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NFL predictions: Carolina Panthers’ Star Lotuleilei will be defensive rookie of the year

By Sam Farmer
Los Angeles Times

The Baltimore Ravens are rebooted.

Thirty-one other NFL teams are recommitted.

And, as always, the questions are relentless:

Rookie quarterbacks were all the rage last season, with a record five of them starting openers. Who are this season’s stars-in-waiting?

Rookie running backs. We could see big years from Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard, Denver’s Montee Ball and Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy. Pittsburgh’s Le'Veon Bell was showing a lot of promise before he was sidelined by a foot injury.

What about backs with an NFL season under their belt?

The first three backs taken in 2012 – Cleveland’s Trent Richardson, Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin and David Wilson of the New York Giants – figure to be coast-to-coast household names this season, particularly Richardson and Martin.

Will the best back go back-to-back? In other words, can Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson assemble another 2,000-yard season?

History says no. Each of the league’s previous six 2,000-yard rushers saw their production drop off sharply in the season that followed. Then again, how many of those guys were fresh off a torn anterior cruciate ligament the way Peterson was last season? Don’t count him out.

Is there another Peterson-type comeback story in the making?

Washington hopes so. Quarterback Robert Griffin III is looking to make the same kind of astounding recovery from a major knee injury.

Griffin was last season’s offensive rookie of the year. Who wins it this season?

St. Louis receiver Tavon Austin. The Rams, who selected the versatile West Virginia star with the No. 8 pick, didn’t use him extensively in the preseason, but they have big plans for him in games that count.

Watch out for Star

And defensive rookie of the year?

Carolina tackle Star Lotulelei. He was a steal with the 14th pick, and tumbled out of the top five because of a heart scare. He will be the second consecutive Panthers player to win the award, with linebacker Luke Kuechly claiming it in 2012.

Who will be the first coach to go?

Rex Ryan doesn’t look long for the New York Jets. Were he to lose his job during the season, he probably would be replaced on an interim basis by Dennis Thurman or Marty Mornhinweg, the team’s coordinators.

Which coach will change the league?

Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly – it’s just not clear how. By the way, in the time it took you to read that sentence, the Eagles got off three snaps.

Who was the best free-agent acquisition of the off-season?

Danny Amendola in New England. The Patriots lost three playmakers – Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – so Tom Brady figures to go to Amendola early and often.

Welker was a solid addition in Denver, although Peyton Manning already has receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, and the Broncos are likely to run the ball more. So Welker might not be as essential to Denver as he was to New England.

Another free agent to watch is Reggie Bush in Detroit. He gives the Lions another playmaking threat to go along with Calvin Johnson, and could wind up being the team’s best back since Barry Sanders. That’s not to suggest Bush and Sanders are in the same league, but this team has been searching for an answer at running back for a long time.

Less splashy than Bush but just as important to their teams are Baltimore linebacker Daryl Smith, who replaces Ray Lewis; Chicago’s Jermon Bushrod, who figures to give the Bears a reliable left tackle at last; and Tennessee guard Andy Levitre, who, along with rookie guard Chance Warmack, significantly fortifies the Titans up the middle.

A free-agent fizzler?

There will be plenty. An early one, though, didn’t make it out of training camp. San Diego was hoping for more from former Pittsburgh Steeler Max Starks, who was beat out for the left tackle job by King Dunlap, who started 12 games in five seasons with Philadelphia. The Chargers didn’t invest a lot in Starks, who got a one-year deal with a $160,000 bonus, but they thought he might be the player to protect Philip Rivers’ blind side.

The league’s best rivalry?

Step aside, Redskins-Cowboys, Bears-Packers and Patriots-Colts. The best rivalry is 49ers-Seahawks, even though it has come to a boil only in the past couple of years. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll can’t hide their mutual disdain for each other; Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are two of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the game; both teams have tremendous running games and stifling defenses; and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman can shut down most anything but his mouth. They meet in Week 2.

Which third-year quarterbacks have to prove it this season?

When it comes to producing great quarterbacks, it’s a safe bet the class of 2011 won’t rival the Hall of Fame crop from 1983. But the 2011 group did include Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Kaepernick.

The quarterbacks from that class who need to step up are Tennessee’s Jake Locker, Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder.

How about some of the more seasoned quarterbacks and the pressure they’re facing?

It’s a contract year for Jay Cutler in Chicago, and with quarterbacks guru Marc Trestman as his head coach, maybe he can finally be the modern-day Sid Luckman the Bears had envisioned.

The Chargers haven’t made the playoffs for three seasons, and Rivers has been turnover-prone during that span. He doesn’t get a lot of protection, and his cast of offensive playmakers is dwindling, but the responsibility to get the job done ultimately lands with him.

As for Tony Romo, he needs to come through in divisional games down the stretch and make good on all the time and money the Dallas Cowboys have invested in him.

Revenge can be sweet

Who has the best chance to stick it to his former team?

It’s a tie between Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and coach Andy Reid. They can thumb their noses at opposite coasts.

Which team missed the playoffs last season but is primed for a return?

Pittsburgh. The Steelers are finally more athletic and youthful on the offensive line, and that will help their running game and Ben Roethlisberger. The relationship between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has thawed, and as long as the quarterback can stay relatively healthy and doesn’t revert to tossing up-for-grabs throws the way he did at the end of last season, Pittsburgh will enjoy football in January.

Tough road for Packers?

Which perennial contender will face the toughest struggle to get back to the playoffs?

Green Bay. Receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are gone, and Jordy Nelson is coming off knee surgery. Starting running back DuJuan Harris and left tackle Bryan Bulaga are out for the season because of knee injuries. The Packers were only decent on defense last season, and haven’t made any dramatic changes to improve. And they open at San Francisco, having been unable to contain Kaepernick last season.

Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback, but he might need his best year to get his team back to the postseason.

Whose workload has increased the most this year?

Whoever transcribes the head coach’s quotes for the Philadelphia Eagles. Reid was a breeze; he said next to nothing at the podium. Kelly quintuples Reid’s word count – and speaks at hyper speed – but at least he’s entertaining.

Who is the Super Bowl dark horse?

Cincinnati. Even though they haven’t won a playoff game since 1990, the Bengals have reached the postseason three of the last four years and they have one of the league’s most productive quarterback-receiver tandems in Dalton and A.J. Green. They also have a spectacular young defensive tackle in Geno Atkins; a last-rodeo, havoc-wreaking linebacker in James Harrison; a pair of coordinators – Jay Gruden on offense, Mike Zimmer on defense – who eventually will be head coaches; and, hey, they were on “Hard Knocks” this summer, which served them well when they were on it four years ago and broke their playoff drought.

What’s your Super Bowl prediction?

Seahawks over Broncos.

Most valuable player?

Seattle’s Wilson.

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