With a few early birds opening training camp this weekend, it's a perfect time to examine some of the more compelling storylines as teams begin their summer practice regimen.
A top 10 list follows:
1. The endless Brett-a-thon. Sure, we're all tired of it. Even Brett Favre's agent has had his fill of his client's will-he-or-won't-he drama. But by now it has become such a fixture of a sideshow, we wouldn't know what to do without it. The Minnesota Vikings are expecting Favre to be their starting quarterback this season. They just don't expect to see him in camp until about mid-August.
2. Life without McNabb. It will be a strange feeling at the Philadelphia Eagles' camp. Of course, there will be a noticeable void now that Donovan McNabb is a Washington Redskin. Also, the transition to new starter Kevin Kolb will likely take some time before it begins to make the Eagles' decision-makers look smart for parting ways with the greatest quarterback in team history. Every practice will be closely scrutinized by the ultra-critical Philly fans and media.
3. Big Albert, big problems? This should be a feel-good summer in Washington, D.C. The Redskins have the most accomplished quarterback in the NFC East, McNabb. They have a highly respected coach, Mike Shanahan, and general manager, Bruce Allen. They've gone about their offseason business in a solid, methodical manner, with owner Daniel Snyder staying in the background and letting his football men do their job. What could spoil it all? Disgruntled defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth taking his offseason of misery over the Redskins' switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense into camp and the regular season. A trade is still possible, but unlikely. That sets the stage for an uneasy coexistence between Haynesworth and his new coaches.
4. Lights ... camera ... distraction? The production crew from HBO's "Hard Knocks" will be following practically every move the New York Jets make this summer. Rex Ryan, the Jets' bombastic coach, no doubt will add spice to every episode with his penchant for outlandish behavior. But can he prevent this added attention and the lofty expectations he helped create from being a distraction? So much of the Jets' surprising late-season/postseason surge was driven by an us-against-the-world mentality fueled by legions of doubters. Ryan will have a much harder time finding a new rallying point.
5. Another castoff trying to stay afloat in the Bay. The Oakland Raiders have gone through the offseason looking more focused and organized than they have in a long time. Their most notable decision, dumping underachieving and troubled quarterback JaMarcus Russell, could very well prove to be their best. But it depends on how well his replacement, former Redskin Jason Campbell, performs. Perhaps a change of scenery, as well as the guidance from new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, is all Campbell needs to have the success he never consistently enjoyed in Washington.
6. More Pat questions than answers. Normally, the New England Patriots' camp, like most everything else involving the team, is a model of stability. Not this summer. First, the Pats are still trying to live down the humiliation of their wild-card playoff loss to Baltimore, a game that looked to signal the end of their dynasty. Second, WR Wes Welker, one of their most dangerous offensive weapons, is trying to come back from a devastating knee injury. Third, QB Tom Brady, the rock upon which the Patriots' long run of success was built, is entering a contract year. A new deal seems in enough doubt at this point that there are questions being raised about just how attentive he will be to getting the team back on track. Some are even speculating that Brady could be holdout, although that seems unlikely.
7. Suspension suspense. The difficult questions facing the Pittsburgh Steelers begin with Ben Roethlisberger. Will his suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy last the full six games ... or will it be reduced to four because of good behavior? More bad behavior could actually lead to a longer suspension, but the questions don't end with Roethlisberger's punishment. How will the Steelers survive at least a quarter of the season with Byron Leftwich as their starter? How will they overcome the season-ending Achilles injury to offensive tackle Willie Colon? How will they overcome other shortcomings on their offensive line?
8. Surviving in the desert. The Arizona Cardinals no longer have Kurt Warner's prolific passing arm. They've said goodbye to other stars on both sides of the ball: wide receiver Anquan Boldin, linebacker Karlos Dansby, and safety Antrel Rolle. The Cardinals need a savior, and new quarterback Matt Leinart is in the best position to fill that role. The only problem is that coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't exactly certain that Leinart is the answer. Whisenhunt will be looking for him to step up this summer, while also hoping that newcomer Derek Anderson will at least be able to give Leinart a good push.
9. Is there a rookie starting quarterback in the house?Sam Bradford might promptly step into the No. 1 spot in St. Louis, if only because he was the top overall pick of the draft and will pocket somewhere between $40-$50 million -- in guaranteed money. But he still needs to prove he can handle the job. Tim Tebow figures to need too much work with his throwing mechanics to see a whole lot of the field with the Denver Broncos beyond Wildcat and other special situations. Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy seem like long shots to do anything but serve as understudies in Carolina and Cleveland, respectively.
10. Overcoming a big hangover in the Big Easy. The New Orleans Saints had every reason to enjoy a prolonged celebration for stunning the NFL with their first Super Bowl win in franchise history. Now, it is time to get down to the business of trying to prove that what they did against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV wasn't a fluke. The tone of camp will go a long way toward indicating the extent to which coach Sean Payton has his club prepared to defend its crown.