As each of the NFL's 32 teams approach the start of training camp over the next week, each will enter the season with question marks that must be answered correctly to achieve success in 2009.
From the favorite to win it all again in the Pittsburgh Steelers, to a team just looking for a win in the Detroit Lions, I pose my top question for the season and a soft prediction (soft because one major injury in pre-season and the question and prediction will completely change).
Question: Can 38-year-old QB Kurt Warner stay healthy for a majority of the season and if he can't, will Matt Leinart be ready to step in?
Prediction: Warner should be fine based on the style of offense the Cardinals run. With a high percentage of three step drop pass plays and Warner's ability to read defenses pre-snap, I don't expect him to take a ton of shots.
As for Leinart, hopefully he has grown up and will take his professional career seriously. His future with the team and as a starter in the NFL is riding on it.
Question: Can QB Matt Ryan avoid the sophomore jinx and improve upon last season's impressive rookie year?
Prediction: With a strong character and a great work ethic if Ryan stays healthy he can only get better. Also, it doesn't hurt that he now has TE Tony Gonzalez to check down to when he gets in trouble.
Question: Can the Ravens defense continue to perform at a high level with the loss of Defensive Coordinator Rex Ryan to the NY Jets and the four players he took with him?
Prediction: NO! Ryan was the brains behind the savagery of that swarming Ravens defense. Ray Lewis is another year older and the Ravens opted to resign their aging ILB over a younger and faster (and some would argue better) ILB in Bart Scott, who bolted with Ryan to the Jets. The Ravens will still be good on "D", but not great!
Question: Can TO (Terrell Owens) be an asset or will he be a detriment to Trent Edwards and the Bills offense?
Prediction: Yes and No! You will see an improved Bills offense in 2009 as TO will open the field for Lee Evans and Marshawn Lynch.
However, as the season drags on and the Bills enter the second half of their schedule against teams like the Titans, Dolphins, Patriots, Falcons, and Colts, you will see TO at his best (which is bad for Edwards) when things start to go south in Buffalo.
Question: Which Jake Delhomme will we see in 2009?
Prediction: Well, if it is the Jake Delhomme who played against Arizona in the playoffs last season, the name on the back of the jersey for the guy under center will say McCown (or possibly Favre).
I expect Delhomme, now fully recovered from elbow surgery, to struggle early in the season with a schedule that includes Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington and Arizona.
However, he should bounce back to help lead the Panthers to the playoffs and a chance to redeem himself for last season's debacle.
Question: Can the Bears regain the defensive dominance they had during their Super Bowl run three years ago?
Prediction: The Bears had a ton of injuries in their defensive backfield last season and those holes were exposed.
Although they should be healthy to start the season, I don't expect them to dominate as they had in the past. But they should be good enough to compliment Cutler and the offense.
Question: Can QB Carson Palmer and WR Chad Johnson regain the magic they once had?
Prediction: I believe the Bengals will struggle early as Palmer, who was lost most of last season with an elbow injury, attempts to find his stroke.
I like the Bengals schedule to close the season and believe they will challenge late for a playoff berth.
Question: Which Braylon Edwards will emerge in 2009? The Edwards who led all NFL receivers in drop passes or the Edwards who looked un-coverable in 2007?
Prediction: Something impacted Edwards last season that made him look like an average receiver. We may never know what, but the Browns brass stuck with him and fired the coach and traded TE Kellen Winslow.
With that said, the Browns covered themselves by drafting WR's Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi. If Edwards can regain his form and the Browns settle on a quarterback, the team will be better under the disciplined watch of Eric Mangini.
Question: Can WR Roy Williams be "the man" once again now that TO is out of the way?
Prediction: Williams should be solid target for Romo inside the 20-yard line and but he lacks the big play ability Owens brought to the team.
You will see Dallas shift to a run-oriented offense, utilizing the speed of Felix Jones and the strength of Marion Barber.
Question: Can rookie RB Knowshon Moreno carry the offense enough to keep a horrendous Broncos defense off the field?
Prediction: For the first part of the season I expect to see rookie coach Josh McDaniels utilize a backfield by committee, teaming Moreno with Buckhalter, and Jordan.
Once the Broncos are out of it, McDaniels will shift his focus to Moreno in preparation for next season.
Question: Will the Lions have to wait until November to end their losing ways?
Prediction: Rookie coach Jim Schwartz will have the Lions prepared for every game, but the lack of talent on this team cannot overcome a very tough schedule early in the season.
The Lions will notch Schwartz’s first victory on Nov. 1 at home against St. Louis.
Questions: How long will it take for the Packers defense to feel comfortable in the 3-4 alignment?
Prediction: With Cincinnati and St. Louis on the schedule in weeks two and three, they should pull their new look defense together fairly quickly.
If the Packers don’t win 10 games with the schedule they’ve been handed, McCarthy should be handed his walking papers.
Question: Can QB Matt Schaub stay healthy for an entire season?
Prediction: He better! With back-up specialist Sage Rosenfels gone, the Texans have very little to fall back on if Schaub goes down.
For a team headed in the right direction, they really left themselves exposed as Schaub has only played in 22 of the Texans 32 games upon his acquisition from Atlanta.
Question: Can RB Joseph Addai return to form and if he can’t, will rookie Donald Brown step in as the starter?
Prediction: Addai will be fine, as will the Colts offense. He is not the type of back to carry the ball 350 times a season, so the Colts drafted Brown not as insurance (although he is) but rather to lighten Addai’s load a bit.
Question: Two seasons ago, as Jacksonville made their run to the playoffs, QB David Garrard emerged as the face of the franchise. Can Garrard be that game-changing force he gave us a glimpse of in 2007?
Prediction: With the offensive line in shambles last season, no one felt the effects more than Garrard. With a young, but more athletic offensive line in 2009, MJD (Maurice Jones-Drew) lined up behind him full time, and the experienced Torry Holt at receiver, Garrard can only improve upon his nightmare season of 2008.
Question: Is QB Matt Cassel the real deal or just the byproduct of a talented and well-coached Patriots team?
Prediction: Cassel is for real, but the Chiefs are not! They will be a better team in 2009, but still need help on the defensive side of the ball.
Cassel will put up some impressive stats, but he’ll have a tough time matching his totals as a Patriot in 2008.
Question: Can Ronnie Brown and the Wildcat offense maintain its usefulness?
Prediction: Not only will the Wildcat offense continue to be successful, Rookie QB Patrick White will be the focal point and the Dolphins will take their innovative offense to a higher level.
Do I think they will be 11-5 again? No, but they will be exciting to watch.
Question: Will the Vikings get enough out of their quarterback position to take pressure off of Adrian Peterson?
Prediction: No Favre, no way! Sage Rosenfels and Tavaris Jackson will do a great job turning around and handing the ball to Peterson, but if the Vikings get down by two touchdowns or more, don’t hold your breath for a fantastic finish.
Besides, I have a feeling Favre and the Vikings are not done talking just yet (wait until October!)
Question: This is the question of the season in the NFL: Will Tom Brady pick up where he left off prior to injuring his knee?
Prediction: He will eventually return to form, although it won’t take long. I expect the Patriots to be hitting on all cylinders by week five against the Broncos.
Question: Can Reggie Bush or Pierre Thomas run the ball enough to keep an improving but susceptible defense off the field?
Prediction: Bush can’t, but Thomas can. Reggie cannot handle more than 15 rushing attempts per game (he did it once in 10 games last year). Thomas is a harder, smarter, and more durable back and will see a bulk of the carries.
Question: Who is going to catch Manning’s passes?
Prediction: Early on it will be TE Kevin Boss and WR Domenik Hixon, but as the season develops, rookie WR Hakeem Nicks will be the man!
Nicks reminds me a great deal of Torry Holt, a guy who isn’t super fast but finds away to score.
Question: Will rookie QB Mark Sanchez step in right away or will the Jets bring him along slowly and consider this season a rebuilding year?
Prediction: The NY Jets will improve defensively under new head coach Rex Ryan. The offense will have to take a few steps backwards before they move forward.
I like rookie RB Shonn Green and second year TE Dustin Keller, but to expect Sanchez to pull a Flacco is asking a bit much.
Question: Will the Raiders allow JaMarcus Russell to mature as the starter or will they try to win now and insert Jeff Garcia at quarterback?
Prediction: Garcia will win the job in preseason and the Raiders will make the playoffs! My bold pick for the year!
Question: Can rookie RB LeSean McCoy carry a bulk of the load to keep Brian Westbrook healthy for an entire season?
Prediction: Westbrook will not want to come out of games so a rookie can steal his carries, but Coach Andy Reid does not consult his players before making decisions (i.e. McNabb last season).
Reid knows the key to the Eagles success deep into the playoffs is a healthy Westbrook.
Question: No, the civil suit against Ben will have no bearing on the team. The bigger question is, will second year RB Rashard Mendenhall live up to his first round draft pick status?
Prediction: Mendenhall will actually have some impact this season (unlike last year), but it will be running back by committee with Mendenhall and Willie Parker leading the way.
Question: Can you please give RB Steven Jackson 30 rushing attempts a game?
Prediction: I just see this team getting down by two touchdowns or more way too often for Jackson to get the carries he needs to control the clock for the Rams.
This team needed a complete overhaul and they have started to do exactly that!
Question: What were you thinking by placing the franchise tag on seldom-used RB Darren Sproles?
Prediction: Is this how you try to motivate LaDainian Tomlinson and force him to play harder when injured?
Come on fellas, you ran him into the ground for years to pad his stats and set NFL records, and now the guy is starting to slow down and you think he needs to be motivated by paying a player who had 61 carries top five RB money?
Don’t get me wrong, I always thought Sproles had some talent, but he is not an every down back. He is David Meggett, not Maurice Jones-Drew.
Tomlinson will have a great season and the Charges will wonder why they are paying Sproles Pro Bowl money!
Question: Will the 49ers allow former top pick QB Alex Smith to prove his worth?
Prediction: Who knows? How could so many people be wrong about this guy? Nearly every draft guru believed Smith was the right pick for the 49ers when they selected him with number one overall in the draft.
Let the guy play now that he has quality receivers in rookie WR Crabtree and the sure-handed veteran Issac Bruce to throw to.
Question: Is veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck fully recovered from the injuries that forced the Seahawks to shut him down early in 2008?
Prediction: I see Hasselbeck and WR Deion Branch fully recovered and you throw in a WR like TJ Houshmandzadeh and a TE like John Carlson and you have a very strong offense. Now, can Julius Jones step up his play to provide a balance attack for the Seahawks? That is the second biggest question the Seahawks must answer.
Question: Who is going to be your quarterback?
Prediction: By season’s end it will be rookie Josh Freeman. Tampa has a new coach, a new runningback, a new tight end, and a tough schedule. With that much change I don’t expect Tampa to have a strong season so they will throw Freeman out there early to sink or swim on his own.
Question: Has Vince Young matured enough to step in for the aging Collins?
Prediction: I never thought Young would ever be classic drop back NFL QB and I still believe that. Does that mean he can’t succeed? No, I think he has the all-around skills sets to make him a dangerous weapon. But the Titans have to build the offense around those skills. Run the wildcat offense and flank RB’s Chris Johnson and LenDale White on either side of him. Young is what he is, and a drop back QB he is not!
Question: Will veteran QB Jason Campbell thrive now that he’s had the same offensive coordinator for consecutive seasons?
Prediction: He should! It is do or die time for Jason Campbell who is in a contract year with the Redskins. He will either be a very wealthy man this time next year or the QB who sees all the action during preseason for another team (meaning: future clipboard holder).