Twenty questions to contemplate as 2010 season comes into focus
The Ravens' offense likely won't let Anquan Boldin put up monster numbers
Albert Haynesworth and the Redskins may be stuck with each other in 2010
The Steelers' goal will be to play .500 football without Ben Roethlisberger
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.