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5/25/2006 04:22:00 PM

Relying On Rehab

Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer has been working extra hard to be ready for the Bengals' season opener.
Simon Bruty/SI

There's excitement in the air around the NFL as reports trickle in about Carson Palmer throwing in Cincy, Daunte Culpepper scrambling in Miami, Kellen Winslow cutting in Cleveland ... pretty much anyone who's been under the knife is recovering well. Or so it would seem. Spring optimism may not last until September, when more realistic prognoses become available.

Rehabbing players will make it tough to predict the 2006 season since several contenders are relying heavily on players who suffered major injuries last year. Here's my ranking of the top five most recovery-dependent teams and how I think they'll fare:

1. Bengals: Palmer has attacked his rehab like an animal and says he'll be ready by the Sept. 10 opener. My Take: With Palmer, Cincy is a serious Super Bowl threat. Without Palmer, the Bengals turn to Anthony Wright or Craig Krenzel and return to the pre-Marvin Lewis dark days. Still, Palmer better not pull a Chad Pennington and come back too soon. If he does, this franchise is sunk.

2. Browns: Cleveland spent a lot in free agency, but at the end of the day, the recovery of Winslow and WR Braylon Edwards are the key to the Browns improving from a mediocre team to a competitive one. My Take: Everyone's expectations for Winslow have been lowered after he missed the last two seasons. I'm going to go out on a limb and say he catches 60 passes this year. Edwards, however, will have to wait until '07.

3. Saints: Quarterback Drew Brees is ahead of schedule on his rehab from Jan. 4 shoulder surgery and running back Deuce McAllister returns after knee surgery. My Take: The Brees injury is the one that matters, since New Orleans has Reggie Bush ready to fill in or replace McAllister at running back. No matter what the Saints say about how good Brees looks, I'd be surprised if his shoulder didn't act up at some point during the season.

4. Jets: Both Chad Pennington (shoulder) and Curtis Martin (knee) are recovering from surgery. The Jets feel they've brought in a solid potential replacement in Patrick Ramsey if Pennington can't get healthy. My Take: The only chance the Jets have of rebounding this year is if the chronically hurt Pennington surprises everyone and returns to his old form. Ramsey is not good. Martin should be OK, but at 33, even if he's 100 percent healthy he's not explosive.

5. Dolphins: Miami says Culpepper looks great and should be ready in September. My Take: Although there's a big dropoff in talent from Culpepper to new backup Joey Harrington, the 'Fins should take their time with this injury, because they're a better team when they focus on the running game.

Other Key Injuries

Denver: With Ashley Lelie wanting out, Denver needs production from Javon Walker (knee) in a hurry.
Rams: A shoulder injury cut short running Marc Bulger's '05 season, but he says he feels fine and is ready to run Scott Linehan's offense.
Patriots: A healthy Dan Koppen and Matt Light would make a huge difference for the offensive line, but the key is how far safety Rodney Harrison can come back from his knee injury.
Eagles: Donovan McNabb appears to be fully back from his sports hernia. Wide receiver Todd Pinkston (Achilles) isn't in as good shape, but who really cares?

Which recovery situations do you think will have the biggest impact on this season?

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