With NFL training camps set to open next week, there are storylines galore to delve into. Here are the 10 questions I'm most eager to get answered as players return to the field and conclude their summer breaks ...
1. What will life be like in New Orleans without Sean Payton? -- Successful, but still quite different is my best guess. Motivation won't be an issue for the Saints this season, thanks to the unprecedented developments of the team's bounty saga, but not having Payton, the team's suspended head coach, will still require a transitional period of some sort. This is a veteran team that knows the drill by now, and with quarterback Drew Brees signed and back in the fold, New Orleans is better positioned to handle such unique circumstances than most other organizations.
But the Saints' plan to have interim head coach Joe Vitt run the team in the preseason, followed by offensive assistant Aaron Kromer in the first six weeks of the regular season, then Vitt taking over again in Weeks 7-17 after his own six-game suspension ends, is not likely to be seamless -- no matter how much groundwork has been laid this offseason. In-season routine is pivotal to a team's makeup, and this year will be anything but routine in New Orleans.
2. Is Peyton Manning ready to make it all the way back in Denver? -- No one really knows, and if they tell you they do, they're lying. Manning's comeback from his 2011-12 neck issues certainly looks good so far, but the difference between a quarterback zipping the ball around in shorts and a helmet in minicamp and the rigors of withstanding a long regular season cannot be underestimated. Will Manning be able to take a big hit or three in a game? Can his body hold up throughout training camp, the preseason and the following four or five months of once-a-week play? And is his arm strength back to the point where he can make every throw necessary, especially in terms of his deep ball?
Only time will tell in regards to his physical state, but Broncos fans might also need to be patient with Manning as he acclimates to his new surroundings. The ultimate creature of habit, No. 18 has lost much of the familiarity he relied upon during his 14 years in Indianapolis, and that can't be replaced overnight. He'll find his comfort zone, but everything's not second nature just yet, and that might be the biggest challenge Manning faces in his celebrated change of venue for 2012.
3. Can the Eagles deftly flip the script from last summer, with a supreme focus on winning and no sign of hype? -- Talk about your "dream'' scenarios. Wouldn't an all-business, no-drama approach be a welcomed breath of fresh air in Philly after last season's high-profile train wreck? The talent to win and win big is still on hand, but so much depends upon how this team comes together and deals with whatever adversity awaits. Last year's club came apart early and often, with glaring holes exposed, sloppy play and a lack of cohesion.
The vibe this offseason has been positively upbeat for Team Green. Michael Vick knows it's time for him to win, and he seems determined to take better care of the football and stay healthy. Most of Philly's playmakers and team leaders are happy with new contracts, the draft crop looks strong, and the hope is the trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans greatly solidifies Juan Castillo's defense. It all sounds good, but nothing matters but getting results on the field this time around. As the Eagles painfully learned in 2011, talking championship doesn't get it done in the NFC East.
4. Is Adrian Peterson's comeback from major knee surgery going to be a saga with a surprise ending? -- Not if you've been paying attention. Peterson has repeatedly expressed confidence that he'll be ready to go in the Vikings' regular-season opener against Jacksonville, and from all indications his rehab from tearing both his ACL and MCL in Week 16 last season continues ahead of schedule. Minnesota naturally will be cautious with the Franchise in the preseason, but I also don't think the Vikings will hold him back in September just for the sake of sticking to a more typical recovery timetable. Peterson is a freakish athlete and always has been, so his experience can't be judged against the norm.
Patriots receiver Wes Welker astounded everyone by returning from a 2009 Week 17 ACL/MCL blowout for the 2010 opener, but it would be even more impressive to see Peterson do it at the contact-heavy running back position. I wouldn't bet against him, even if the fantasy football crowd stays away from him in the early rounds. He'll no doubt open camp on the PUP list, but he's driven like few athletes, and pushing the boundaries of expectations is the kind of challenge he relishes and craves. Unless there's a setback in August, the Jaguars would do well to prepare for a steady dose of No. 28 on Sept. 9. All Day long.
5. What's the Tim Tebow plan in the Jets offense, and can Mark Sanchez make No. 15's presence a secondary story? -- The Jets have been coy about how Tebow fits, because maybe they're still trying to figure out how to best use his unique talents. We know this much: It won't be in the role of a traditional backup quarterback. Whether he's in the read-option offense, the Wildcat package or used almost exclusively as a red zone weapon, Tebow is going to have the ball in his hands at least a few times a game, with all the exciting and eventful possibilities that brings with it (see Denver's rollercoaster ride in 2011).
New York is undertaking a two-quarterback experiment that has disaster written all over it, especially since Sanchez's confidence level was all but deflated by the end of last year's ugly 8-8 ride, which closed out with three consecutive Jets losses. New York bucked him up with a new contract extension, and then sent mixed signals by bringing in Tebow, who represents the mother of all potential quarterback controversies. Popularity wise, the pairing is a TKO waiting to happen for the sometimes tender psyche of Sanchez. It's not a matter of if, but when Tebow Time comes. And in New York, it'll be more fascinating to watch than ever.
6. Will Randy Moss run a go route to renewed relevance in San Francisco? -- Earlier this month, 49ers">49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh called Moss his team's "best receiver right now,'' but there are a few different ways to take that compliment. Was the "right now'' qualification the key phrase, given that it's July and there are no games scheduled until August? Was it an attempt to stroke Moss' ego and fire up the likes of fellow San Francisco receivers Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and rookie A.J. Jenkins? Or was it Harbaugh just being Harbaugh, laying it on thick at times and going all cryptic at others?
The opportunity in San Francisco is certainly there for Moss. He's on a good team, as he requires in order to give maximum effort, there's an obvious need for more downfield passing with the 49ers, and he might just have been humbled a bit by his journeyman experience of 2010 and his one-year retirement in 2011. The mental part of the game has always mattered greatly with Moss, but he's 35 now, so he has to re-prove his physical skills, too. Are his legs still elite? Can he separate and jump like the Moss of old? He's going to have to show more than just his strong minicamp work this spring to beat back the doubters and return to prominence once more.
7. Is Browns first-round quarterback Brandon Weeden as NFL-ready as he's being billed? -- He's 28, so he'd better be. Cleveland has been waiting for the answer to arrive at quarterback since re-entering the league in 1999, and the Browns can't wait around long to find out if they finally found him with the 22nd pick of this year's draft. There are real quarterback competitions that will be going on this preseason, but I don't think Cleveland will be staging one. Everyone from Browns football czar Mike Holmgren on down has been pretty clear: Weeden will start ahead of incumbent Colt McCoy, unless it's painfully obvious he's not up to the task.
Cleveland would be thrilled if it gets close to what division rival Cincinnati experienced with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton last year: A strong start, then decent, consistent play throughout most of the rest of the schedule. The Browns were 4-12 last season, so pushing .500 would constitute significant progress. Cleveland is impressed with Weeden's maturity, his accuracy and smooth passing mechanics, and his ability to see the field and anticipate routes. But the preseason is when the rookie has to put the pads on and convince his teammates that he's the horse to ride. He'll get every shot to close that deal, and the hunch is it won't even take all of August.
8. Is it really a three-for-all quarterback competition in Seattle? -- We know how much Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll likes the word "competition,'' because he uses it more than Bill Belichick drops the "it is what is'' chestnut on us. But not all competitions are created equal.
Logic tells us free-agent addition Matt Flynn is in the driver's seat in Seattle, ahead of both 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson and rookie third-round pick Russell Wilson. But Flynn's meager track record -- two NFL starts -- means there's no reason to anoint him the clear-cut No. 1, so Carroll didn't. He wants Flynn to work and earn the job in the preseason, because it'll count for more in the locker room if he does. That's just the way the NFL works.
The QB storyline will consume all the oxygen in Seattle's training camp, but in reality, it's Flynn's job to lose. If the Seahawks were happy with Jackson, they wouldn't have signed Flynn and spent their highest pick on a quarterback in 10 years by taking Wilson. And despite Carroll's infatuation level with Wilson's potential, the smart and resourceful rookie figures to be a Wildcat package option this year, with a better chance of beating out Jackson for the backup job than truly pushing Flynn for the starting gig. Unless he falls on his face(mask) in August, Flynn should be the last man standing under center in Week 1.
9. Of the potential camp holdouts, who has the ability to cripple his team's chances the most by staying away? -- With a nod toward productive Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville isn't a Super Bowl contender with or without the NFL's leading rusher in 2011. But in Jets camp, any championship aspirations would sound a lot less plausible if all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis decides to press his case for a new long-term deal, holding out for the second time in three summers. Revis isn't tipping his hand just yet about his intentions, but there's a growing belief that it would be a bigger surprise if he were present and accounted for on day one of New York's camp.
Revis has two years and $13.5 million left on the four-year, $46 million front-loaded deal he signed in early September 2010, and contends the Jets knew they would have to re-address his contract before the 2012 season. New York doesn't see it that way and wants to get at least three of the deal's four years completed before it talks extension in 2013. I wouldn't expect the Jets to budge much on this front, especially before September, and yet both sides have some leverage to use this time around. Revis knows extensions usually don't get granted with two years remaining on a contract, but he also knows New York's Super Bowl dreams are probably DOA without him.
10. Which new head coaches have the best chance to lead their teams to turnarounds of significance? -- I don't foresee any worst-to-first coaching jobs among the six newcomers this year, but I think the Rams' Jeff Fisher and the Bucs' Greg Schiano will field vastly improved products in comparison to what St. Louis and Tampa Bay witnessed in 2011. Of course, the Rams at 2-14 and the Bucs at 4-12, with a season-ending 10-game losing streak, don't have extremely high bars to clear. Both clubs were certifiable disaster zones last season, and Fisher and Schiano won't be able to fix everything in year one.
While the 49ers look like the clear class of the NFC West, and the Saints, Falcons and Panthers are all formidable in the NFC South, I'd be surprised if the Rams and Bucs aren't both flirting with .500 this season, winning some games in unexpected fashion. Despite last year's collapses, there is talent to work with in St. Louis and Tampa Bay, and it begins with the bounce-back seasons I expect from both clubs' quarterbacks -- Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman. The two former first-round picks got into some bad habits last year and clearly regressed, but the hires of offensive coordinators Brian Schottenheimer in St. Louis and Mike Sullivan in Tampa Bay were good moves that will surround the young QBs with good coaching and help raise their performances back to those impressive 2010 levels.