This is the time of year when some NFL coaches are tempted to put pads on their rookies just to see if the scouts were right about the draftees, like Sam Bradford (left) greeting new teammate Rodger Saffold at Rams minicamp. Others just want to be sure their quarterbacks are on the same playbook page as they are. There are a lot of questions in the league right now, and here are the top 10 according to John Czarnecki.
Which coaches are on the hot seat?
In no particular order, Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay, Lovie Smith in Chicago and Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. Everyone says that Mike Holmgren (right) will replace Eric Mangini with Jon Gruden in 2011. John Fox is in his last contract year with the austerity-minded Panthers and owners in San Francisco and Houston are expecting playoff seasons. If the 49ers and Texans don’t produce, anything is possible with Mike Singletary and Gary Kubiak. Fox should have his pick of multiple landing spots, maybe even New York if the Giants miss the playoffs once again.
Can the Steelers start 0-4 and still make the playoffs?
Big Ben already is in counseling and there’s a chance that the Steelers can beat the Bucs without him, although Atlanta, Tennessee and Baltimore in the first four weeks will be problematic with Dennis Dixon the projected starter and Byron Leftwich coming in off the bench. Mike Tomlin had Leftwich with the first team last weekend, but Dixon is the better player. Big Ben sits for at least four weeks before Pittsburgh's bye weekend. My money says he returns after that, but there’s no way they win the AFC North without Santonio Holmes.
How much of a distraction will the vicodin lawsuit be for the Saints?
Coach Sean Payton is a great multi-tasker, considering he is already the lead plaintiff against a Chinese drywall company that allegedly ruined over 2,100 homes in Louisiana. But Payton needs this case to go away before the regular-season starts because he has too much on his coaching plate from game plans to personnel decisions, especially if GM Mickey Loomis is guilty of obstruction of justice.
How long before Mike Martz wears out his welcome in Chicago?
Chicago's new offensive coordinator already started last weekend when saying he’d like a veteran backup quarterback behind Jay Cutler because Caleb Hanie and rookie Dan LeFevour “make you a little nervous.” Basically, Martz is saying he has enough on his plate to regulate Cutler and get Chicago’s offense in high gear and doesn’t have the time or patience to coach up some backup QBs. Forget about Brett Favre. Martz could end up being the most polarizing figure in the NFC North.
Did the Cowboys make the right move picking Dez Bryant?
Based on one minicamp weekend, the Cowboys are raving about the rookie receiver’s hands and his ability to adjust to the flight of the ball. The fact that Michael Irvin is allowing Bryant (pictured) to wear his old No. 88 says it all, and many in the Dallas locker room wish the kid had punched Miami GM Jeff Ireland for asking him if his mom was a prostitute. On the flip side, Dallas likes athletic Doug Free as the replacement for LT Flozell Adams. It seems unlikely, too, that Adams will re-sign with the Cowboys. He could end up in Chicago, where he has a home and where the Bears have a penchant for taking aging tackles.
Which playoff-ready team most helped themselves this offseason?
Most would say the Jets, who got Kyle Wilson (one of the draft’s best cover corners), Antonio Cromartie and L.T. from the Chargers and receiver Santonio Holmes from the Steelers. Rex Ryan is loaded to make another run in the AFC East and his defense lines up favorably against the Colts and other great passing teams. But if Fresno State RB Ryan Mathews (pictured, right) is as good as Norv Turner thinks he is, San Diego might have found the one weapon to really make Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates super scary. Running back is the one position where a rookiet can make an immediate impact.
What will the Raiders do with JaMarcus Russell?
Everyone in the organization is hoping that owner Al Davis cuts this overweight and failed No. 1 pick loose. Some thought he would be gone by now. With five QBs under contract, Russell (pictured, right) figures to be No. 3 on the depth chart behind Campbell (pictured, left) and Bruce Gradkowski, who can’t throw until training camp. On every other team, the No. 3 QB tends to be a developmental rookie earning peanuts. No way Russell stays with a $9 million contract.
Which NFC East defense needs the most work?
It’s pretty much a toss-up between the Eagles and Giants, who both struggled down the stretch last season. The Eagles have discarded several veterans and are hoping that new LBs Ernie Sims and rookies Keenan Clayton and Jamar Chaney can cover in space (tight ends killed the Eagles last season). The Giants were embarrassing in '09 after safety Kenny Phillips was lost. New defensive coordinator Perry Fewell (pictured, background left) has high hopes for rookies Linval Joseph at DT and MLB Phillip Dillard. However, both units are a long ways away from socking someone in the mouth or being the dominant unit on the field.
Which rookie QB situation is the most intriguing right now?
It's a given that the Rams will force feed No. 1 pick Sam Bradford into the lineup. Carolina doesn’t want to hurry Jimmy Clausen because they like Matt Moore, but John Fox’s running game should help the Notre Dame rookie settle in and adjust quickly to the pro game. Clausen is more pro-ready and Carolina’s offense is similar to what Charlie Weis used -- and don’t forget that Fox and Weis are good buddies. In Denver, Tim Tebow figures to be given playing time by Josh McDaniels (left) ahead of Clausen for the Panthers unless the former Notre Dame QB wins the job this summer.
Can the Cardinals keep rolling without Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin?
Ken Whisenhunt could end up with nine new starters, a very high number for a division champ. Don’t forget that defensive stars Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle also need to be replaced and Jay Feely is the new kicker. They are spending time on Matt Leinart’s mechanics and penchant for over-striding, something Warner never did. The word has always been that the Cards aren’t in love with Leinart (pictured, left) and that’s why they signed Derek Anderson (pictured, right) to a ridiculous deal. If neither one becomes a high-percentage passer, the Cards are doomed in the NFC West where both the 49ers and Seahawks made major offseason strides. -- John Czarnecki