What truly makes the NFL beautiful and separates it from other sports? The genuine surprises. And I love watching injured players bounce back or aging stars regain glory.
A couple weeks ago, my colleague Daniel Jeremiah wrote a column on rookies who will outkick expectations. Now it's time for me to do the same with some faces that are more familiar to NFL fans.
In this edition of the Schein Nine, I give you a series of well-traveled players -- and one coach -- who will surprise by proving they have more left in the tank than you think.
1) Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots: In his lone season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Revis didn't look remotely like the megastar he was with the New York Jets. But now, two years removed from the torn ACL and playing for mastermind Bill Belichick, Revis will get back to his All-Pro form. The public debate about the NFL's best cornerback has revolved around Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson of late. Don't think this slight hasn't been felt on Revis Island.
2) Santonio Holmes, WR, Chicago Bears: This is not a misprint. Yes, Holmes was a total knucklehead with the Jets. But I believe in Santonio Holmes in Chicago. After the dynamic duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, the Bears were actually relatively thin at receiver, with Marquess Wilson fracturing his clavicle earlier this month. The signing of Holmes last Saturday provided some needed depth. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP is still a red zone threat and can help on third down. Bears coach Marc Trestman is a great judge of both talent and character. I doubt he would've signed Holmes if he had any worries about him disrupting the team.
3) Dom Capers, defensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers: Capers has become the whipping boy for Packer Backers -- and it isn't without reason. Green Bay's defense has been surprisingly bad in two of the past three years, ranking dead last in total defense in 2011 and 25th last season. The Pack boast solid talent on that side of the ball. Capers has long distinguished himself as a defensive guru. I think 2014 can be a special year in Green Bay. Capers won't let the defense drag this team down.
4) Matt Cassel, QB, Minnesota Vikings: Yes, Matt Cassel. I think the 32-year-old is a solid quarterback. He isn't a star, but I've seen the Chiefs and Patriots win double-digit games with him under center. And I know how good Norv Turner is as a play caller. He will maximize Cassel, who has legit talent at receiver with budding playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson and savvy veteran Greg Jennings. Not to mention, a young tight end (Kyle Rudolph) who should flourish in Turner's scheme. And the primary focus of every opposing defense is clearly Adrian Peterson. Cassel can make foes pay when they stack the box. First-round pick Teddy Bridgewater is the quarterback of the future in Minnesota, but Cassel can capably direct this offense right now.
5) Dwight Freeney, OLB, San Diego Chargers: This cat still has it. Just ask teammate Donald Butler, who recently told USA Today, "That man is built -- God blessed him -- to rush the passer. In terms of expectations, anything less than the old Dwight Freeney would very much surprise me." I think the big number for Freeney this year is 16, as in the ideal number of games played. My crystal ball says Freeney stays healthy and sacks the quarterback at least 10 times, helping the Chargers make the playoffs again.
6) Vince Wilfork, DT, New England Patriots: The Patriots' defense just couldn't overcome the loss of its stud defensive tackle to a torn Achilles in Week 4. New England finished last season ranked 30th in rushing defense. Wilfork is now healthy. He stuffs the run and occupies multiple offensive linemen, allowing Chandler Jones and the rest of the front seven to get to the quarterback. Wilfork is a warrior and a fantastic leader in New England. After the offseason back-and-forth over his contract, this guy will be motivated. I think he regains his status as an elite defensive tackle.
7) Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans: It's been a slow-go in training camp for Foster, who's dealing with hamstring issues after missing half of last season with a back injury. And then there was the revelation that Foster actually pondered retirement in the offseason. But Texans head coach Bill O'Brien raved about how Foster looked in joint practices with the Denver Broncos this week, particularly gushing to the media about the running back's hands. It would be foolish to count out this soon-to-be 28-year-old, given his versatile (and rare) skill set. I definitely still believe in him.
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8) Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals: Heading into last season, you could've made a cogent argument that Atkins was the most important defensive player in the game. In fact, I did just that. Then a torn ACL ended his season in October. Well, the knee is healed and Atkins is set to make his preseason debut against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. The Bengals lost Mike Zimmer, but they've regained their heartbeat up front. I expect this guy to immediately re-establish himself as one of the game's preeminent defenders.
9) Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: After a brief scare on Thursday night, when it looked like Maclin might've reinjured his knee, the receiver bounced back and made a catch shortly thereafter. The Eagles needed to see that. He missed all of the Chip Kelly fun last year, having torn his ACL in training camp. Jog the mental rolodex. Maclin is a big-time, playmaking receiver with great hands. I think he recaptures top-dog status in Philly this year and catches a minimum of 75 passes from Nick Foles. Yes, DeSean Jackson's gone, but Maclin's return significantly lessens the blow.