NFL

Five Players You Should Root for this Season

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This offseason has featured far too many headlines regarding players who are easy to dislike: Tom Brady, Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel and Greg Hardy, just to name a few. While this provides excellent fodder for message-board bullies, it neglects the players whose stories are truly worth rallying around.

In an effort to keep things positive (for a change), here is a look at five players you should root for this season.

1. DT Geno Atkins (Cincinnati) 

Atkins was quickly emerging as the game’s top interior pass rusher before a knee injury halted his progress midway through the 2013 season. Coming off a 12.5-sack season in 2012, Atkins was on pace for a second straight double-digit sack season in 2013 until his ACL snapped during a game in Miami.

After a long offseason of rehab, Atkins returned last season to start all 16 games. However, the quick first step and explosiveness that made him so effective were gone. He finished the year with just 3.0 sacks, the lowest number since his rookie season.

“Geno played his tail off against the run last year,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. “He didn’t have the production we’d like rushing the passer but I wasn’t dissatisfied with Geno’s season at all. He’ll go back to being as dominant as he was. He’s just got to work through.”

Atkins will be more than 18 months removed from surgery by the time training camp opens. He should get back to the disruptive form that helped him win All Pro honors in 2011 and 2012. If he can do that, it will greatly help a Bengals defense that finished with the fewest sacks in the league last season (20).

2. WR Malcom Floyd (San Diego) 

What Floyd accomplished last season was nothing short of amazing. There was some concern he would never play again after he suffered a serious neck injury just two games into the 2013 season. He was carted off the field that day and the prospects of him ever returning to action appeared bleak. Instead, he came back to start every game last season — the first time he did that in his 11-year career — and finished with a team-high 856 receiving yards.

Floyd, a former undrafted free agent, is a fan favorite in San Diego. He is also one of the best deep threats in the league, averaging over 17 yards per catch for his career. However, that highlight-packed career is nearing its end. Floyd (33) is entering the final year of his contract and has revealed his plans to retire following the season.

A lot of things figure to change for the Chargers after this season. The franchise could relocate to Los Angeles. The team might also lose QB Philip Rivers, who is also in the final year of his contract and has expressed an unwillingness to relocate. However, those front-page headlines should not bury Floyd’s story or distract from the final season of a magnificent career.

3. CB Joe Haden (Cleveland) 

The Browns finally started to turn the corner last season, winning their most games (seven) since 2007, but one of their best players played only a minor role in that ascension. And, no, we’re not talking about that walking suspension, Josh Gordon.

Haden battled though an injury-plagued season in which he dealt with hip and shoulder injuries. He missed only one game — a Week 16 contest in Carolina — but he was clearly not his All Pro self for much of the year.

Even before the injuries struck, Haden struggled. Three weeks into the 2014 season he ranked No. 93 out of 95 cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, after giving up touchdown receptions to Jimmy Graham and Steve Smith Sr. in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively.

“He’s played well at times, but as you can see, at some inopportune times he’s not played well,” said coach Mike Pettine following Haden’s slow start to the season.

Entering the second season of a five-year, $68 million extension he signed prior to last season, Haden is determined to prove he is still one of the top cover corners in the game. The offseason addition of Randy Starks and Nate Orchard should boost Cleveland’s pass rush, making Haden’s job a little easier, but he needs to get back to covering receivers like ESPN covers Johnny Manziel if the Browns are to finally reach their full potential.

4. TE Marcedes Lewis (Jacksonville) 

Lewis is entering his 10th season in Jacksonville, making him one of the few members of the organization who was around for the franchise’s last trip to the playoffs (following the 2007 season). He has enjoyed some incredible highs along the way, including the entire 2010 season when he set career-highs with 58 catches, 700 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, he has yet to approach those numbers since and his career is clearly in its twilight.

The Jaguars landed a new franchise tight end this offseason in Julius Thomas. The former Broncos standout signed a five-year, $46 million deal to come to Jacksonville, while Lewis was forced to slash his 2014 salary by $4.15 million just to avoid being released. Now entering the final year of his contract, it’s clear the end is near for the former first-round pick.

An underrated two-way tight end, Lewis will spend most of his final season trying to open up running lanes for T.J. Yeldon, Denard Robinson and Toby Gerhart. Fortunately, he is more concerned with making a second trip to the postseason than putting up Julius Thomas-type numbers. As a result, it’s easy to root for him to have a healthy and successful final season in Jacksonville.

5. WR Leonard Hankerson (Falcons) 

Damn those ACLs (I know Jaguars and Broncos fans are with me on that one)! Hankerson, a former third-round pick from Miami, was developing into a dangerous weapon for the Redskins until he tore his ACL 10 games into the 2013 season. Not only did the injury bring an early end to a promising campaign (he was on track for 48 catches, 600 yards and five touchdowns), but it essentially wiped out his 2014 season as well.

Despite appearing in just one game last season (with no receptions), Hankerson quickly found a new home in free agency, signing a one-year deal with the Falcons that will allow him to reestablish a market for his services. It’s a great landing spot for Hankerson, as he can take over for Harry Douglas as the No. 3 receiver and work with a legitimate franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan.

It also helps that Hankerson has some familiarity in Atlanta, as he is reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who worked with him in Washington from 2011-2013. He will also get to play alongside fellow Miami product Devin Hester. All the pieces are lined up; if Hankerson can stay healthy, he has a chance to be one of the biggest steals of the offseason.

Are there any other players you would add to this list? Talk about them with Michael Lombardo during his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask him a question now


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.