NFL Nation: The Big Question

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What players in the division qualify as the most important, emerging second-year guys?

We’ll steer away from guys who were major contributors as rookies last year, looking for breakout sophomore candidates.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Caldwell
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe Texans need Antoine Caldwell to step up and claim a starting spot on the interior line.
In Houston, we know Brian Cushing can play and we know the Texans love Glover Quin. Antoine Caldwell, the Texans' 2009 third-round lineman, needs to be part of the solution on an interior offensive line that suffered serious injuries early last season. It was particularly ineffective in the run game. He looks like he might be the guy at right guard, but there is still quite a bit to sort out. (Correction: Caldwell was taken in the third round, not the second.)

For the Colts, halfback Donald Brown needs to pass protect better to earn time on the field. But our choice is defensive tackle Fili Moala. The 2009 season amounted to a redshirt season for him as he tried to make the adjustment from USC to the NFL. But they drafted him as part of a push to be bigger and more physical inside and it would be good for them if he earned a slot in the rotation.

The 2009 Jaguars were loaded with rookie contributors, and Eugene Monroe, Eben Britton, Mike Thomas, Terrance Knighton and Derek Cox all did too much to still qualify as candidates here. Zach Miller's a great candidate, but with Marcedes Lewis and Ernest Wilford having good springs, the need at tight end doesn’t compare to safety. With a shaky corps of veterans at safety, Courtney Greene has room to earn the faith of the coaches and time on the field. He was an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers last year.

The Tennessee Titans are looking to their 2009 draft class for a giant contribution. Receiver Kenny Britt and linebacker Gerald McRath are going to get significant playing time. While Jason McCourty or Ryan Mouton will get the spotlight as a second corner, I’m not sold on either DB yet. But I do expect defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks to break out. He’s gotten stronger, and should be a key interior piece. Maybe he will take snaps away from the disappointing Jovan Haye?
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The San Francisco 49ers are a popular pick -- and the most logical one -- to win the NFC West this season. What are the two-time defending champion Arizona Cardinals' chances?

At least four factors give the Cardinals more than a fighting chance in their first season following Kurt Warner's retirement:

    [+] EnlargeDan Williams
    AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinFirst-round pick Dan Williams joins Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett on what figures to be a formidable defensive line.
  • Superiority on the front lines. The Cardinals could have the best offensive and defensive lines in the division. Quarterback is still the most important position, but it's not as though the rest of the division is stacked at the position. The 49ers are the only team in the division with a defensive line close to as strong as the one Arizona will field this season. One question, though, is whether the Cardinals' defense can take full advantage of the strength Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and rookie first-round choice Dan Williams can provide. On offense, the 49ers loaded up with two offensive linemen in the first round, but the Cardinals' veteran group should be better in the short term after adding Alan Faneca and Rex Hadnot.
  • The Smith-Leinart factor. The Cardinals' Matt Leinart couldn't beat out Warner over the last few seasons. There's little shame in that. If the 49ers' Alex Smith can become a promising prospect less than a year after failing to beat out Shaun Hill as the 49ers' starter, Leinart shouldn't be written off automatically. Playing even to Smith's level could be enough for Arizona to win the division. Leinart hasn't done much to inspire confidence that he's ready for the job, but neither had Smith until he finally got an extended chance last season.
  • Coaching. The Cardinals wisely extended Ken Whisenhunt's contract through the 2013 season. Whisenhunt has succeeded in embracing the underdog's mentality in Arizona even while he has worked to change perceptions about the organization. The natural and justifiable tendency to discount the Cardinals following Warner's retirement should play into Whisenhunt's motivational hands.
  • Pressure/expectations. The pressure is off Arizona after the team won back-to-back division titles, multiple playoff games and earned a Super Bowl appearance over the last two seasons. The 49ers haven't won anything lately and it's unclear how they'll respond to pressure and expectations. Team president Jed York guaranteed a playoff appearance before last season. The team fell short, but it's clear York expects the team to deliver this season. The pressure is on San Francisco.

I've named the 49ers my preseason favorite based on what should happen, but what should happen isn't always what does happen. The Cardinals do not plan to go quietly.

Big Question: Top AFC East move?

July, 6, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What was the top offseason move in the AFC East?

We've hit a rare dead period in the NFL, when all the teams have sent their players home to enjoy the summer for a few weeks. Offseason programs are complete. Training camps will begin at the end of the month.

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireBrandon Marshall's trade to Miami was one of the biggest offseason moves in the AFC East.
Perfect time to review all of the offseason moves. With activity slowed to a crawl, we can safely evaluate the ones that should have the most impact on the upcoming season.

I've taken five decisions from each AFC East club and ranked them based on how important they'll prove to be in 2010.

But this list merely is to provide a reminder of what has happened the past few months. I'd like to see your list in the comments section below. Nominate your favorite move, give me your top five or rank them all.

NOTE: I was remiss in leaving out one of the bigger moves, but thanks to some friendly reminders in the comments section, I have corrected the list by inserting the Dolphins' switch at defensive coordinator at No. 4.

1. Dolphins trade two second-round draft picks for receiver Brandon Marshall.

2. Jets trade a third-round pick for cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

3. Patriots use franchise tag to ensure nose tackle Vince Wilfork's return.

4. Dolphins fire defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and hire Mike Nolan.

5. Dolphins sign inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

6. Bills name Buddy Nix general manager and hire head coach Chan Gailey.

7. Jets trade a fifth-round pick for receiver Santonio Holmes.

8. Bills switch to 3-4 defense.

9. Jets pass on re-signing kicker Jay Feely and sign pass-rusher Jason Taylor.

10. Bills draft Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall.

11. Patriots clean house at tight end, sign Alge Crumpler, draft Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

12. Dolphins move Randy Starks from defensive end to nose tackle.

13. Patriots sign defensive end Gerard Warren.

14. Jets sign safety Brodney Pool, trade Kerry Rhodes.

15. Patriots release outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.

16. Dolphins release outside linebacker Joey Porter.

17. Bills sign defensive end Dwan Edwards.

18. Jets replace running back Thomas Jones with LaDainian Tomlinson.

19. Bills sign inside linebacker Andra Davis.

20. Patriots sign receiver Torry Holt.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What impact will Scot McCloughan's hiring in Seattle have on the NFC West?

The San Francisco 49ers' former general manager hasn't relocated to the Northwest and he might not for a while. His hiring as a "senior personnel executive" could remain vaguely defined for the upcoming season.

[+] EnlargeMcCloughan
AP Photo/Paul SakumaFormer 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan will make an immediate impact on the Seahawks.
McCloughan has immediate value for the Seahawks, however, because he knows so much about the division and specifically the 49ers, who visit Seattle in Week 1. Much of the Seahawks' new leadership is new to the division. Coach Pete Carroll couldn't possibly have as strong a feel for the 49ers as he would after a season or two in the NFC West.

McCloughan helps fill in some of the gaps. He can provide insight into and an overall feel for how the 49ers' coaches think. He'll know what makes them uncomfortable and how they're likely to react to specific situations. He'll know where the 49ers are most vulnerable from a scheme standpoint. He can offer similar knowledge about nearly every prominent player on the 49ers' roster. The result is that Seattle's coaching staff should be more comfortable entering the season opener and division play in general than it would have been without McCloughan's recent addition to a senior personnel position.

Overall, McCloughan should make the Seahawks more comfortable heading into Week 1.

The situation is unusual even though NFL personnel people change teams regularly. McCloughan and Seahawks general manager John Schneider happened to get their NFL start together in Green Bay. The Seahawks happened to hire McCloughan months after his surprising departure from the 49ers. The NFL happened to pit the Seahawks and 49ers against one another in Week 1 this season.

In some ways, McCloughan will be working against his own legacy. Had he signed with a team outside the division, he could have more naturally rooted from afar for Alex Smith and some of his other 49ers draft choices to succeed.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How should the NFL handle discipline for Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand, who was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving last Friday?

[+] EnlargeTom Lewand
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe NFL's personal conduct policy applies to all league employees, including Lions president Tom Lewand.
We’ve gone through this routine with players: Arrest, NFL review, discipline sometimes announced. But I’m guessing many fans didn’t realize the same procedures apply to all league employees in cases of legal trouble, from owners all the way down to the lowest-level staffers. Lewand’s arrest compels commissioner Roger Goodell to consider his case the same way he would with any player.

Here's what Goodell said about the Lewand matter during a recent NFL Network interview: "Our policies apply to everyone: Yours truly, club presidents, players, coaches, everybody involved with the NFL. I think Tom recognizes that, and of course I will speak to him at some point in the near future. We'll be gathering the facts. But everybody is accountable and everybody is responsible."

Not all of you are buying that final statement, however. Brian of Grand Rapids, Mich., voiced a common refrain:
With Goodell cracking down on player conduct over the last 2 years, what kind of discipline can we expect, if any, for Tom Lewand's drunk driving offense? I suspect he will ignore the issue but it doesn't seem right to hold the players to one standard and management to another. Both represent the NFL. I guess Goodell's true colors will come out.

I agree in the sense that we can’t judge Goodell until he reaches his conclusion. And I am absolutely in favor of holding management to the same standards as players. But before we start calling for Lewand’s head, we should remember a few things.

  1. While Goodell has the right to punish league employees regardless of the legal verdict, he routinely examines any pattern -- or lack thereof -- before making decisions. Repeated drunken driving offenses usually lead to significant discipline. First offenses are sometimes handled internally with fines that aren't announced.
  2. Observers should be careful to avoid the hypocrisy of calling for anyone -- a team president or a backup center -- to be made an "example of."

Everyone knows Goodell is serious about discipline. But at this point, we don't know all of the particulars of Lewand's legal history -- if there is one. Let's give Goodell the latitude to make an appropriate rendering of Lewand’s fate and then evaluate it based on that.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Atlanta Falcons have a winning record for the third straight season?

There was some minor celebrating at the end of last season when the Falcons won their final three games to finish 9-7 and record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history. It still wasn’t good enough for the Falcons to get to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time and that was mildly disappointing after a 2008 season in which rookie coach Mike Smith and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan took Atlanta to the postseason.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Kevin Liles-US PresswireThe Falcons need a stronger season from John Abraham and the Falcons' pass rush.
Blame last year on injuries and bad luck. But maybe a season in which everything that could go wrong did is exactly what the Falcons needed to raise the bar for 2010. They were a 9-7 team when everything was working against them.

They should be much better when things are going well. Things can always change, but, right now, the schedule doesn’t look all that difficult. Injured guys like defensive tackle Peria Jerry, safety William Moore and receiver Harry Douglas are expected back at full strength. Running back Michael Turner is in much better physical condition than he was at this point a year ago and he seems to be on a mission to prove that his 2008 season wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

The Falcons took their annual one large plunge into free agency by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson and that should solidify the secondary. First-round pick Sean Weatherspoon should give Atlanta a playmaker at linebacker. The only uncertainty is the pass rush. Maybe John Abraham can bounce back from a quiet season and maybe Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury can take the next step in their development.

The pass rush and the New Orleans Saints might be the biggest obstacles the Falcons face at the moment. Even with those issues hanging out there, this looks like a team that’s on course for a third straight winning season.

Big Question: Patriots cornerbacks

June, 29, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets improving at receiver, will the New England Patriots' cornerbacks be good enough in 2010?

The AFC East will be up for grabs this year. With the Jets and Dolphins making acquisitions that could open up the passing game for their young quarterbacks, strong cornerback play will be vital.

[+] EnlargeLeigh Bodden and Lee Evans
AP Photo/Mike GrollAdding veteran Leigh Bodden should help solidify the New England secondary.
The Patriots have an interesting situation at cornerback. They re-signed veteran Leigh Bodden to play on the right side, but released Shawn Springs, who they trusted enough to start nine games, including their final five, at the all-important left cornerback spot.

The Patriots otherwise are young and relatively unproven. Plus, their dubious pass rush could put added strain on the secondary.

In each of the past three drafts, they have selected a cornerback within the first two rounds. Darius Butler, the 41st overall pick last year, looks like the left corner and has the potential to be a force in the division for years to come. But he has started only five games, two as a nickel or dime back.

Jonathan Wilhite, a fourth-round pick in 2008, has surpassed second-round classmate Terrence Wheatley. Wilhite started eight games last year, four on the left side, three on the right side and one at nickel. Wheatley has played in only 11 games because of injuries.

The Patriots drafted Devin McCourty with the 27th pick in April.

I asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson if the Patriots' cornerbacks will be up to snuff in a division that added Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes in the offseason.

"My initial impression is no, but that mostly stems from a below average pass rush," Williamson said. "I don't dislike the Pats' cornerbacks as a whole. There is a lot of very young talent that should be on the upswing.

"Wilhite and Wheatley worry me. They seem like nickel cornerbacks or even dime guys, but if everything goes as planned with McCourty and Butler, those two will be fine in such roles. Butler is a little more of a finesse player than Bill Belichick really seems to like, but there is a ton of ability there. It would be surprising if he doesn't bring more to the table as a cover man this season."

Despite doubts about being able to get after quarterbacks, Williamson mentioned another way the Patriots can assist their cornerbacks. If the offense can light it up, then the Patriots will have the advantage of defending obvious pass situations for significant portions of the game.

"I do think Tom Brady and company are going to score a ton of points," Williamson said. "So, in a way, that balances things out. That pass defense does not have to be elite in order for New England to win games."

Big Question: What is Hasselbeck's future?

June, 29, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What does Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck have left?

This isn’t an easy question to answer, as Hasselbeck has continually battled injuries and his supporting cast has been less than stellar. And that includes his protection and those catching the football. But it also must be noted that Seattle didn’t go out of its way to acquire Charlie Whitehurst for no apparent reason.

[+] EnlargeMatt Hasselbeck
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesMatt Hasselbeck threw 17 touchdowns and 17 interceptions for the Seahawks last season.
But as it stands today, I do feel as though Hasselbeck can still be successful. By successful, I don’t mean Pro Bowl level or even how he was a few years ago, but he can be a productive quarterback capable of leading this offense. By several accounts, Hasselbeck has quickly acclimated to the Seahawks' new offense. That isn't surprising given his work ethic, and these leadership traits will be valuable to the entire young squad during this coaching transition.

But I don’t trust him. I don’t trust him to elevate those around him -- which is what the young Seahawks offense needs. I don’t trust him to stay healthy for 16 games. I don’t trust him to be someone whom Seattle can count on going forward. He turns 35 during the season and played the worst football of his career as a starter during the second half of the 2009 season.

Once excellent at valuing the football, he was responsible for too many turnovers. Over the past two seasons, Hasselbeck has five more interceptions than touchdowns. He was making throws like someone whose body hurt him, which just doesn’t work at this level. So, let’s return to the original question: What does Matt Hasselbeck have left? My response is not much.

Why do I say that? First of all, the supporting cast has promise, but it is far from ideal. The Seahawks are transitioning to a zone-blocking run scheme and are breaking in a new blindside protector (Russell Okung) -- albeit a talented one. But overall, I can’t see the line play as being high end yet, even with Alex Gibbs as the line coach. It should be improved, but I still worry about the hits Hasselbeck will take, especially considering his back problems.

But the receivers really worry me. John Carlson could re-establish himself as a truly threatening tight end, and Justin Forsett and Leon Washington are able and dangerous receivers out of the backfield, but you need wide receivers who can threaten a secondary to succeed in this league. I don’t see that in Seattle and I don’t think Hasselbeck is able to escalate the play of average wideouts at this stage of his career.

Compounding matters, Hasselbeck’s contract is up after this season -- so Seattle must have a read on Whitehurst before entering next offseason. Whitehurst will be the starter during the last month of the season. I have no reservations about saying that, even in late June. Actually, I could see Whitehurst taking over after the Seahawks’ Week 5 bye.

Big Question: McNabb ready?

June, 29, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Should we expect Donovan McNabb to hit the ground running this season?

[+] EnlargeDonovan McNabb
AP Photo/Nick WassThe Redskins are counting on Donovan McNabb to lead them out of the NFC East cellar.
Some folks immediately gave the Washington Redskins six more wins when they traded for McNabb. That seemed a little on the optimistic side after witnessing this offensive line's performance last season. And it's not like Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas have truly arrived at wide receiver.

But there's also this little thing about McNabb having to learn Mike Shanahan's offense while blending with his new teammates. It seems like everyone automatically assumes that McNabb won't have much of a learning curve because he's been one of the league's top quarterbacks. But I think there will be some growing pains.

He could run Andy Reid's offense in his sleep, and from time to time, that's what it looked like. On the positive side, though, McNabb will operate with a true running game for the first time in years. Shanahan believes in his zone-blocking scheme and he's going to stay with it longer than most coaches.

I think that will make McNabb a more dangerous quarterback and he might not feel as much pressure to carry the offense. When he was with the Eagles, McNabb would often invite his receivers to Phoenix to work out with him. He needs to be establishing that type of rapport with his new teammates.

The Redskins appear to have a good thing at tight end with Chris Cooley and Fred Davis, but they're a mixed bag at wide receiver. Even if Santana Moss can move past his association with a doctor accused of smuggling performance-enhancing drugs across the border, he's going to have to show more consistency on the field. Jason Campbell rarely had enough time in the pocket to find Moss racing downfield.

Moss has to hope that Shanahan and son can revitalize his career. He also needs to be connected at the hip with McNabb during training camp. Most players don't suddenly get the opportunity to play with an elite quarterback. But for the ones who do (ask Sidney Rice about it), it can elevate their careers.

I think McNabb makes the Redskins better, but there will be plenty of bumps along the way.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With Ben Roethlisberger serving a conditional six-game suspension, will Pittsburgh Steelers third-year quarterback Dennis Dixon get a fair shot to win the starting job?

[+] EnlargeDixon
James Lang/US PresswireDennis Dixon will compete with Byron Leftwich for the starting quarterback spot while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension.
If there's a quarterback competition going on in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have an odd way of showing it.

Byron Leftwich received a majority of the first-team reps this offseason. Roethlisberger also got some first-team reps when he returned late for organized team activities.

Meanwhile, Dixon -- last year's No. 2 quarterback -- is being iced out. He was relegated exclusively to the second team this spring, making Pittsburgh's quarterback competition appear anything but "open."

Is there a reason Leftwich has dominated the first-team reps? Does Dixon have a realistic chance to earn the starting job in Week 1? If Dixon is to get a fair shot, it will have to come in training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers have a culture of making young players earn their keep, and Dixon is no different.

With a decent performance on the road last year against the Baltimore Ravens, many thought Dixon could be the favorite to be under center for Pittsburgh in September. He accounted for two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens. But the Steelers aren't letting Dixon get comfortable with his moderate success.

Coming off a chaotic offseason, perhaps Pittsburgh feels more comfortable with a stable veteran at quarterback. Leftwich knows the offense well and filled in admirably for Roethlisberger during the Steelers' last Super Bowl run in 2008.

Leftwich may very well be the best option for Pittsburgh. But Dixon at least deserves a fair chance this summer to prove otherwise.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Why is there a good chance tight end John Carlson could have his best season as a Seahawk?

Although he caught 51 passes for 574 yards last season, tight end John Carlson was an under-the-radar player on a 5-11 Seahawks team. But changes in the Seahawks’ offense under new head coach Pete Carroll and injuries at wide receiver could allow Carlson to have a breakout year.

[+] EnlargeJohn Carlson
Steve Dykes/US PresswireJohn Carlson could be in line to have his best year yet.
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is only at 80 percent coming off sports hernia surgery, and fellow wideout Deion Branch still can’t shake lingering problems from three knee operations. Plans are already being made to use more two-tight end sets this season because of the team’s enhanced use of the Alex Gibbs zone-blocking scheme.

But Carlson’s skills for getting downfield and catching the ball could allow him to be even more involved in the passing game this season. Last year, the line was so bad that Carlson had to block more than he did when he caught 55 passes for 627 yards as a rookie in 2008. Seattle added veteran Chris Baker to help as a backup tight end and a main cog in the two-tight end set. In the draft, the Seahawks got lucky when USC tight end Anthony McCoy fell to them in the sixth round. Both will help take blocking pressure off Carlson.

Carlson, who has 106 catches and 12 touchdowns in two seasons, is second only to Vernon Davis at tight end in the division. If quarterback Matt Hasselbeck stays healthy and the line does well with Russell Okung and Ben Hamilton on the left side, Carlson should be free to catch more passes and score more touchdowns.

Big Question: Most dubious AFC East call?

June, 22, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What's the worst call to have spoiled the result for an AFC East team?

In the past few weeks, Koman Coulibaly and Jim Joyce made two of the most infamous officiating blunders.

On a global stage, Coulibaly's no-goal gaffe might cost the U.S. soccer team a place in the knockout round of the World Cup. Joyce spoiled baseball history when he blew a call at first base on what should have completed a perfect game.

[+] EnlargeSnow Plow Dolphins Patriots game 1982
AP Photo/Mike KullenJohn Smith had better footing after a plow cleared away the snow for his game-winning kick.
At least they're not alone in sports history. Plenty of other officials have made dubious calls that have changed the outcome of a big game.

The AFC East has seen its share. With help from my Facebook friends, I came up with a short list of controversial calls to consider.

We'll steer clear of the calls that helped an AFC East team win. So forget the Tuck Rule or Vinny Testaverde's phantom touchdown plunge. We're looking for heartbreak here.

With 52 seconds left in their 1976 playoff game, New England Patriots defensive lineman Ray Hamilton was called for a highly questionable roughing penalty on Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler. The Patriots were up by four points. The Raiders faced a third-and-18 from New England's 27-yard line. Stabler's pass was incomplete, but the flag gave the Raiders a first down, and they eventually punched into the end zone.

The Patriots defeated the Miami Dolphins in the Snow Plow Game in 1982. On a winter wonderland of a field, Patriots coach Ron Meyer ordered a plow onto the field to clear kicker John Smith's placement for a 33-yard field goal with 4:45 to play. Officials didn't prevent it. Final score: Patriots 3, Dolphins 0.

In 1998, a questionable fourth-down conversion immediately followed by a wild penalty in the end zone as time expired infuriated the Buffalo Bills so much they didn't line up for the extra point in a vexing loss to the Patriots. A Hail Mary pass interference gave New England the ball on Buffalo's 1-yard line. Down by four points, Drew Bledsoe tossed to Ben Coates for the touchdown.

Bills fans bemoan the Music City Miracle, one of the most controversial plays in NFL history. The Tennessee Titans pulled off what I believe was a perfect lateral to eliminate the Bills from the 1999 playoffs. Despite a video review that seemed to have more interpretations than a Salvador Dali painting, the touchdown stood. The Bills haven't returned to the postseason.

Last year, a Sports Illustrated photo showed Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn stripped New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper shy of the goal line. The ball bounded out of the end zone for what should have been a Dolphins' touchback, but a review upheld Sharper's pick-six, a critical play in a dramatic Saints' victory. Had the Dolphins won, it might have helped them get into the playoffs.

There are so many others to choose from. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Chargers still be a serious Super Bowl contender without Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill?

Earlier in this saga, I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. if he thought San Diego could make a deep playoff run without Jackson and McNeill. Williamson didn’t think so.

I agree that it would be tough. The AFC is stacked and any team that wants to make a serious run will need its full arsenal of players. Having McNeill and Jackson sitting on their couches on Sundays in the fall certainly won’t make San Diego a better team.

Still, if those two players really do hold out into November (the current expectation is that both McNeill and Jackson will hold out for the first 10 games of the season unless they unexpectedly get long-term deals), the Chargers will be tremendously challenged. But barring any major injuries, the team could still stay afloat and regroup for the stretch run.

San Diego (which added tackle Tra Thomas and reserve receiver Josh Reed as insurance for potential holdouts) is pretty loaded on offense. While Jackson is the team’s go-to receiver, quarterback Philip Rivers has plenty of options. He can lean on star tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee while Jackson is out. If Thomas is solid and he keeps Rivers upright, the Chargers can maintain. They won’t be as good as they would be with Jackson and McNeill, but, yes, they can survive.

San Diego plays only two teams (Arizona and New England) that made the playoffs in 2009 during the first 10 games of the season. Five of San Diego’s first 10 games are against teams that had losing records last season.

So, it’s manageable. Playing without Jackson and McNeill for the majority of the season is certainly not ideal, but it may not be devastating to San Diego, either.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Detroit Lions forfeited two organized team activities this week for violating the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Is that really a big deal?

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
Leon Halip/US PresswireJahvid Best and the Lions had to forfeit two OTA sessions.
Aside from the obvious -- it's better to be practicing than not practicing -- no. Every franchise views OTAs differently, but even at their most intense, we're talking about 90-minute workouts that emphasize mental reps in an on-field environment. Even if a team installs its entire scheme during the course of these practices, it usually starts installation over on the first day of training camp.

I've watched far too many OTA practices over the years. They can be really, uh, uneventful. There is only so much to be gained from practicing in shorts, jerseys and T-shirts. In Minnesota, for example, they're so crucial that coach Brad Childress cancels at least two of them every year.

OTAs are most valuable for teams with first-year head coaches who are installing new schemes or want extended time to get incumbents on film. That's not the case in Detroit, where the Lions return the same head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator.

Coach Jim Schwartz was hoping to create a training camp-style schedule this week: five consecutive days of football activities, including a three-day mandatory minicamp. But I imagine that by the time the Lions finish their actual training camp, there will be little evidence that they lost two OTAs. And something tells me that, at the end of the season, we're not going to hear Schwartz or anyone else say, "Man, if we had just had those extra two days of OTAs."

If you're concerned about why the Lions were singled out as one of four teams required to forfeit OTAs this spring, make sure you check out John Clayton's mailbag this week. It's got much more to do with the NFL's brewing labor situation than it does with anything the Lions might have tried to sneak through.

Big Question: Boys set at LT?

June, 22, 2010
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Is everyone in Dallas on the same page about Doug Free starting at left tackle?

From the moment the Cowboys released perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Flozell Adams, I assumed his replacement would be Doug Free. But for whatever reason, the other NFC East teams aren't convinced. Free exceeded expectations while filling in for an injured Marc Colombo in '09, but he was overmatched when he saw emergency duty against Jared Allen in a playoff game.

[+] EnlargeDoug Free
Kyle Terada/US PresswireDoug Free did well in seven games at right tackle last season.
The fact that Free has excellent footwork and quickness gives him the proper foundation to protect Tony Romo's blindside. Still, teams such as the Eagles don't seem convinced that Free will be up to the task. I recently took a peek at the Eagles' depth chart for the Cowboys, and they have Alex Barron's name next to Free's. They didn't do that with the other 10 positions on offense. And the Eagles aren't alone. There's a belief from the Giants and Redskins that Barron will eventually win the job because of his experience. That's not to say they're rooting for Barron, because they'd actually like Trent Cole, Justin Tuck and Brian Orakpo to have a go at Free.

So where's all this doubt coming from? I know that Free barely has any experience at left tackle in the league, but he was excellent on the right side in seven games last season. And his skill set is better suited for the left side. Cowboys offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who's tutored some of the best in the game, told me recently that nothing seems to faze Free. He's seen more of a sense of urgency from the player since he was named the starter and he admires Free's work ethic. There's nothing to suggest that Barron's going to light it up in training camp and surpass Free.

But even some of Free's teammates seemed to have their doubts in the days after Adams' release. DeMarcus Ware, a man who knows how to embarrass a left tackle, was completely caught off guard by the move and expressed surprise. He's since rallied behind Free, but it's hard to dismiss his initial reaction. I've also pressed Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode on the topic. He had immense respect for Adams, but he's trying to say all the right things about Free.

From my perspective, I'd have more concern with Colombo right now than Free. That's not to say Free's the better player, but Colombo's leg injury was pretty significant and he probably should not have returned for the Vikings game based on his performance. He's one of the toughest players in the league, but you can only do so much on one leg. I think Barron was brought in with Colombo's durability in mind.

But the rest of the division seems to think Barron was brought in to replace Adams. I guess we'll find out soon enough. By the way, how would you rank the starting left tackles in the division as of today?

I'd go with Jason Peters, David Diehl, Free and the Redskins' rookie, Trent Williams.




Thursday, 9/18
Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22