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Twenty questions to contemplate as 2010 season comes into focus

Every NFL season starts with a host of unanswered questions, and this year it's even more so. With the opening of the first training camp less than 10 days away -- Dallas, on July 24 in San Antonio -- here are 20 pressing questions, in no particular order, that begged to be answered as the 2010 preseason looms:

1. Is Kevin Kolb ready for his close-up in Philadelphia?

With Donovan McNabb in D.C., it's time to throw Kolb into the deep end of the pool and proceed with the sinking or swimming phase. While there's no deeper end of the pool in the NFL than playing quarterback in football-mad Philly, Kolb isn't without some very reliable survival skills. First off, he's an accurate and efficient passer who is comfortable and perfectly suited for Andy Reid's West Coast offense. His three years of playing understudy to McNabb has been time well spent, and the most obvious comparison is to Aaron Rodgers, who didn't waste a minute as Brett Favre's heir apparent for three years in Green Bay. When Rodgers finally got his chance to replace a legend, he made it immediately obvious that he was up to the task.

If you're an Eagles fan, you wish Philadelphia had more of a running game and a stronger defense to help lift some of the burden from Kolb's shoulders, but that's somewhat off-set by the explosive receiving weapons Philly has amassed in recent years. There's no way to replace McNabb's experience all in one season, so Kolb can be expected to make some glaring mistakes as he learns the subtleties of playing the position. But Reid will always show patience and refuse to panic or cave to the talk-show ranting, and my sense is Kolb will reward him with a solid and occasionally spectacular first season on the job.

2.Will Anquan Boldin be the No. 1 receiver that Baltimore has lacked since Raymond Berry retired?

The tricky part of Boldin finally escaping Arizona and Larry Fitzgerald's shadow is that while he definitely got a No. 1 receiver payday from Baltimore ($28 million over four years), he didn't really go to an offense that will be designed to showcase him in a clear-cut No. 1 role. The Cardinals threw the ball more than 62 percent of the time last season, and Baltimore's throw-run breakdown was around 52-48 percent. The Ravens are going to get Ray Rice his share of touches every game, and the third-year running back actually led the team in receptions last year with 78 for 702 yards.

When you factor in the Ravens re-signing veteran receiver Derrick Mason (73 catches for 1,028 yards in 2009), who has a well-established rapport with quarterback Joe Flacco, you could envision a scenario in which neither receiver dominates any particular game plan. So while Boldin might wind up Baltimore's top receiver, monster numbers are probably not on the horizon for him. Not with a Ravens ground game that rushed for 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.

3. Are the Titans holding their breath about Chris Johnson's threatened holdout?

Of course they are, but no one in Nashville is about to pass out due to lack of oxygen just yet. I'd say the chances of the Titans third-year running back showing up for the start of camp in Nashville on July 31 under his present contract ($550,000 base salary in 2010) are less than 1 in 1,000. CJ has no leverage past training camp, but he has talked too big and has way too much pride invested at this point to give in without extracting some large chunk of flesh (more like money) from Tennessee.

Recent reports that the team is willing to convert $2.5 million of incentives into a bonus and get Johnson over the $3 million threshold this year could be the foundation of a deal, and he seems open to that kind of short-term fix. But don't you get the feeling this story couldn't possibly end that quickly or neatly? I'll be surprised if we're not tracking the Johnson holdout at least through the first two weeks of camp and possibly past the first preseason game.

The looming lockout in 2011 complicates the situation, because owners around the league are trying to tighten their payroll in case there's a work stoppage, not jack it up. This much I know: Johnson's not getting the $30 million-$40 million guaranteed he said he wants in a new deal. Not this summer. Not entering the third season of a five-year rookie contract. Enough to make him feel appreciated and to be able to claim victory in his stand-off with the team should do the trick and get him to report to work in mid-August. But where that magic number will wind up being, no one can say just yet with certainty.

4. Can the Redskins still move the unmovable Albert Haynesworth?

There's always a chance the Raiders could jump in and try to trade for Washington's $100 million headache, because that's the sort of thing the Raiders have been known for (and they did acquire Richard Seymour last year on final cutdown weekend). But the list of 4-3 defensive teams interested in taking on a selfish act like Haynesworth has to be short. Even his former Titans defensive coordinator, current Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, won't be shopping in that market, and that has to speak volumes to the rest of the league.

That means Mike Shanahan and Haynesworth might be stuck with one another this year, and don't you know things could very, very ugly. Especially with Haynesworth's Redskins teammates having already ripped him quite publicly. The whole saga has the makings of an in-season team suspension written all over it (a'la the Bucs paying Keyshawn Johnson to go home and not play a few years back), even though Washington is already trying to recover some of the $21 million it paid Haynesworth in April 1.

And now we learn that Haynesworth is reportedly losing weight in an effort to make himself less valuable as a nose tackle in Shanahan's 3-4 formation and force a trade, no doubt royally ticking off the Redskins new head coach. Unless someone rescues Washington from this mess of its own making, and I don't think that's likely, things are going to get worse before they get better in D.C.

5. Is Jason Campbell the next Jim Plunkett or Rich Gannon in Oakland or merely another Kerry Collins or Jeff George?

The Raiders have a long track record of going with veteran re-tread quarterbacks, and the results definitely have been a mixed bag. Into that history steps Campbell, the former Redskins first-round pick who was shipped to Oakland once Washington landed Donovan McNabb. Campbell had a tough and uneven five-year stay with the Redskins, but who ever departs D.C. looking better than when they arrived? (We'll wait here while you come up with an answer.)

Any way you cut it, Campbell is a considerable upgrade over JaMarcus Russell, the guy who will keep Ryan Leaf company on those all-time draft bust lists throughout perpetuity. Raiders head coach Tom Cable might have spoken the truth last year when he said his 5-11 Raiders would have been playoff material with at least average quarterbacking. We should find out if he was right this year, because in Campbell he has an above average quarterback who might still deliver on some of his first-round promise now that he's off the merry-go-round of coaches, coordinators and offenses in Washington.

New Raiders offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has gotten credit for helping develop both Carson Palmer and Joe Flacco, and Campbell and he have quickly meshed well. Campbell has what it takes to get the Raiders to .500 and maybe the cusp of playoff contention. As for another Super Bowl trip from a veteran Raiders quarterback in the midst of career resurgence -- see Plunkett and Gannon -- let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?

6. Will "Medical Marvel'' replace "Mighty Mite" as an apt description for New England's Wes Welker?

All indications continue to point to the Patriots' highly productive slot receiver being cleared for full participation at some point this preseason, and possibly even getting significant practice time during training camp. That's a fairly remarkable timetable for his return given that he tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee on Jan. 3 of this year, on a non-contact play in New England's Week 17 loss at Houston. But when we saw Welker doing most of the same work everyone else was doing in New England's OTAs and mini-camp practices in late spring, it became apparent that his presence in the Patriots lineup for the Sept. 12 season opener was a pretty safe bet.

The Patriots, no doubt still reeling a bit from that first-round playoff beatdown by Baltimore at home, could certainly use Welker at full speed from day one of this season. In their opening seven games, they face five 2009 playoff teams in Cincinnati, the Jets, Baltimore, San Diego and Minnesota. A slow start in that stretch of the woods by New England and those brash-talking Jets might own the AFC East by Halloween.

7. Who's headlining Favre-apalooza this year?

Why, of course, it's once again Brett Favre, the Vikings' 40-year-old, perpetually limbo-residing quarterback with the ever-graying short-cropped haircut. Thank goodness for the ESPYs show on Wednesday night, because how else would we ever have found out this week that Favre wants to play again in 2010, if....wait for it....his surgically repaired ankle allows him.

Favre says it has been eight weeks now since he went under the knife and things haven't progressed as far along as he thought they would. He can walk, but as he ironically noted, you have to do more than walk in the NFL. (You mean like, run for it on third down late in regulation of the NFC title game?) So there you have it. He wants to play, but can't yet. He's still healing. Thanks for the retirement-unretirement update, Brett.

Now, what do you say we all just let him alone for another month, then look up in time to see him making a triumphant return to Minnesota in mid-August, once the Vikings have gotten past all that silly business of holding training camp in Mankato? Who's with me? Yes, I see that hand, Brad Childress.

8. Will the Steelers be singing "Wake Me Up When September Ends'' or is Ben Roethlisberger's suspension survivable in Pittsburgh?

OK, I know Big Ben must serve at least four games of his NFL suspension and that takes us into early days of October, but you get my drift about the unknowns in the first month of the Steelers season. As I wrote the day the league handed down his punishment, a four-game suspension (and that's still all I expect he'll serve) is not a death sentence for Pittsburgh's 2010 season. With Byron Leftwich back in black and gold, and Dennis Dixon behind him, the Steelers can tread water for a month without No. 7 at quarterback.

They won't thrive, but they will survive, just as they have done in the eight games that Roethlisberger has missed in his starting career. The Steelers are 4-4 in those, and when I look at their first four games of this season, I see a 2-2 start in the offing. Pittsburgh is home against the Falcons in Week 1, then at the Titans, at the Bucs and home against the Ravens. Could they do worse? Yes. Better? Probably not. But I won't be writing the Steelers off in the AFC North without Roethlisberger around in the early going. History says that would be a mistake.

9. Can the returning Mike Shanahan breathe competitive life into the NFC East-cellar-dwelling Redskins?

Not really. Not where it really matters most -- the standings. I think the Redskins will look better, play harder and give their opponents a much tougher time than they did for most of last year's 4-12 debacle under the overmatched (and undermined) Jim Zorn. That's the good news. But I don't know who Washington beats out in the tough NFC East, and that spells a third consecutive last-place finish and fourth in five years.

At least the Redskins offense should be entertaining and more efficient than it has been for most of the past decade. With McNabb on hand to run Shanahan's offense, there won't be much that No. 5 hasn't seen before or experienced first-hand. But the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants have plenty of offensive talent too, so Washington's not going to separate itself from the pack on that front. A fast start might be the Redskins best chance to flip the script. They play four of their first six games at home, and if they can come out of that stretch at 4-2 or better, momentum and the energy created by their fresh start might carry them further than we expect. To be sure, more than four wins are in the offing in D.C. But in reality, third place might wind up representing overachievement.

10. Will the Cardinals follow Matt Leinart's lead from day one in Arizona?

If the expectation level is wildly over-optimistic, say, in line with Kurt Warner, circa 2008-09, Leinart is likely to be viewed as a disappointment no matter what the 2006 first-round pick accomplishes this season. But if the Cardinals keep in mind Leinart has played little the past three seasons and wisely shift more of the focus to their running game early on, they might just find they have a 27-year-old quarterback whose upside has survived all that inactivity.

As I wrote in late January in the wake of Warner's retirement, Leinart played better than most remember in his first incarnation as the Cardinals starter. Not approaching Warner-esque, but more than competently given the team he had around him. True, Arizona brought in Derek Anderson as its insurance policy, and there will be a clamor for him the first time Leinart sails a pass high and wide in the secondary. But I still say Leinart is primed and in great position to make the Cardinals his team. Better late than never.

11. Can Jimmy Clausen make Carolina's second-round investment look like a first-class move?

In time, perhaps, but not initially. For now, any potential Clausen-mania phase in Carolina seems to be a development for another day with Matt Moore firmly entrenched as the team's starter and only quarterback with NFL game experience. Clausen actually finished the offseason workout program as the Panthers' No. 3 QB, behind Moore and first-year man Hunter Cantwell. That doesn't mean much in mid-July, but the expectation is that Clausen will have to overwhelmingly outplay Moore in August to vault over him into the starting role.

Carolina head coach John Fox seems inclined to stick with Moore, who went 4-1 to end last season in place of the now-departed Jake Delhomme, and give Clausen a chance to force the issue at some later point in his rookie year. Early season struggles by Moore would obviously accelerate that timetable --- this is the NFL, after all, and Fox is coaching in the final year of his contract --- but Clausen would have to be lights out to make Carolina get itchy and pull that trigger before losses start to mount.

12. Are there enough cameras to capture all that Jets star power on HBO?

This should be fun. You could put shoot-from-the-lip head coach Rex Ryan alone in front of the Hard Knocks cameras for five consecutive hours and it would make for must-see television. But when you add new Jets LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes to the group of quotemeisters who populated New York's locker room last year -- see Bart Scott, Darrelle Revis, Braylon Edwards and Mark Sanchez -- there could be Jets fighting for HBO face time like the crazies who stand behind Dick Vitale and wave their arms at a college basketball game.

Most coaches would hate the distraction of having their training camp turned into a documentary series, but not Ryan and not his brash-talking Jets. I expect that they will not only embrace the national exposure, but also might push to have the series extended into the regular season. I'm kidding. I think.

13. Will the third time around be the charm for Pete Carroll in Seattle?

Competition has been Carroll's big theme of the offseason, and he's preaching the mantra that his starters will be pushed at each and every position. If they don't respond, they won't be his starters any more. Sounds good now. Let's see how it works during the regular season, when the ex-USC coach won't have 100 players on the roster and his biggest task will be to start reversing the losing habits and defeatist mentality that has gripped the Seahawks the past two seasons.

No matter what we think of it at the moment, the Charlie Whitehurst deal certainly screamed "competition" at quarterback, the game's tone-setting position. Blowing up the status quo a little bit in Seattle is exactly what the doctored ordered. I don't know if this tells us yet what Carroll has learned and what he'll improve upon from his two earlier NFL coaching stints in the 1990s, but I think it's a good bet that he knows what works for him by now and he'll stick to it religiously. That's a good sign, because the best coaches usually know what they're selling and believe in the product.

14. Was it Andy Reid and his West Coast offense that made Donovan McNabb Donovan McNabb, or the other way around?

No one knows for sure if Reid's gutsy trade of McNabb within the NFC East will backfire on him and the Eagles in 2010 and maybe a few more years to come. But this much we do know: It's going to be fairly easy to determine the success or failure of the move because the standings will tell us. If the Redskins make the playoffs and the Eagles don't, it's a big swing-and-miss for Reid and revenge for McNabb. If the Eagles make the postseason with Kevin Kolb and the Redskins don't with McNabb, Reid gets the check mark and a sense of satisfaction.

And if both teams make or miss the playoffs, then it's going to come down to each record, how they fared in their two games against each other, and how the future looks in Philadelphia and Washington heading into 2011. To me, it's pretty clear that the Redskins are significantly improved with McNabb under center, but I'm equally certain that Reid won't entirely lose his coaching touch with No. 5 now wearing burgundy and gold. Sounds like the potential for a win-win trade, but there's plenty of time for it to boom or bust for the two old friends from Philly.

15. How pronounced will the Saints' Super Bowl hangover be in the city of hangovers?

When I spoke to New Orleans head coach Sean Payton last month about his newly released book, he said he'd be surprised if the story of his team's 2010 season wound up being one of a defending champion that lost its edge and fire and didn't deal well with the byproducts of the ultimate NFL victory. But honestly, which Super Bowl-winning head coach wouldn't have said roughly the same thing? The glow of success often makes it very difficult to clearly see your weaknesses the season after a Super Bowl win, and to combat that effect you have to have mature, committed team leaders who are self-driven and burning with the desire to re-scale the game's summit.

In that respect, I like the Saints' chances of suffering only a slight case of Super Bowl hangover. I don't believe for a minute that quarterback Drew Brees will let down his guard or grow fat and sassy with that shiny ring on his finger. And on defense, the re-signing of veteran safety Darren Sharper might prove pivotal in the same regard on that side of the locker room. Yes, the party and the parades seemed to go on forever in New Orleans -- when do they not? -- but I don't see a Steelers-like step back coming from the Saints this season. I'm not predicting another Super Bowl run, but New Orleans should still be playing when January arrives.

16. Will Julius Peppers elevate the Bears defense more than Jay Cutler did for the offense last year?

For the second offseason in a row, the Bears went out and landed a franchise-type player whose acquisition created headlines and jacked up Chicago's playoff hopes, not to mention its payroll. But Bears fans have reason to be warier this time around about the difference-maker factor because Chicago with Cutler in 2009 actually fared two games worse (7-9) than it did without him in 2008 (9-7). You can look it up.

Could Peppers use his fresh start in the Windy City to flash the kind of dominating, disruptive play he showed at times during his uneven eight-year career in Carolina? Absolutely. On paper, the Bears' defense is much improved with Peppers at one end, and his mere presence could have a welcome cumulative effect on the rest of Rod Marinelli's defensive line and pass rush. But didn't we say the same thing last year at this time about Albert Haynesworth making the rest of the Redskins' D-line that much better? And like Haynesworth, isn't Peppers a supremely talented player who has been accused of not always bringing the same level of motivation to his work each and every game? I rest my case.

17. Will it be training wheels or a Superman sequel for rookie Tim Tebow in Denver?

The Broncos are in love with Tebow's work ethic, ability to soak up new information, and continued improvement and refinement of his oft-dissected throwing motion. But the math problem that Denver head coach Josh McDaniels faces in trying to get Tebow on the field as a rookie remains: The former Gator is probably going to start the season as the Broncos' third QB, behind starter Kyle Orton and backup Brady Quinn.NFL rules make it difficult to play your No. 3 QB in anything other than desperate situations.

That's why I expect the training wheels analogy to be somewhat closer to what Tebow's 2010 season will look like, with McDaniels making him his No. 2 QB some weeks and finding mid-game opportunities to insert him with a fairly specific package of plays. Goal line or red zone scenarios make the most sense given Tebow's proven effectiveness as a ballcarrier, but I don't think McDaniels will stop there or be able to resist the urge to build Wildcat formation packages around Tebow's unique throw-run threat.

McDaniels has said that Tebow won't play another position like fullback or tight end while he's learning how to quarterback in the league, and I almost want to take him at his word ... until I remember where McDaniels cut his NFL coaching teeth: In New England under Bill Belichick, who treats every piece of information as a vital competitive advantage.

18. Will Sam Bradford be a franchise savior or just another struggling St. Louis Ram?

Here's how the NFL usually works: If you happen to be the coveted first player selected in the draft, you get the biggest contract and the red-carpet treatment everywhere you go -- at least until the season starts. Then the beatings commence. History says that while you're counting all your money, you shouldn't be counting on too many wins after you've been drafted by one of the worst teams in the league. St. Louis fits that script to a T, having won just three times in the past two seasons, and with only six victories since the start of 2007. Contrast that with the fact that Bradford only lost seven starts during his entire collegiate career and you begin to get a sense for the atmospheric change he's likely in for with the Rams.

Bradford simply doesn't have much of a supporting cast at the moment and the Rams might be wise to ease him into the lineup as the season unfolds rather than follow the Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan examples of late. It sounds harsh, but why not let veteran quarterback A.J. Feeley take the early pounding until the Rams are certain their woeful offensive line has improved enough to protect the franchise's biggest investment, who happens to be coming off a 2009 surgery to his throwing shoulder? Realistically speaking, anything that doesn't have the smell of failure or setback might pass as progress for Bradford as a Rams rookie.

19. Is Tom Coughlin light enough on his feet to coach on the bubble all season?

Nowhere is the hot seat hotter than in New York, where the coaches and managers who are placed on it get almost daily reminders of their precarious status from the media. But just 2½ years removed from the Giants' memorable Super Bowl win, Coughlin enters the season with a discernible sense of urgency and pressure on his shoulders. That's the natural outgrowth from last season when New York's heady 5-0 start dissolved into a 3-8 non-playoff finish with the Giants defense collapsing in the final month.

They don't do ultimatums in the Giants' front office, but it was pretty clear when team owner John Mara said he was "unhappy with everybody'' last January that he was serving notice to the head coach that a 2009-like disaster could not be repeated, not with New York moving into its new $1.6-billion stadium this year and not with the franchise having spent so freely on roster upgrades since its Super Bowl upset of New England.

How the season unfolds will tell us plenty about Coughlin's fate in 2011, but suffice to say that if the resurgent Jets are the only winning story in New York this fall, change will likely be in the air for the Giants.

20. Did the Super Bowl-winning Saints provide the rest of the NFL with a blueprint for how to beat Peyton Manning and the Colts?

I love suppositions of this sort. You hear something along these lines almost every year. It sounds fairly intelligent and probing on the surface, but is usually far too simplistic in focus. I mean, if you can tell me that the Colts' other opponents will be able, on a regular basis, to execute a surprise onside kick to start the second half of games, thereby stealing vital possessions from Indy, then I'll start buying the blueprint thesis.

Oh, and it would also help if teams hoping to beat the Colts and Manning can devise a way to make sure they intercept him with three or four minutes to go in their games, taking their picks back 70 yards or so for much-needed, game-clinching touchdowns. That always works pretty well. The same with having your quarterback, as Drew Brees did on Super Sunday, throw up one of those ridiculously accurate 32-of-39 passing performances with about 25 completions in a row when he really gets hot.

Yes, the Saints had an excellent game plan against the Colts and executed it almost flawlessly. They took big chances that paid off in big ways, and they stayed aggressive all game. Other teams will no doubt take a cue from that approach and try to force the issue against Indy to a degree that maybe they haven't in the past. The Colts could definitely see that mentality from opponents more often this season. But no, a blueprint for beating Indy still doesn't exist apart from simply making better plays than the Colts at the game's biggest moments.

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