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Monday, July 23, 2012
Key questions for training camps

By Ashley Fox
ESPN.com

It is here, finally. After the most eventful offseason in recent memory -- maybe ever -- NFL training camps will open this week. Arizona's veterans kick things off when they report to the Arizona Cardinals camp at Northern Arizona University on Tuesday.

Training camps will be easier than in years past. No more two-a-day practices. Players get a day off every fifth day. Coaches don't care for the new practice regulations, and it remains to be seen whether the quality of play early in the season will be affected. That is just one question looming as the season is set to begin. Here are eight others:

How will the New Orleans Saints cope without Sean Payton? The New Orleans bounty allegations, and the residual fallout, have dominated the offseason and aren't close to dying down. The Saints open camp on Tuesday. For the first time in six seasons, Payton won't be there. His replacement, assistant coach Joe Vitt, will lead the team through camp and the preseason and then take a seat for six games. General manager Mickey Loomis can preside over the whittling down of the Saints' roster to the final 53-man squad, and then he, too, must serve an eight-game suspension.

A lot is in flux. The good news, if there is any for the Saints, is that quarterback Drew Brees is finally happy with a long-term contract. He will be the team's anchor. He has the cachet, intelligence and good standing to handle that.

Nevertheless, the Saints will miss Payton, one of the best minds in the game.

Demaryius Thomas and Peyton Manning
How long will it take for Peyton Manning to adjust to his new surroundings?
How will Peyton Manning look in a Denver Broncos uniform? It is going to take time to get used to seeing Manning in anything other than a Indianapolis Colts uniform. Joe Montana never looked right in Kansas City Chiefs gear, just as Brett Favre never looked right in a New York Jets or Minnesota Vikings uniform.

But aesthetics aside, how will Manning really look after missing an entire season? He won't put a percentage on where he is after rehabilitating his neck, but it should become apparent in the early days of camp. Can he make all of the throws? How strong is his arm? And does he have enough talent around him?

For the first time since he was a rookie in Indianapolis 14 years ago, Manning is adjusting to new teammates, new coaches, new surroundings, a new city, a new division and new expectations. This is not insignificant. It takes time. Manning is a gym rat, a football junkie. If anyone can handle a difficult transition, it should be him.

What does Manning's brother have planned? Let's take a look at the math: Peyton Manning 1, Eli Manning 2. That's the scorecard for rings, titles and trophies. Eli just got his second in February, pulling one of the biggest upsets ever in surpassing his brother for titles.

At 31 and coming off the most dazzling statistical season of his eight-year career, Manning is now firmly entrenched in the elite quarterback category. Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. That's your top five, in no particular order, with a wait-and-see asterisk next to Peyton Manning.

What is next for Eli? With two Super Bowl wins in the past five seasons, both over Brady's New England Patriots, the New York Giants (not the Philadelphia Eagles, with apologies to Michael Vick) are on the cusp of becoming a dynasty.

Speaking of the paper champions, is this the year the Eagles finally win their first Super Bowl? Man, Philadelphia looks awfully tough on paper, with Vick, a talented collection of young skill position players, an upgraded defensive line and linebacking corps and a secondary that includes Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

But the Eagles looked good on paper last year and finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs, in part because the quarterback couldn't stay on the field and the team didn't jell until the last quarter of the season. By then, it was too late.

So temper the optimism. This is a huge season for Vick and for Eagles coach Andy Reid. The Eagles' early schedule is brutal -- four playoff teams from last season are among the first six opponents. Philadelphia dug itself too deep of a hole before winning its last four games last year. The Eagles can't do that this year if they want to get back to the playoffs.

How long before Tim Tebow is the starting quarterback for the Jets? Come on, now. We all know at some point this is going to happen, right? Mark Sanchez is going to struggle, throw a couple picks, a couple passes in the dirt, and Tebow -- in whatever role the Jets ultimately use him for -- is going to succeed. If Tebow replaces Sanchez in the red zone, where he is tough to stop, and scores a lot of touchdowns while Sanchez piles up the turnovers, Jets fans are going to be howling for Tebow. It could get very, very ugly.

Ultimately, this is all on Sanchez. The Jets want him to succeed. They have invested a lot of time and money in him. But in addition to protecting the football and elevating his game from last season, Sanchez needs to steel himself mentally. Tebow's popularity among teammates and fans could make that extraordinarily difficult.

Who will emerge as the starting quarterbacks in Arizona, Seattle and Miami? Through the beauty of HBO's "Hard Knocks," we will get an inside look at the three-man quarterback competition in Miami among David Garrard, Matt Moore and rookie first-round pick Ryan Tannehill. The front-runner appears to be Garrard, who missed last season with back issues but has experience running the West Coast offense.

The competition in Arizona -- between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton -- seems more up for grabs. As is the case with Sanchez and the Jets, the Cardinals have more money invested in Kolb, which could give the 27-year-old an advantage. But Kolb suffered through a foot injury and then missed the last month of last season with a concussion. Skelton went 5-2 in Kolb's stead.

In Seattle, the competition is even more complicated. Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson will get equal reps with the first-team offense, and although Jackson is the incumbent and has 34 career starts, the competition is wide open.

Cam Newton
We know what Cam Newton can do, but what about the rest of Panthers?
Can the Carolina Panthers go from 6-10 to the playoffs? Yes, maybe. A lot rests on the play of quarterback Cam Newton, who obliterated Peyton Manning's rookie record for passing yards. But the Panthers have assembled talent around Newton. Playing with a quarterback who can actually get him the ball, Steve Smith has re-emerged as a premier wide receiver. Carolina has a trio of capable backs: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert. The Panthers are going to be able to score points and control the clock.

And although there are questions on defense, the team has a lot of upside. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards is healthy, as are linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. The Panthers drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round. They should be set at middle linebacker, whenever they decide who will play middle. They should be better on defense.

Can Carolina supplant New Orleans? If ever there were a season to do that, this is it.

Will the league be forced to use replacement officials in the regular season? For everybody involved -- players, coaches, refs, fans -- let's hope not. Games could be longer. Calls could be missed. Mistakes could be made. It is foolish to put amateurs in a key position in a multibillion-dollar industry. It can't happen.