With NFL training camps set to open soon, here are 10 things to look for as teams begin to prepare in earnest for the 2008 season:
1. The camp to which Brett Favre will report (obvious, I know, but it has to top this and every other list of current NFL topics).
It's pretty hard to imagine Favre showing up at Packers camp and "competing" to be the starter. The likely resolution to this whole mess is the Packers trading Favre so that they will at least get something in return for the greatest player in franchise history. Forget Minnesota, Chicago, or Detroit. The Packers will never ship him to an NFC North opponent. Tampa Bay makes sense. Washington seems like a decent possibility, as does Carolina. The Packers' preference would no doubt be to trade Favre out of the NFC, but none of the likely potential AFC suitors there (Baltimore, Kansas City or Miami) would figure to make his cut. And if he doesn't approve of the trade, he doesn't have to report. Also, the Packers almost certainly would include a clause prohibiting Favre's new employer from being able to trade him for at least a year.
2. The date when Jason Taylor reports to the Dolphins.
Maybe he was just playing coy for the sake of playing coy, but during a recent interview with NFL.com., Taylor would not commit to showing up to the Dolphins' training camp. He also said he would play this season "when the time is right for me to go play ball." My suspicion is that Taylor is merely trying to yank the chain of one of the league's foremost chain-yankers, Bill Parcells, just as he did by skipping all of the Dolphins' offseason workouts. But it's still a situation that bears watching.
(Editor's note: Taylor was traded to Washington on Sunday and reported to the Redskins' training facility the next day.)
3. How Jake Delhomme's surgically repaired right (throwing) elbow holds up.
By all indications, Delhomme had a tremendous offseason and provided Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox with plenty of reason to believe their quarterback is going to be ready to go when camp begins. Delhomme practiced with the first-team offense during offseason drills and has said that his arm feels as strong as ever. Still, with Delhomme having undergone Tommy John surgery last October -- after playing only three games in 2007 -- it is premature to declare that he is out of the woods. The procedure is generally thought to require a full year for recovery. Delhomme will likely have a "pitch count" in camp, to regulate the stress on his arm, but the full extent of his elbow's sturdiness won't be known until he is exposed to contact during the preseason. That question is the primary cause of speculation about the Panthers' interest in acquiring Favre.
4. Progress in the recovery of four of the Indianapolis Colts' most important players from their respective surgeries -- quarterback Peyton Manning (knee), wide receiver Marvin Harrison (knee), defensive end Dwight Freeney (foot), and safety Bob Sanders (shoulder).
The Colts maintain that all of their big four will be ready for the start of the regular season, but their day-to-day rehabilitation will be a primary topic of discussion throughout the summer. We'll likely get a better gauge of their status near the end of the preseason. The Colts will only go as far as Manning's arm will take them, so his health will no doubt be monitored the closest. Manning might not be a great scrambler, but his ability to quickly step away from pressure is a large part of his success. There also can be no denying that the Colts' chances of reaching/winning another Super Bowl are also impacted by the collective well being of Harrison, Freeney, and Sanders.
5. Adam "Pacman" Jones' behavior.
Jones managed to keep himself on the straight and narrow well enough to convince Commissioner Roger Goodell to allow him to practice with his new team, the Dallas Cowboys. Now, he has to keep himself out of trouble through all of camp and the preseason if he is to persuade the commissioner to give him full reinstatement to play this season. That decision is expected on Sept. 1.
6. The way the camps of three first-year head coaches who have never been coordinators -- John Harbaugh in Baltimore, Jim Zorn in Washington, and Tony Sparano in Miami -- are run.
Moving a position coach to the top job is dramatically different from the model that league owners have traditionally followed. The primary reason for the change is the willingness of some owners to put greater value on the coach-player chemistry match than on the experience of overseeing the offense or defense. Camp is when that chemistry takes shape, so it will be intriguing to see what happens when Harbaugh, Zorn, and Sparano put their respective clubs through their paces.
7. The health of Donovan McNabb's right (throwing) shoulder.
McNabb insisted it was merely tightness in the shoulder that caused him to be held out of minicamp drills, but there has been speculation that the issue could be more serious. McNabb's extensive injury history makes a lot of us skeptical when he attempts to dismiss any physical problem he might have, particularly when it could impact his throwing ability. Although he says it is something that stretching and rehabilitation will resolve, his participation in camp will be closely monitored. It makes sense for the Eagles to limit what he does in practice, but the less time McNabb is on the field, the greater the questions will be about whether he will be able to carry the load as a starter once the season begins. If McNabb is not functioning at top capacity, the Eagles have little or no chance to contend in the ultra-competitive NFC East.
8. Matt Leinart's comeback from a broken collarbone he suffered in the fifth game of last season.
It isn't just the physical part of Leinart's recovery that Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and the rest of the team's decision-makers will monitor this summer. The ability of the third-year quarterback to show he has a strong handle on Whisenhunt's offense will be a daily focus of camp. When Leinart did play last year, he was inconsistent, struggling to pick up the finer points of his second offense in two years. Whisenhunt clearly lost his patience with him last year, alternating him with veteran Kurt Warner in certain situations. Leinart, whose offseason was marred by embarrassing photos of him at a party on the Internet, has impressed his coach with his dedication and hard work during the offseason. But he will need to convince Whisenhunt that he has a firm grasp on all aspects of the offense to keep Warner from supplanting him as the starter.
9. JaMarcus Russell's weight and the grasp he shows of the Oakland Raiders' offense.
There was plenty of offseason buzz about Russell's weight, which had reportedly hit 300 pounds early in the offseason. The Raiders officially list him at 255 pounds, which is still pretty heavy for an NFL quarterback. Questions undoubtedly will continue to linger about whether Russell can watch his diet and maintain good enough conditioning during the down time before camp to avoid letting his weight get out of control. However, Raiders coach Lane Kiffin has gushed about Russell's performance during offseason workouts. The quarterback has also established himself as a leader, which is a role he can only maintain if he demonstrated to the rest of the team he is committed to being in the best physical shape possible.
10. Tom Coughlin's search for a replacement for Michael Strahan's leadership.
This presumes, of course, that the superstar defensive end stays retired. As the Favre saga has taught us, no one can be truly certain about such things. But if the New York Giants are going to have a shot at repeating as Super Bowl champions, or simply avoid a major slip, they will need the type of guidance that Strahan provided in the locker room and on the sideline … and to his head coach. Strahan deserves a fair amount of credit for the personality transformation that Coughlin underwent before last season. "He's met us halfway and we've met him halfway," was how Strahan described Coughlin's willingness to drop his drill-sergeant act and become more approachable and flexible with his players. This is not to say that Coughlin will automatically revert to his old ways, but Strahan's forceful personality did do plenty to encourage the coach to make adjustments in his style. Will someone else step up to fill the void? Is anyone else capable of doing it?
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