Ten burning questions as we emerge from NFL's lockout

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

The NFL on Monday released its schedule for this week, and surprise, surprise, surprise: Everything and everyone is on the fast track, with all but two clubs opening training camps by Friday.

That makes sense. If the NFL was serious about keeping its first weekend of preseason games -- which it was -- it wasn't going to wait to send people back to work next week. So the NFL is back, players are relieved, owners are satisfied and fans are delirious.

Any questions? Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have 10. Let's get started.

1. How will the quality of play be affected by the lockout?

It'll go south faster than a snowbird in February. Most of these guys haven't had coach-supervised workouts in nearly seven months -- in fact, most of these guys haven't had much of any supervised workouts in that long -- so there's a rust factor the size of Vermont. Then there are eight new coaches who must hand out playbooks. That's one-fourth of the league that's likely to sputter on lift-off in seven weeks. Now, add the new practice rules that prohibit two-a-day workouts and that strictly limit the number of padded practices, and you have the perfect script for "Football Follies, 2011." Granted, teams resumed without much of a hitch after the 57-day strike in 1982, but that was during the season ... and it was after mini camps, training camps and two regular-season games. There has been no prelude to this storm. Somebody cue George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone. Got a feeling we're going to see some good, some bad and a lot of ugly.

2. What should be the biggest concern?

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For the players, it's injuries. Remember what happened last year when Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis missed all summer because of a contract dispute? He returned to strain his hamstring in his first start, missed two games, then re-injured it all over again. There's no telling what condition these guys are in, but if I'm a coach I assume the worst ... and I assume most were part-time players while they were away. Which means I'd be careful how I practice them. The NFL already took care of that potential hazard, imposing new practice rules that are, to put it politely, player-friendly. I mean, no two-a-days in training camp? Fewer padded practices? Fewer OTAs? More days off? Players don't need to bring back the NFLPA; they just joined Club Med. For coaches and GMs, the problem is evaluating players they haven't seen for nearly seven months. Normally, that's a process that occurs after the season and during mini-camps and OTAs. Now, it must be done during training camp while clubs are in the midst of releasing their own players and taking on free agents -- undrafted, unrestricted and restricted. I think you see the problem. No longer is it good enough to be a coach; now you must be a multi-tasker.

3. Is Green Bay still the team to beat?

Do they still sell chicken wings in Buffalo? C'mon, people, get real. There's a reason they call it Titletown. The Packers aren't just the defending champions; they're better than the defending champions. OK, so that may need explaining. The team that last year won the Super Bowl was crippled by injuries that robbed it of its starting running back, its top tight end and numerous defensive starters and contributors. Now they're back, and I don't know who beats these guys if they're on. I mean, they won without Ryan Grant. They won without Jermichael Finley. They won without Morgan Burnett and Nick Barnett. They even won without Donald Driver and Charles Woodson, sidelined in the first half of the Super Bowl. This team isn't just loaded. It's reloaded. Everyone else plays for second in the NFC North.

4. When does Peyton Manning a) play and b) sign a new contract?

It doesn't matter when Peyton Manning plays. He missed the entire 2008 preseason after having surgery to remove an infected bursa sac in his knee, then went out and won his third MVP trophy. Manning had neck surgery in May and won't be ready for training camp, but he'll be ready for the season. I mean, the guy's 35 and hasn't played for anyone else, so there are no surprises. He knows the offense because he is the offense. And as far as that new contract? I imagine that happens sooner rather than later. Colts owner Jim Irsay made it clear he will make Manning the highest-paid player in the game, and Irsay will deliver on his promise -- saying last week that he has "a tremendous amount of money" waiting for him. The Colts would've made a move by now, but the lockout prevented them. With nothing left as an obstacle, the deal gets done.

5. Who signs Nnamdi Asomugha?

Someone with deep pockets. Asomugha is the top free agent on the board, and there will be a bidding war for the guy. When I met Asomugha in New York two years ago he told me how much he’d like to live there -- comfortable with the entertainment, culture and history that the city affords. This is a bright, thoughtful and worldly guy who belongs in a cosmopolitan town. Logic tells you that town might be New York, with Asomugha going to the Jets. I mean, they probably don't re-sign Antonio Cromartie, right? One problem: They don’t have the cap room to afford him. Plus, they must re-sign Santonio Holmes. General manager Mike Tannenbaum will have to do some creative accounting to make room for Asomugha. Washington will have the money to spend on him, but I’d make Baltimore a player here now. With the releases of Willis McGahee, Kelly Gregg, Todd Heap and Derrick Mason, the Ravens are clearing substantial cap room for a big move. Asomugha might just be that move. One place I wouldn’t ticket him: Philadelphia. I know the Eagles have a need for a cornerback, but they don’t seem fired up for this cornerback. All I know is that it’s a buyer’s market out there, and Asomugha is about to buy himself a lifetime of stability.

6. Where does Kevin Kolb go?

You'd have to think it's Arizona. There is too much talk about the Cardinals not to ignore it. Yeah, I know, there's talk about Seattle, too, but the Seahawks invested heavily in Charlie Whitehurst a year ago, and taking a flyer on Kevin Kolb would mean they've written off Whitehurst. I don't know that Pete Carroll is ready to do that yet. Heck, I don't even know that Pete Carroll knows if he's ready to do that yet. Arizona has one of the game's top receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, but their running game stinks. In fact, over the past four years it's been nothing better than 28th, ranking dead last in 2010. That would seem to underscore the value of a quarterback, and the best available one out there is Kolb. If Carson Palmer were on the market, the Cards would push to acquire him -- but he's not. So make Philadelphia an offer it can't refuse.

7. Is Brett Favre really finished with the NFL?

I've lost count who has more sequels -- Brett Favre or Rocky Balboa. The assumption after last season was that Favre was finished and would ease into middle age. Only now that the NFL is back in business we're dealing with these Favre-to-Philadelphia rumors, and, for the life of me, I can't understand why. Oh, yeah, now I remember: Because Favre can't just say no. Anyway, I wouldn't trust them because to go to Philadelphia he'd have to serve as Michael Vick's caddy, and tell me the last time Brett Favre sat behind anyone while he was healthy. That's why I can't see him doing it. Yeah, I know, he and Andy Reid are close, but this one makes no sense. Brett Favre returns to do ... what? Sit on the bench. Please. The man's a competitor. He doesn't return to watch. He can do that from his living room in Mississippi.

8. How long before Cam Newton is NFL ready?

At least one season. Maybe never. The lockout prevented rookies like Cam Newton from getting in their buildings, sitting down with coaches, learning offenses, then taking what they learned and applying it on the practice fields. Newton has a huge upside, but he also has a huge learning curve. Most coaches I know don't think he will thrive at this level ... and that was without a lockout. Now, figure he has no OTAs, no mini camps, no quarterback sessions, no nothing, and you tell me what happens in seven weeks. Answer: The same thing that happened to Jimmy Clausen last season. Newton will learn on the fly, and it won't be easy. Where he could run away from defenders in college he will run into trouble in the pros. The question is: What impact will it have on his career? My guess: We find out next year.

9. Will Carson Palmer really put football in his rear-view mirror?

He already has. The guy is insistent that he won't play again in Cincinnati, and if that means he doesn't play football, he's OK with that. Cincinnati owner Mike Brown is equally insistent that he won't trade Palmer, and I understand. You set a precedent the minute you deal the first unhappy camper. So Brown sits still, and waits on Palmer to make the first move. Only I don't see him making it. People who know him tell me he seems happy in southern California, and what's to understand. You either spend your Sundays catching the next wave at Del Mar or take a beating from the next bull rusher at Paul Brown Stadium. If I had the money Palmer has socked away, I'd be at Del Mar, too.

10. Can Jim Harbaugh turn the 49ers around?

He's paid as if he will. Harbaugh succeeded at every level as a head coach, first at the University of San Diego, then at Stanford. So why shouldn't that success continue in the pros? I'll tell you in two words: Alex Smith. He had six years to prove himself with the 49ers, and all he's proven is that he looks good one day, not so good the next and doesn't win a lot. I know, the poor guy has a different offensive coordinator nearly every year, but Harbaugh won at USD and Stanford with top quarterbacks -- and nobody ever called Alex Smith a top pro quarterback. Nevertheless, Harbaugh sounds as if he's sold on him. Maybe. All I know is the 49ers exercised their second-round draft pick on Nevada's Colin Kaeperenick -- trading up to acquire him -- and that tells me they're not sold on much of anyone but Colin Kaepernick. I mean, why would you invest in a young quarterback if you like what you already have? You wouldn't. Kaepernick is the key to the future of this club, not Smith. Harbaugh's chances for success rest on how fast ... and if ... he develops.


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