NEW ORLEANS -- With the NFL season finally about to kick off from down here in the Big Easy, and the endless offseason finally behind us, there's no better time than the present to peer into the crystal ball at some of the headlines we could see as the 2010 NFL season unfolds:
Both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are primed to become the highest-paid players in league history and eclipse the $20-million per season threshold at some point, with both entering the final year of their contracts. Expect Brady to be the first to go and put pen to paper before kickoff Sunday. Maybe one of them ends up getting hit with a franchise tag -- or some such mechanism, assuming it still exists in the next CBA -- but my hunch is both have press conferences sometime between now and Super Bowl XLV in which there are plenty of smiles and zeros on those new contracts.
Redskins remove Haynesworth
Maybe it takes until the end of the season, but Albert Haynesworth's window with the Washington Redskins is small. A trade before the October deadline would not be a surprise, nor would his outright release at some point. With the way the contract is structured, it's difficult to fathom the Redskins paying his salaries in future years. And with Mike Shanahan having already made an example out of him in training camp and the preseason, an exodus for No. 92 could be the end game.
Max Hall, NFL starter
Not many fans have seen the former BYU product play, and up until a few weeks ago Hall himself figured he was still probably a good year away. But now only a few weeks of Derek Anderson interceptions or an injury to the Cardinals' starting QB separates Hall from getting in a regular-season game. It's hard seeing Anderson truly thrive given how he's performed the past few years. The woeful state of the NFC West should keep Arizona within shouting distance of the division lead and prolong Hall's apprenticeship, but I expect to see him get a shot at some point this season.
Three (or four) the hard way
I can't get enough of watching Josh Cribbs play. And even though he said on Jim Rome's national radio show Tuesday that he won't cover punts and kickoffs this season as he tries to prove himself "worthy of a legit No. 1 receiver," I don't buy it. He's the Browns' best player and lone game-changer, and he should be on the field any chance he can get. I have no doubt that at some point this season he will have a return touchdown and a rushing touchdown in the same game -- how about a passing TD, too? Or all three of those, plus a receiving TD? The Browns' Wildcat package has a new wrinkle with two college QBs -- Cribbs and Seneca Wallace -- in the backfield, and on a team with limited weapons, trickery should be in high demand.
Favre no longer iron man
Brett Favre's ability to withstand pain and find any means to play has defined his career. His consecutive starts streak is truly remarkable, at the very least totally equal to what Cal Ripken accomplished in baseball. But nothing lasts forever, and with Favre entering the season already hobbled and seen as vulnerable by some defensive coordinators, I have the feeling this streak will not end on Favre's terms. Getting through another full 16-game season would be truly amazing at his age (he turns 41 next month) and given the issues with the offensive line there. I expect the Vikings to end up running the ball more, regardless, and for Tarvaris Jackson to make at least one start.
Rodgers shatters records
A year ago I was asked which one player I would choose to start a franchise with, and I chose Aaron Rodgers based on his potential, upside, attitude, smarts, and a very team-friendly contract. He is the real deal, and I anticipate Marino-esque numbers for him in 2010. Wouldn't surprise me at all. I expect him to begin his stash of postseason hardware as well, with an MVP trophy within reach. I could also see him picking up the Lombardi Trophy in February.
Rivers of duress
The Chargers are taking a big risk with their current left tackle situation for 16 weeks. Marcus McNeill was a big part of their prolific offense and, specifically, letting Philip Rivers excel with those five-and-seven-step drops. Defensive coordinators who went against San Diego in the preseason felt like Rivers, with limited mobility, was vulnerable, and the game plan in the regular season will be to double team Antonio Gates and see if Rivers has time to throw the ball deep to the outside. The Chargers could take a major step back in the feeble AFC West.
Hard Knocks for Jets
Even with Darrelle Revis back in the fold, I don't see this team being much improved from a year ago. In fact, I expect a very similar regular season (I picked them to finish third in the AFC East at 8-8) as Mark Sanchez continues to figure out some things. And this season, 9-7 won't be good enough for a postseason berth.
Tebow takes a turn
The Broncos could be looking at a bleak season. Tim Tebow will get reps in various packages early on, but as the end draws near don't be surprised if he gets a start. Even with Kyle Orton's contract extension, the Broncos don't have a set QB of the future. The hope there is Tebow grows into that role. Figure on seeing him get a few weeks of practice with the starters and then get his shot eventually in 2010.
Some have the Panthers pegged among the dregs of the NFL, but this team could surprise with a finish of .500 or better (I have them at .500), which would only help enhance coach John Fox's status as one of the premier coaching free agents at season's end. Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher will be hot names again, and I wouldn't be surprised if both came back next year (though all coaching searches could be complicated by the ongoing labor issues). If Gruden doesn't land in Cleveland, don't be surprised if Fox does.
The Tuna swims upstream
Three years and Bill Parcells is generally ready to move on to his next project, and 2010 could well end up as his last year in Miami. With GM Jeff Ireland assuming basically all day-to-day control of the team, signs are pointing in that direction. And if Parcells moves on, and owner Steve Ross wants to retain someone in a football czar role, his longtime friend Carl Peterson could well be the guy. Peterson worked for Ross in the USFL, and they remain close; Peterson has been out of the league -- doing consulting for teams and taking a leadership position with USA Football -- for a few seasons, but would welcome a return under the right circumstances.
The money pit
Free agency always carries inherent gambles, and the older, thinner, but hardly cheaper crop of 2010 free agents gave many teams considerable pause. Those who spent judiciously will be rewarded. Others will have buyer's remorse. Cleveland and Chicago are among those who spent heavily in the opening days, but I don't see it changing their position in the standings. If those club's do get things turned around in the future, I'm not sure many of these recent signings will be heavily contributing by then. The Bengals already got burned by giving $7 million to Antonio Bryant for a few offseason practices, and injury woes with players like Aaron Kampman (Jacksonville) and Dunta Robinson (Atlanta) carry heavy red flags, too.
Holy drama, Batman!
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis will have his hands full juggling some eclectic characters on his roster. Considerable attention will be made to every smirk, quirk or trick Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco pull on the sidelines, and chemistry will dictate how far this team goes (you have to wonder if age leads to Batman and/or Robin fighting through nagging injuries, as well). The Bengals lack vocal leaders, and with so many big personalities around, a void can develop. Carson Palmer's accuracy and health remain in question as well. Repeating an undefeated division record and topping the AFC North might be too much to ask, though I expect them to make a strong push.
One and done?
If things go as badly as I fear they might in Buffalo, then you have to wonder if the club spends the winter seeking its third coach in two years. Chan Gailey has an immensely difficult chore ahead, lacking a QB who really fits his style of play and with gaping holes on the offensive line. The front seven has all kinds of issues as well, and the Bills are stuck in a deep and revenue-laden division, competing against clubs with serious playoff aspirations. Injuries and retirement have stripped them of some of the few playmakers they had. C.J. Spiller might end up as rookie of the year, but there might not be too many other positive developments to relish.
This is the year Pittsburgh LB LaMarr Woodley truly becomes a household name. His sack totals over the last three seasons put him right there with guys like DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen, but with less fanfare. With Troy Polamalu back, the Steelers' swagger will return and Woodley will emerge from James Harrison's shadow in a defensive MVP performance.
Bay Area rebirth
It's difficult seeing anyone other than the 49ers win the NFC West. Even if they go 8-8, but manage to sweep Arizona and win at least four games in the division, that would do it. Division champs. The team has slowly added key pieces and matured under coach Mike Singletary. Their time is now. Also, look out for the Oakland Raiders. I expect them to surprise people this season and finally meld some of the raw talent into a winning team. It's been a long time since both the Raiders and 49ers were pushing for the playoffs, and while they might not both make it this season, the future is finally looking bright.
The labor uncertainty has put the NFL's eventual return to Los Angeles on hold somewhat, but make no mistake, negotiations between a group led by prospective owner Ed Roskie and several NFL teams will continue. There have been ongoing discussions and Roskie's group says it could have a team in a temporary headquarters and ready to practice by spring 2011. Again, the matter gets complicated by the CBA issues, but this movement remains very much afoot and owners contemplating problems selling tickets or securing a new stadium will be given the opportunity to consider what awaits in L.A.
Stump the ump
I don't believe we've heard the last of the mini-tempest surrounding the ramification of moving the spot of the umpire to help better protect him. This week the league announced some tweaks to the rule, but regardless, it's hard to imagine no-huddle teams not whining about it from time to time. The Colts and outspoken team president Bill Polian, for instance, have been particularly fixated on it. Polian is a top dog with the Competition Committee, and I expect this topic to be monitored closely all season.
I can't see much progress being made on negotiations for a new CBA during the season. Generally, these things get hashed out at the last possible moment ... and some would say that the cutoff date to get a deal and start a season on time is late July/early August. Getting it done by the expiration of the current CBA in March might not be likely. Fear not, however. Amid all of the doomsday talk will be the fact that, again, even a deal by August 1 would allow for a 2-3 week free agency period and then truncated training camp and something very close to a normal NFL season. I could ultimately see us having a truncated 2011 season -- 12 games for instance. But I still find it hard to believe that a group of men as wealthy and educated and successful as those on both sides of this labor dispute won't find enough common ground to allow for some sort of 2011 season.