of us expect Richardson to be stuffed by the chain-link fence that leads to the practice facility. A glimmer of hope: Richardson tied for ninth in the NFL in broken tackles last year with 24, according to Football Outsiders. Yeah, I missed most of them, too.
Running back: Jamaal Charles, Chiefs. The Chiefs tapped out of the most fertile wide receiver draft in 20 years, so get ready for another year of Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery! Eagles fans who remember James Thrash and Todd Pinkston feel your pain. Charles knows what it's like to be his team's leading rusher and receiver, but this year the expectations are greater. The Chiefs were in this exact same position after the 2010 season, and when Charles got hurt early in 2011, it sparked a two-year tailspin. The organization around him has changed, but Charles is the same in a relative way (only older and shorter of breath … ). No non-quarterback shoulders a larger burden.
Wide receiver: Jeremy Maclin, Eagles. The Chiefs have one No. 2 receiver and a bunch of No. 3s in search of a numero uno guy. The Eagles have a fleet of No. 2s, led by Maclin, who returns from his ACL tear to a world where his signature 64-catch, 800-yard season stat line may no longer be enough. If Maclin cannot lift the lid on opposing defenses, the release of DeSean Jackson will be Exhibit A in the angry Philly Boo Birds' case against Chip Kelly.
Wide receiver: Doug Baldwin, Seahawks. Golden Tate is gone. Sidney Rice (knee) won't be ready for the start of training camp. Percy Harvin is Detective Comics No. 27: He must remain bagged and boarded until you absolutely must display him. The Seahawks can still be very good with Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and rookie Paul Richardson as Russell Wilson's top wide receivers. But take a look in their rear-view mirror: "Very good" could get them run over.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots. Gronkowski's knee is … sigh, who knows? Gronk's health status has become the great existential quandary of the New England area; if Henry David Thoreau were alive today, he would not go journaling transcendentally on some lake, but would devote his time to studying orthopedics and parsing the meaning of Bill Belichick's mumbles instead. The Patriots did not bother signing a free-agent tight end or pursuing a Jace Amaro-caliber rookie, even as a backup, so they are either satisfied with Gronk's recovery or have evolved beyond the "defeat you with awesome tight ends" stage in their development into higher beings. Patriots fans can lie sleepless all summer worrying they are halfway in between.
Left tackle: Ryan Clady, Broncos. Clady is back from his foot injury and ready to claim the left tackle position. He had better be, because the Broncos' whole offseason strategy was built around him. They stood pat on the offensive line in free agency, then used Clady's return as an opportunity to upgrade at cornerback and wide receiver with their top draft picks. Clady is the catalyst of an elaborate shuffle that sends Chris Clark to the right side and Orlando Franklin to guard, theoretically upgrading the entire line. As the Super Bowl proved, the line needed upgrading for the Broncos to stand a chance against the NFC powerhouses.
Left and right guard: The Dolphins' guards. The Dolphins made their splashiest free-agent and draft moves at tackle, signing Branden Albert and drafting both Ja'Wuan James and Billy Turner. That makes sense, of course: If you have to rebuild four-fifths of your line, focus on tackle. But the current starting guards are Shelley Smith and either Danny Watkins or Dallas Thomas. Thomas, a second-year player, has never started a game, Smith was a spot starter for the Rams and Watkins is a 29-year-old Canadian firefighter. The Dolphins line is much better now than it was seven months ago, of course; there are villages buried under landsides that are better now than the Dolphins line was seven months ago. But the guards may not be good enough to make the line playoff-caliber.
Center: JC Tretter/Corey Linsley, Packers. Tretter is an Ivy League tight end and tackle who slid to center last year but broke an ankle during May minicamp, so it is not like he enjoyed hundreds of reps last summer to adjust to his new role. Linsley is the Packers' fourth-round pick, a lean technician who many experts pegged as a multi-position sub. The Packers are the NFL's absent-minded professors, so no one would put it past them to bring the best quarterback in the NFL back from an injury and forget to place a competent snapper and blocker in front of him. Either Tretter or Linsley must put the emphasis back on science for Ted Thompson's mad science experiments.
Right tackle: Ricky Wagner, Ravens. The Ravens let Michael Oher go and did not draft a tackle. That leaves Wagner, who got pushed around in last year's season opener and was relegated to "sixth lineman" duty for the rest of the season, as the starter on the right side. Gary Kubiak knows what he likes in an offensive lineman, and Wagner may be it. The Ravens offense tanked last season, so a lot is riding on a former fifth-round pick and a coach whose schemes have lately crossed the line from reliable to predictable.
Defensive end: George Selvie, Cowboys. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone. Anthony Spencer is still walking on crutches and expressing serious concern about being able to start the season. DeMarcus Lawrence is a promising rookie, but a rookie nonetheless, and Jeremy Mincey is a wave defender. Selvie is the only defensive end with any pass-rush track record who will participate fully in training camp, and his "track record" consists exclusively of high-effort sacks produced in the first half of last season. Selvie is no Ware or Spencer, but if he can hustle his way to eight or nine sacks and some running-game disruption, tackle Henry Melton and Lawrence or Mincey can provide the rest of a credible pass rush. If Selvie maxed out last year, opponents are going to have lots of time to throw against the Cowboys.
Defensive tackle: Sean Lissemore, Chargers. Say hello to the most obscure player in this article! The Chargers acquired Lissemore from the Cowboys days before the start of the 2013 season, and Lissemore jumped into an all-purpose role in a 3-4 scheme after an offseason of preparing for a 4-3 and three seasons in a different-flavored Cowboys 3-4. Lissemore acclimated well but got hurt late in the season. He takes over Cam Thomas' starting job (Thomas is now in Pittsburgh), but Lissemore is a 300-pound quick-step guy, whereas Thomas was 330-pounds of hard labor. John Pagano promises a hybrid role for Lissemore and drafted the entertainingly vast Ryan Carrethers as ballast, but Lissemore has a lot riding on him as the middle man on a defense that needs to catch up with its offense and keep the Chargers in the playoff picture.
Defensive tackle: Geno Atkins, Bengals. Atkins is expected back from his ACL injury by the start of camp. When he's available and at full strength, the Bengals have perhaps the best front seven in the AFC; coupled with their skill-position talent, making them worthy Super Bowl contenders. Without Atkins, they must blitz to create a pass rush and become more vulnerable against the run, making them just another team looking up at the Broncos and Patriots, who are looking up at the 49ers and Seahawks, who are looking down upon all of us with patient amusement.
Defensive end: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants. All of the familiar faces are gone from the Giants' defensive line. All that is left is JPP, JPP's expectations, JPP's injuries and JPP's disappointments, which makes for a troubling front four. OK, that's not quite true: Damontre Moore and Johnathan Hankins have upside, Cullen Jenkins is disruptive in spurts and Mathias Kiwanuka is still in the Kennedy rocker telling "how our front four single-handedly beat the undefeated Patriots" stories none of the youngsters believe. Without something close to the 2011 version of JPP, the Giants will have more trouble rushing the passer than the Cowboys.
Linebacker: Darryl Sharpton, Redskins. London Fletcher is retired. In his place is Sharpton, a former Wade Phillips mix-and-match linebacker for the Texans. Sharpton played well in relief of Brian Cushing and other injured starters, and he is a versatile puzzle piece, but replacing one of the NFL's all-time stalwarts for a team banking on a sudden turnaround will be a tough task.
Linebacker: The Broncos Middle Linebackers. Hey Broncos, you forgot something! Something big! You left the offseason process without a middle linebacker! Your depth chart currently lists Jamar Chaney as the starter, with Nate Irving, L.J. Fort and rookie Lamin Barrow as the challengers. As a Philly guy, I remember Chaney well: He was a try-hard guy who looked pretty good for the discombobulated 2011 Dream Team defense because he was one of the few guys who cared about where he lined up and was not checking his investment portfolio in the huddle. That was three years ago, so projecting him as a Super Bowl-caliber starter is nutty. Irving is a loyal super-sub. The others … I have no idea. This is a heck of a hole to leave empty while in win-now mode, which is why John Fox and Jack Del Rio must not consider it a hole. Maybe they have untold faith in Chaney and the others, or a surprise challenger for the job or an all-nickel tactic up their sleeve. Let's hope so. It would stink to ruin Peyton Manning's golden years because the Bengals slammed the ball off tackle against you in the playoffs.
Linebacker: Shea McClellin, Bears. McClellin left college as an odd fit for a cover-2 scented 4-3 defense: He was a small, quick end with a knack for dropping into coverage and ranging around the field, making him much more of a 3-4 linebacker. The Bears don't use a 3-4, so McClellin bulked up and tried to cut it as a rush end. He didn't, and by last season he was one of the guys chasing ballcarriers down after 20-yard runs, when not coping with foot and hamstring injuries. The Bears moved McClellin to linebacker, and he's dropped weight, reportedly upping his 40-time in the process. The Bears have completely overhauled their defense, but McClellin's transformation is the key to that of the Bears: He can prove that the team still knows what to do with defensive talent, and he can turn a massive 2013 minus into a big plus.
Safety: Michael Griffin, Titans. The Titans are never sure if they are contending or rebuilding; they always seem content to bob along at 7-9, which is why they let assets such as Alterraun Verner walk and don't bother replacing them in free agency or the draft. Jason McCourty (pretty good) and either Coty Sensabaugh or Blidi Wreh-Wilson (unproven) are now their starting corners, so the Titans better get a great performance from their free safety. Griffin is coming off knee and foot surgeries in the offseason, and he narrowly escaped cap-casualty status after another good-not-great season that did not live up to his $8 million price tag. Griffin may be the consummate Tennessee Titan: inconsistent, overpaid, too good to overlook but not good enough to really worry about. If he can be a little more, he can keep his team in the playoff picture while they struggle to find themselves.
Safety: Kenny Vaccaro, Saints. Unlike many other players on the All-Hinge Team, Vaccaro has not been abandoned to do a difficult job all by himself. On the contrary: The Saints added Jairus Byrd as a pure free safety, then beefed up the cornerback corps with supersized rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste and living-legend Champ Bailey. Instead, Vaccaro returns from a late-2013 foot injury to become the lynchpin of a whole new defensive strategy. Rob Ryan wants to deploy a "heavy nickel" formation next season, based on the one he used to quell an injury crisis last year. Byrd will play centerfield, with Vaccaro and Rafael Bush sliding all around the chessboard. Vaccaro's ability to morph from an undersized outside linebacker, to a hard-hitting safety, to a competent slot cornerback is a key to the whole operation. In the NFC playoff canopy, the Saints will live and die by Ryan's tactics, and Ryan's tactics will live and die by Vaccaro's health and ability to develop into one of the league's most unique defenders.
Cornerback: Dee Milliner, Jets. Rex Ryan likes to leave at least one cornerback on an island and forget about him. Dexter McDougle is not going to be that cornerback in 2014. Milliner may not be, either: Rex is not foolish when it comes to developing defenders. But someone has to cover the opponent's best receiver, and Milliner inherits the job by default. He was a great prospect coming out of Alabama, and he shook off a few ugly early season performances last year. But if opponents can suddenly throw deep against the Jets with little fear, it will be another long season in the Meadowlands, though for different reasons.
Cornerback: Ike Taylor, Steelers. Him again? Sheesh. I can remember sitting around NFL Films headquarters in 2008 debating the merits of Taylor. A "Taylor is toast" meme rumbled across the web back in 2012. And here we are, coming off a nearly cornerback-free Steelers draft, preparing for year nine of the Ike Taylor experience. To summarize half a decade of arguments: Taylor is asked to play deep zone often in the Steelers' cover-3 heavy system, and he often has no choice but to allow passes to occur in front of him as the Steelers sacrifice blanket coverage for confusion and sack opportunities. So even in his best seasons, Taylor appeared to allow too many receptions. That said, 2013 was not one of Taylor's best seasons -- opponents targeted him 109 times, a high total, and he allowed 8.9 per pass attempt, well above league average -- and he is not likely to have any more "best seasons" at age 34. Maybe Taylor can provide baseline capability for one more year. Maybe Cortez Allen or some other semi-prospect will replace him. Or maybe cornerback is just another one of those places where the Steelers have grown so used to diminishing returns that they no longer notice.
Kicker: Jay Feely, Cardinals. Steady and reliable for decades. Feely may be fading fast as his 38th birthday looms. Feely missed two field goals (including a 25-yarder) in a December victory over the Rams, then missed two more makeable attempts in the season finale against the 49ers. When you've locked the Niners into a 23-20 battle, you simply cannot afford 37- and 43-yard misses, and Feely's touchback rates aren't pinning opponents on their own 20-yard line, either. The Cardinals have signed some camp legs, including Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro, but it will be tough to supplant a veteran like Feely in camp. Was December a sign of age or random field-goal fluctuation? The Cardinals hope it's the latter, because it would stink to lose a playoff berth in the NFC West because of some lousy chip-shot field goals.