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NFL camp preview: NFC players on the hot seat

The SportsXchange

As NFL training camps get into full swing this week, some players are under more pressure than others because they are, for various reasons, on the hot seat.

In the NFC, the players range from proven veterans such as Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver Dez Bryant to inexperienced rookies such as first-round pick Kyle Long, an offensive lineman who'll be playing a brand new position in the NFL.

The reasons include those who must continue a high level of play after a breakout season, such as Bryant, and those who need to prove they can start and star, of which there are many.

Quarterbacks are always on a hot seat, but those in the NFC whose situation is especially intriguing include Minnesota's Christian Ponder, Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and, in a different sense, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and St. Louis' Sam Bradford.

However, the hot seats for many teams are at far less conspicuous positions than quarterback or wide receiver. In Arizona, left tackle Levi Brown must prove he can protect quarterback Carson Palmer. And in Chicago, Long needs to call on impressive family genetics to live up to expectations at right guard after starting only 10 games -- all at other offensive line positions -- in college.

Here is a closer look at who is on the hot seat for each NFC team, based on information from team correspondents for The Sports Xchange (teams listed alphabetically):

Arizona Cardinals -- Left tackle Levi Brown.

Coach Bruce Arians says Brown is an "elite player," but not everybody seems to agree. Brown had not met expectations since being drafted fifth overall in 2007, but his absence last season (torn triceps) may have shed a new light on things. The Cardinals couldn't replace him. Brown is back and there will be pressure on him to live up to the "elite" label as he may be a key to an offensive line that is supposed to be improved, which would be good news for newly-acquired veteran quarterback Carson Palmer.

Atlanta Falcons -- Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas.

Nicholas led the Falcons with 116 tackles last season, but was limited with a sports hernia in the offseason. He took most of the heat for opposing tight ends being so open in the playoffs. While the Falcons may need a better scheme to cover tight ends, Nicholas will face a training camp challenge to keep his role in the nickel and dime packages. When Nicholas was sidelined in the offseason, Akeem Dent, a two-down linebacker against the run last season, took over Nicholas' role.

Carolina Panthers -- Right guard Geoff Hangartner.

Hangartner started 28 of the Panthers' 32 games the past two seasons, but he will be pushed by rookie Edmund Kugbila, the Ghanaian-born, fourth-round pick from little Valdosta State. Hangartner is going into his ninth season, and while his versatility is a plus, the Panthers might be better off if he was a backup or fill-in starter.

Chicago Bears -- Offensive lineman Kyle Long.

The 20th pick of April's draft played in only 12 college football games, starting 10. He enters training camp with only three days of offseason workouts due to rules restrictions. He is also moving to right guard after playing the left side at Oregon. His competition is undrafted second-year man James Brown .

Dallas Cowboys -- Wide receiver Dez Bryant.

Bryant finally lived up to expectations on the field and avoided issues off the field last year. So expectations are putting him on the hot seat as the team's best offensive player after a breakout season in 2012 -- 92 catches, 1,382 yards, 12 touchdowns. Dallas, especially quarterback Tony Romo, needs a Pro Bowl season from Bryant.

Detroit Lions -- Quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Expectations are as high as a five-year, $76.7 million contract that includes $43 million of new money and a $27.5 million signing bonus. He is 25. He threw for more than 10,000 yards the last two seasons, yet his efficiency dropped significantly last year, attributable to the lack of a running game and only one good, albeit great, target in Calvin Johnson. This year he has running back Reggie Bush and healthy receivers Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles and Brandon Pettigrew -- and no excuses.

Green Bay Packers -- Outside linebacker Nick Perry.

Perry, last year's first-rounder, must bounce back after an injury-shortened rookie season. He participated in the spring workouts, but had to wear a brace on his surgically repaired left wrist, which ended his rookie year after only six games. In OTAs and minicamp, the team took a long look at defensive end Mike Neal as an outside linebacker because this year's first-round pick, Datone Jones, is penciled in as a starter at end.

Minnesota Vikings -- Quarterback Christian Ponder.

Everybody, including new backup quarterback Matt Cassel, is saying all the right things publicly about Ponder being the starting quarterback. But the reality is Ponder's grip on the starting job is tenuous. For the first time since Ponder joined the team, there is a legitimate backup to turn to if he sinks into another slump. And so far, the 12th overall pick from 2011 hasn't done enough to seize indisputable claim to being the team's long-term answer. With Adrian Peterson in his prime, the Vikings can't afford another inconsistent season from Ponder.

New Orleans Saints -- Running back Mark Ingram.

The Saints need Ingram's rushing to offer some semblance of balance to the offense, which certainly would help take pressure off quarterback in Drew Brees. The Saints were 25th in rushing last year with 98.6 yards per game. Ingram was plagued by injuries to his heel, toe and knee in most of his first two seasons, but came on in the second half of 2012 when he was healthy. After averaging just 2.9 yards per attempt with one touchdown in the first seven games, Ingram averaged 4.3 yards per carry with four scores in the final nine games.

New York Giants -- Running back David Wilson.

Last year's first-round draft pick, Wilson is expected to take over as the starting running back now that Ahmad Bradshaw is with the Colts. But after minicamp, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was hesitant about Wilson's increased role because of concerns about blocking.

Philadelphia Eagles -- Wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

Jackson exploded on the NFL scene in 2008, establishing himself as a big-play guy who scared the hell out of opposing defensive backs. But since his second concussion midway through the 2010 season, he hasn't been the same, with only seven touchdown catches and five 100-yard receiving games in 33 starts.

St. Louis Rams -- Quarterback Sam Bradford.

Bradford must take some big, positive steps this season to establish himself as a team leader after the departure of running back Steven Jackson. But the talent around him is young and inexperienced. No running back has been in the league for more than one season. Austin Pettis is the most experienced wide receiver in this, his third season. Bradford will be challenged to help bring the group together and get the best out of everyone, especially multi-talented rookie receiver Tavon Austin.

San Francisco 49ers -- Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha hopes returning to the Bay Area will help regain the form that made him a star at Cal-Berkeley and the Oakland Raiders. After cashing in with a five-year, $60 million contract in Philadelphia two years ago his play has been mediocre. Some believe he did not play up to expectations with the Eagles because he did not fit the system. However, the man coverage skills he showed with the Raiders were a full step off much of the time and that shouldn't be considered a problem with the system. Now he gets a chance to show he can play at a high level again - first, he must earn a roster spot.

Seattle Seahawks -- Wide receiver Golden Tate.

Tate was good in 2012 as he finished with a career-high 45 receptions for 688 yards and seven touchdowns. The Notre Dame product is in a contract year and may not be targeted as often with the addition of Percy Harvin. However, if Tate has another good year, the Seahawks could have a tough decision to make in free agency next season, with Sidney Rice due to make $8.5 million in non-guaranteed base salary in 2014.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Quarterback Josh Freeman.

Heading into the fifth and final season of his rookie contract, Freeman must show he is the future and, after breaking the bank in the offseason, the Bucs will settle for nothing less than a strong playoff team. If not, his heir apparent is already on board. The Bucs drafted North Carolina State's Mike Glennon in the third round. Last year, Freeman set single-season club records for passing yards (4,065) and touchdowns (27) while throwing 17 interceptions. But Year Two under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan must be even better.

Washington Redskins -- Safety Brandon Meriweather.

After New England and Chicago declined to keep the often undisciplined Meriweather in the span of six months, Washington signed the two-time Pro Bowl safety to a two-year, $6 million contract last year. Then he was charged with DUI, injured his right knee in the second preseason game, reinjured it in warmups before Week 5 and went down for good in the third quarter of Week 11 against Philadelphia just as he was looking very good. Meriweather had been superb that day against Philadelphia, but will he ever find consistency?

Frank Cooney is The Sports Xchange publisher and has been a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee for 20 years.
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