Now that the lockout is over and training camps are set to begin, we can officially talk about some of the questions that all fans are asking. Here’s a look at some of the top storylines heading into the 2011 NFL season.
Will the Packers suffer a Super Bowl hangover?
The Packers are built to have an extended run as title contenders. The team has one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the league. Their surplus of talent allowed them to overcome losing 15 players to injured reserve on their way toward winning Super Bowl XLV. The return of those players is one of the reasons the Packers are poised to make another run.
The spate of injuries allowed several young players -- James Starks, Sam Shields and Desmond Bishop -- to get on the field, and their surprising emergence only fortifies the Packers' roster. The team will benefit from the return of Jermichael Finley, Morgan Burnett, Ryan Grant, and Nick Barnett. If Mike McCarthy can keep his team motivated to handle the challenges of taking everyone's best shot, then there is no reason the Packers shouldn't repeat as world champions.
-- Bucky Brooks
WATCH: CAN PACKERS REPEAT?
Are the Jets contenders or poseurs?
The Jets are legitimate contenders under Rex Ryan. They have advanced to the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons. Led by a hard-hitting defense that matches Ryan's swagger and bravado, the Jets bludgeon opponents with an intensity and toughness that forces them to wilt under pressure. They took a step back statistically, but their dominance returned in big games, especially in the playoffs.
Offensively, the Jets also have the pieces in place. Their running game has ranked among the best in the league, and they have a potent passing game led by an emerging big-game performer in Mark Sanchez. He has shown flashes of being clutch in the postseason, and that will eventually translate into championship success. Ryan is full of bravado and bluster and has assembled a team that has the ability to back up his bodacious claims.
-- Bucky Brooks
WATCH: CAN JETS GET OVER HUMP?
Ready to be an icon and entertain?
Invoking the name Cam Newton gets a reaction, often strong. I've yet to talk with anyone who is neutral about the Panthers rookie QB and top-overall pick. So how will he do as a rookie?
All rookie QBs in this lockout-affected offseason will struggle. Without minicamps and OTAs and the ability to get coached on a daily basis, it would seem that it's folly to expect any rookie QB (and that includes Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, and Andy Dalton) to have the type of debut experienced by the likes of Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford, and Josh Freeman. But I do remember that Vince Young had a stellar debut, and he did it using his arm and his legs. Expect Newton to try to follow a similar blueprint, and look for any successes that he has to occur in the second half of the season.
-- Charles Davis
WATCH: HOW GOOD WILL CAM BE?
Are the Bucs poised for a playoff run?
Of all the upstart teams that failed to make the playoffs in 2010, the Bucs seem best positioned to take the next step. The main reason: their quarterback, Josh Freeman. He has developed poise, established himself as the unquestioned leader and made a habit out of minimizing mistakes.
The Bucs also have a stable of young, hungry talent that’s barely scratched its potential. The key for young players, such as Donald Penn, LeGarrette Blount, Mike Williams, and Gerald McCoy is to remain hungry.
The schedule is much stronger than last season, when Tampa Bay feasted on lesser opponents. Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, and Indianapolis are the first four games.
Focus and desire will be what makes or breaks the Bucs. If they’re maintained, they’ll be in the playoff hunt. If they’re lost, then so are the Bucs.
-– Steve Wyche
WATCH: BREAKTHROUGH TEAM OF 2011
Romo: Super Bowl or bust?
Several teams could do worse than Tony Romo at quarterback. Like the Cowboys.
Jon Kitna stepped in admirably after Romo’s collarbone injury, but Romo is the guy -- at least in the immediate future -- to get Dallas to the Super Bowl. But the grace period is over. His stats are better than adequate. Now it’s time to take the big step. Romo has all the toys he needs, and the line is being re-tooled. The defense that crumpled last season remains a question, but new coordinator Rob Ryan could provide some answers.
Romo’s leadership has come into question, which isn't good on a team that needs a leader. DeMarcus Ware said Romo has stepped up as more of a leader this offseason. We’ll see if that carries over. This might not be a do-or-die season for Romo, but time is running out.
-- Steve Wyche
WATCH: CAN ROMO BOUNCE BACK?
How will Cutler rebound?
For all the criticism Jay Cutler endured after -- heck, during -- the NFC Championship Game, I have a strong suspicion that he will bounce back and have Chicago in contention for another NFC North title.
For one thing, his talent is immense. When fans or players criticize him, it's not for his lack of QB skills. Those he has in abundance. This will be his second year in coordinator Mike Martz's offense, and Cutler will be leading essentially the same cast of players. That continuity should produce better tempo, timing and confidence in each other.
Finally, the team rallied to Cutler's defense in the wake of the loss to Green Bay. The top players, led by Brian Urlacher, spoke out forcefully and let the league know that they had their QB's back. Coach Lovie Smith left no doubt that Cutler was his guy. For that show of support, I see the Bears being rewarded with Cutler's best season.
-- Charles Davis
Can Vick repeat his stellar 2010 season?
Can Michael Vick take his game -- and his team -- to the next level? It's clear that Vick will live up to his end of the bargain in 2011. If (and it's a big "if") Vick can stay healthy for 16 games, he projects to throw for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
With the receivers on the Eagles, it's feasible Vick can hit the projections. Staying healthy is the question. He takes a lot of sacks, and while he's a dangerous runner who projects to 130 rushes for almost 900 yards in 2011, that's something he must be more strategic about. Last year, he ran for 38 first downs. I don't want to see him eliminate his run skills, but I would like to see him be more conservative in the regular season. Vick is ready to take his game and the Eagles to new heights, but he needs to be smart with his body until January rolls around.
-- Pat Kirwan
WATCH: CAN VICK DO IT AGAIN?
Growing pains ahead for teams?
Installing schemes will be an issue, but condition of the players won't be. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he has rewritten the installation schedule and has reduced what will be introduced in camp. As one head coach said, "It was about time we simplified our stuff anyway."
Most veterans were happy to get extended rest time to let their bodies heal. Some will blame camp injuries on the lockout, but players have regularly been injured in minicamps and OTAs. Early-season games can be sloppy regardless of a lockout. Last year there were still 201 penalties in Week 1, and offenses converted only 36.9 percent of third downs.
Rookie coaches, especially guys like Ron Rivera who may have to start a rookie QB in Week 1, will have it tougher than veteran teams. It's called growing pains. As one former coach said, "So they lose by three touchdowns instead of two touchdowns because of the lockout."
-- Pat Kirwan
The Peyton and Tom show
This will once again be the Year of Tom Brady. Peyton Manning will make more than Brady in his new deal, which seems to be very important to him.
Manning will be the highest-paid player in the game, again. Brady will be the best player in football, again.
The question for Brady's Pats: Can they finally win a playoff game after a few years of futility? The question for Manning: Just how bad is his neck?
I don't expect any regular-season issues for Manning; his iron-man streak will go on. But how well will a transitioning offensive line protect him, and will he be more vulnerable to future neck issues now?
Brady comes off a season in which he threw 36 TDs to four INTs. Brady is better, younger and, when all is said and done, will likely be $5-to-$6 million cheaper per year than Manning.
-- Jason La Canfora
WATCH: MANNING VS. BRADY
The real work is just beginning
Top free agents are primed to hit the market at the very time long-anticipated trade talks can finally commence. There are ample spoils to be had, and so many lingering, intriguing questions that can finally be answered.
Will the Eagles get a first-round pick for Kevin Kolb? Which team will make Nnamdi Asomugha the highest-paid corner in the NFL (again)? Can Peyton Manning become the league's first $25 million-a-year man? Have Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth played their last games in Washington? Would Bengals owner Mike Brown consider dealing Carson Palmer now that he actually can do so?
A wild scramble awaits every front office. The waiting might indeed have been the hardest part, but for NFL executives the real work is only now beginning. Gentlemen, start your smart phones.
-- Jason La Canfora
WATCH: PLAYERS ON THE MOVE