The NFL lockout is upon us, and there's no telling when the players and owners will get a new deal hammered out. Will there be an NFL season come September? At this point, that's unclear. If this thing goes south and the 2011 football season gets scrapped, here is what our Patriots experts will miss most.
5. Standout rookie performers. Players like Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come to mind. Watching Suh dominate in just his first year was very impressive, as was seeing Bradford play at such a high level while giving the Rams' franchise hope for the future. I will miss seeing the possibility of future rookies like Nick Fairley and Blaine Gabbert possibly having similar impact.
4. Great linebacker play. To see a linebacker run a defense and dominate a game is a thing of beauty. One example is Green Bay's Clay Matthews bringing the heat off the edge. Another is Pittsburgh's James Harrison putting the fear of bodily injury into offensive players. You have New England's Jerod Mayo developing into a Pro Bowl performer. Ray Lewis, the old man, still getting it done in Baltimore. I will miss these violent acts of art that so many good 'backers in the league can deliver.
3. Players rewriting the record books. One that stands out is the "Monday Night Football" performance of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick -- throwing for more than 300 yards with 4 TDs, and running for 2 TDs. It was one of the most explosive offensive performances I have ever seen. I will miss the chance to see greatness on any given Sunday (or Monday).
2. Fantasy Football. Last year was my first season with fantasy football and, yes, I'm addicted. You appreciate getting together for a draft and choosing your team. Then you have those conflicted feelings when your quarterback is Peyton Manning and he's playing the Patriots. I didn't win my league last year, but it was a year when we were just trying to teach our players our system. I'm going to miss the possibility of my fantasy team developing and winning its first championship.
1. Rivalry games. This is when you see players put it all on the line to defeat their hated rival. Bears-Packers -- I want to see if Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler can bounce back. Ravens-Steelers is great, too. And, of course, Pats-Colts. The winner of this game usually is on the fast track toward AFC supremacy. Who would be the team that delivers that knockout blow in the next one of these epic slugfests? I will miss seeing all of the historic rivalry games that the NFL provides.
5. Attempting to identify the next sleeper to make the roster. Almost every year in Bill Belichick's tenure, the Patriots have an undrafted player emerge to make the roster with a strong training camp. Last year, it was defensive lineman Kyle Love and inside linebacker Dane Fletcher. In a lockout, there will be a draft, but teams won't be allowed to sign rookie free agents.
4. Patriots-Jets, Part 6. The rivalry between the two teams is in an interesting place. Rex Ryan is 3-2 against the Patriots since he was hired as Jets coach in 2009, although the Patriots have won the AFC East championship in each of the past two seasons. Patriots-Jets is my most anticipated game on next season's schedule, over Patriots-Colts.
3. Trades for veteran players. The Patriots have made a few good ones over the years. Running back Corey Dillon for a second-round pick in 2004, receiver Wes Welker for second- and seventh-rounders in 2007, and receiver Randy Moss for a fourth-rounder in 2007 come to mind as three of the best. They've had some duds too, such as deals for cornerback Duane Starks and tight end Alex Smith. Whether good or bad, trades are fun to analyze.
2. Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and the little guy. In a big man's game, it's often remarkable to see Welker (5-9, 185) and Woodhead (5-8, 195) stand above the crowd. Welker's performance against the Carolina Panthers in 2009, when he single-handedly energized Gillette Stadium in the third quarter of a lackluster game after he got crunched but bounced back up in Rocky Balboa fashion, was one of the great regular-season moments at Gillette since it opened in 2002.
1. Sunday at 1. It becomes a way of life in the fall. Being at an NFL stadium each Sunday, and feeling the energy and excitement that comes with that, is something unique. Every stadium has its own character and feel to it. A return trip to Heinz Field, one of the great environments for pro football, is on the 2011 schedule. So is a visit to the unforgettable "Black Hole" in Oakland. Those are two trips that are highly anticipated.