3. CAN MIKE MARTZ FIX JAY CUTLER?
Cutler's arrival was supposed to end the Bears' eternal quarterback quest, and in his first season in Chicago he threw for 27 TDs and 3,666 yards. But he also had a league-high 26 interceptions. Now it's up to new offensive coordinator Mike Martz to hone Cutler's game and eliminate the mistakes. Their partnership could be stunningly good—or explosively bad. Cutler is a "see it, throw it" guy, meaning he prefers to watch a receiver come out of his break before releasing, believing his powerful right arm can fit a ball into the slightest of openings. Martz preaches timing and intuition and often demands that passes be released before the receiver has turned around.
Much hinges on whether Cutler has more trust in his arm or in Martz's system. Chicago has missed the playoffs for the last three years, and CEO Ted Phillips strongly suggested that another down year won't be tolerated, saying, "We expect to win now, in 2010. This isn't a long-term project in my eyes." The Bears brought in free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and running back Chester Taylor, but the key to their season is the Cutler-Martz marriage, and whether Cutler, who has yet to lead a team to the playoffs since being drafted 11th by the Broncos in 2006, can turn into the franchise QB the Bears expected him to be.
4. WHO IS THIS YEAR'S BREAKOUT BACK?
The Cardinals relied heavily on their passing game the past two seasons, but with Kurt Warner retired, coach Ken Whisenhunt will be more balanced in his play-calling, at least until replacement Matt Leinart shows he can carry the offense. In the meantime second-year running back Beanie Wells (right) will shoulder the offensive load. He ran for 793 yards and seven TDs while splitting time with Tim Hightower in 2009, but Whisenhunt provided a glimpse of the future last December when Wells had at least 13 carries in four straight games, while Hightower had more than six just once. Looks like Beanie's the man in Arizona.
5. WHICH TEAMS ARE THE POTENTIAL DARK HORSES?
Two seasons ago the Falcons went 11--5 and made the playoffs in their first year under coach Mike Smith and G.M. Thomas Dimitroff, but last year they slipped to 9--7 and watched the postseason from the sideline. Dimitroff and Smith believe Year 3 is critical to establishing the Falcons as a perennial playoff team. Quarterback Matt Ryan will assume more ownership of the offense; running back Michael Turner has been challenged to regain his form of two years ago when he ranked second in the league in rushing; and the D should be bolstered by free-agent cornerback Dunta Robinson and two top draft picks, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon of Missouri and defensive tackle Corey Peters of Kentucky.
Likewise, Miami surpassed expectations in 2008 by reaching the playoffs in its first season under G.M. Jeff Ireland and coach Tommy Sparano but backslid last year. The similarities don't end there. Miami running back Ronnie Brown is seeking a return to his Pro Bowl form of 2008 after missing seven games because of injury, and the Dolphins brought in Broncos Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall to address a major need. Both Atlanta and Miami are young, talented and well-coached, and those are the makings of a winner.
6. WILL THE MCNABB TRADE PAY OFF?
The biggest gamble of the off-season was Philadelphia's trade of Donovan McNabb to Washington. Teams typically shy away from dealing big names within the division because they don't want to strengthen a rival's hand or face one of their own former stars twice a year. Maybe the Eagles decided they weren't going to re-sign McNabb beyond 2010, the final year of his contract. Or perhaps they felt compelled to give 2007 second-rounder Kevin Kolb a shot because Kolb is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2011. The upshot is that the Eagles got rid of a quarterback who won 92 starts over 11 seasons and took Philly to five NFC title games and a Super Bowl. What's more, he was coming off one of the best seasons of his career and had an explosive target in DeSean Jackson. If McNabb can stay healthy—always a question—the Redskins get the savvy veteran leader they've long been looking for, while the Eagles start from scratch in the NFC East with a quarterback who has just two career starts.