GLENDALE, Ariz. – Randy Moss hopes to stay with the New England Patriots. So does Asante Samuel. But hoping for something and realizing it – well, do we really have to explain how far apart those two things are after seeing what happened in Super Bowl XLII?
That's why free agency is just one of the things worth watching this offseason. While the 2007 season has officially been put to bed, it only signals the birth of the 2008 league calendar, which starts in earnest with preparation for free agency and the NFL draft.
With that in mind, here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on the next six-plus months before training camp opens …
This story is here to stay, folks. With the buzz over the alleged pre-Super Bowl taping of a St. Louis Rams walk-through in 2002, this story just grew legs. We thought it was dead months ago when the league handed down a massive fine to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and stripped the franchise of a first-round draft pick as punishment for the incident in the '07 season opener against the New York Jets. But Sen. Arlen Specter has lit the pilot light once again, and with former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh hinting at some significant impropriety, the newshounds have officially been released. Mark it down: If a video surfaces showing illegal taping prior to the Jets incident, all hell is going to break loose. How bad could it get? Think along the lines of the mushroom clouds in those Cold War era "duck and cover" films.
2. The collective bargaining agreement
It feels like we just sat through this whole labor fiasco a couple of months ago, doesn't it? Well, the league is basically back to square one, with the owners in a tizzy about how much the CBA extension is costing them in shared revenue and profit percentage points given to the players and blah, blah, blah. Bottom line: The owners signed a deal they didn't like and we're right back to them opting out of this deal next November, which means no salary cap in 2010. So keep up on all the offseason meetings because commissioner Roger Goodell is going to have to make some hay with getting the owners turned around on this issue. Or else, well, go back and read the mushroom cloud scenario from No. 1.
3. Player conduct
Last offseason was a doozy and the league as a whole would like nothing more than a serene and uneventful offseason. But considering the knifing of New Orleans Saints defensive end Charles Grant over Super Bowl weekend, the pessimists are already lining up. Almost nothing could be more embarrassing than last year's Michael Vick disaster. But just when you think that way, well, who can say anymore? The reality is: now we get a chance to see how effective all this personal conduct posturing has been. Goodell and the league have become hardliners in some respects, but will it matter? The proof should present itself in the next six months.
4. Free agency
Normally, this is at the top of the offseason agenda and considering the production of some of the quality signings of last season (Patrick Kerney, Eric Steinbach and Adalius Thomas, to name a few), free agency still packs a major punch. Once again, teams will have plenty of salary cap room with which to operate. A prominent NFLPA source told Yahoo! Sports this weekend that there should be well over $500 million in salary cap space league-wide once overpriced veterans are cut. That's a lot of coin floating around for teams that are looking for an upper-tier corner (Samuel), a top-of-the-line pursuit linebacker (Lance Briggs), a potential franchise running back (Michael Turner, Jamal Lewis or Julius Jones), a supremely talented offensive lineman (Alan Faneca or Jordan Gross), a stud defensive lineman (Albert Haynesworth, Jared Allen and Terrell Suggs) … or heaven forbid, a talented wide receiver with a reconditioned reputation (Moss).
5. Another robust trade market
The trade market continues to get more beefy as teams leave themselves with cap space to maneuver. Obviously, Moss and Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee headlined 2007 as trades that moved the needle in a big way. But there were a litany of other players who were dealt in 2007 and ended up paying huge dividends: Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant, San Diego Chargers wideout Chris Chambers, Washington Redskins guard Pete Kendall and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes. And you can bank on there being big stars being dangled this offseason (Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Johnson and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Shaun Rogers) to go along with some second-tier guys who could surface as difference makers in 2008.
6. Sorting out the NFL draft
It's still early, but nobody can really agree on how the top of the upcoming draft will fall. That suggests it's not a class with many mind-blowing stars. Then again, nobody has had time to fall in love with the next generation just yet. Bank on this: Between now and the draft in April, five players will all be shuffled atop the draft board: Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long, Virginia defensive end Chris Long, LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan and Arkansas running back Darren McFadden. Maybe the bigger question will be which player will come out of nowhere and absolutely wow scouts with his "measurables," rocketing up the draft board? Here's an early guess: Tennessee State cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie. And yes, he comes from the same family tree as San Diego superfreak Antonio Cromartie.
7. How will the Patriots respond?
Everyone outside of the northeast is kind of sick of talking about the Patriots, particularly after they teased history and didn't deliver in the end. But it will be intriguing to see how the New England braintrust reacts to the near miss. The Patriots will have to pay through the nose to keep Samuel, and that seems unlikely given their history of not paying cornerbacks. And they will have to give Moss a healthy deal to return, even if there isn't a huge market for him in free agency. But what to do with the middle of the defense, where linebackers Junior Seau and Tedy Bruschi just didn't seem to have enough gas as every-down players? Having the San Francisco 49ers' No. 7 overall pick in the draft should provide a huge chip to either use or dangle in the trade market. No matter what happens, New England should remain a dominant team in the AFC, but they do need to make the right moves to replenish that defense with youth.
8. Where do the New York Giants go from here?
An interesting thing happened after the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl following the '05 season. Some of their key young players – paging Ike Taylor – stopped working hard and fell flat on their faces the following season. It's dangerous to assume that this unexpected title kicks open an era of dominance for the Giants. They have a lot of young players who could easily let this first title go straight to their heads, particularly in a city like New York where they will practically be treated as messianic figures in the offseason. Coach Tom Coughlin, who will be busy working on a contract extension, will have his work cut out for him as he tries to keep this team focused. Don't just assume that one unexpected championship run translates into a great encore performance. Just ask the '06 Steelers and '01 Ravens.
Either player could walk into the sunset after experiencing some gratifying seasons so late in their careers. But it's hard to believe that either player will walk away this offseason. Favre looked totally revitalized this past season, and the Packers have a lot going for them heading into 2008. As for Strahan, well, we know he needs the money (think: divorce) and he's still playing at a very high level. And having him remain as a starter allows this defense to keep a key wrinkle in place with Justin Tuck at a tackle spot on passing downs. One more season makes sense for both players. Anything else would be a mild shocker.
10. Will Pacman Jones ever play again?
Maybe a better question is: "Does anyone care if Pacman Jones ever plays again?" But since I think we already know what the answer to that is, we'll stick to whether the league is going to allow him back on the field. Jones is up for reinstatement later this month, now that it appears all of his pending legal entanglements with the authorities have been settled. But that doesn't guarantee anything, particularly with all the recent buzz about Jones still frequenting strip clubs. A best guess at this point? Jones will wait several months and eventually get reinstated, just in time for the Titans to dump him to onto the free-agent market. On the outside chance that he does return to the Titans, Yahoo! Sports has heard from at least two veterans on the team that he's one dirty look from getting his rear end kicked by a number of Tennessee players.