Look to San Francisco
Los Angeles Times
The player with the most to prove is 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who has a chance to redefine himself with another outstanding season. Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, finally broke through in 2011 with an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17-5. If he comes through again, he can hammer home the message that he's more than a one-year wonder.
The 49ers have given him more targets, among them receivers Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. What's more, the team that fell one game shy of the Super Bowl last season with a dominant defense and pounding running game now wants to show it can consistently move the ball through the air. Smith is the key to that.
Sanchez under the gun
The player with the most to prove is Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. That's because he will be scrutinized more closely than any other player.
The presence of Tim Tebow changes everything for Sanchez. In the past, if Sanchez had some ups and downs, he could survive them. Now, if he isn't consistently excellent, it will start an incredible firestorm.
Tebow aside, Sanchez needs to step up this year. In his third season, he led the Jets to an 8-8 record last year and his passer rating of 78.2 ranked 23rd in the NFL. That won't be close to good enough for him to keep starting this year. Given Sanchez plays in New York and for a coach in Rex Ryan who loves controversy, he will be under as much pressure as any player in the league.
Chad's asking for it
Peyton Manning will draw a ton of attention in Denver. Similarly, the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow dynamic will pin a spotlight on the Jets quarterbacks.
But it's easy to see where Chad Johnson (no longer Ochocinco) has the biggest bull's-eye on his back.
Not only did he get run out of New England after one unproductive season, but the new Dolphins wide receiver has been quite vocal this summer about his ability to recapture his Pro Bowl past.
If he's right, the Dolphins will have found their low-budget replacement for the traded Brandon Marshall.
If Johnson, newly married and back in his hometown, is wrong, well, this could be the end of the road for one of the NFL's loudest mouths.
Spotlight on Manning
It would be unfair to look to any of the promising first-round picks to immediately show they are as good as expected. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III playing in controlled settings against teammates won't tell us anything. They have to prove themselves later, against others.
But we're already aware of what Peyton Manning, in his first year quarterbacking the Broncos, should be able to do. So the throws he can or cannot make during drills will be telling. Manning endured long rehab from serious neck surgery and a painful break from the Colts to reach his late-career second act. He already has proved he's one of the greatest passers ever, but no player will be more scrutinized.