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Preseason storylines: How mobile is Brady?

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It's time for Chad Ochocinco(notes) to put down the cell phone and tone down the catchphrases (child, please). Shawne Merriman(notes) can trade those Muay Thai workouts and energy drink promotions for his rightful place among the NFL's elite. And finally – gratefully – Tom Brady(notes) becomes less relevant to TMZ.com and more relevant to his Z receiver.

Yes, the NFL's preseason is upon us.

With that in mind, here are my top 10 storylines that will keep you captivated before the real games start …

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A great amount of attention will be on Brady's left knee.
(Stew Milne/US Presswire)

1. Brady's return
With apologies to Merriman, there isn't a more anticipated knee debut in all of football this preseason. A source close to Tom Brady told Yahoo! Sports last week that the New England Patriots quarterback has shown a "borderline obsession" with returning to his 2007 form, working on his timing and strength almost non-stop over the last two months. That's apparently a departure from his usual routine, which the source says typically has included a long June respite before getting back to business in July.

Regardless, questions about whether Brady can still be that 50-touchdown magician of 2007 will swirl until he has faced a sustained pass rush. The question is will he face one this preseason? Brady didn't see action in a preseason game last season, but that almost certainly has to change to allow him to test his left knee in live action before the regular season begins. Brady is a consummate pro, but it's worth noting that Cincinnati's Carson Palmer(notes) has yet to look entirely right since his knee surgery in the 2005 playoffs – although Brady's structural damage was a bit less severe. But until that knee is seen in some sustained action, it's premature to assume Brady will slide seamlessly into New England's offense and revert to 2007.

2. The quarterback drama
This is intriguing enough for its own subset:

A.) Ben Roethlisberger(notes): A month ago, what could botch a strong defending Super Bowl effort for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Twenty of 22 starters were returning, the depth at running back was getting better with a healthy Rashard Mendenhall(notes), and the offensive line and receivers promised some continued development. Then came this week's supernova: a yet to be proven civil suit allegation that Roethlisberger raped a Harrah's Casino hotel employee nearly a year ago. It's merely an allegation, but all that talk of defending a Super Bowl will be washed out by an uncomfortable media glare on Roethlisberger.

B.) Brett Favre(notes): If he doesn't suit up for the Minnesota Vikings, beat writers in that city may just march on his Mississippi home like they're storming the Bastille. Surely all of the buildup and attention haven't been for nothing. Bank on Favre returning and stirring up all kinds of drama in the NFC North. The question isn't whether he improves the Vikings, but just how much – and whether that improvement includes locker room chemistry. Those are increments that will surely begin to be measured in the preaseason, both on and off the field.

C.) Michael Vick(notes): It remains to be seen whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is going to make a reinstatement decision quickly on the beleaguered quarterback. Clearly, if Goodell meets with Vick prior to the start of most training camps, it's a positive sign for the former Atlanta Falcon. Why? Because that is the timetable Vick and his agent, Joel Segal prefer. And it shows a willingness by Goodell to give Vick options, since he would be able to line up potential suitors before any of the heavy lifting begins in training camp. But this one is worth watching for all that it encompasses. If Goodell gives Vick his working papers, who will take a chance on him, and how will the quarterback and his new team deal with the inevitable onslaught of criticism that is coming?

3. Merriman's situation
He's in a contract year, coming off a potentially career changing knee surgery and playing in front of a first-round NFL draft pick (Larry English(notes)) who might be the Philip Rivers(notes) to Merriman's Drew Brees(notes). There is already some speculation in personnel circles that Merriman will never get a long-term deal out of San Diego. It includes talk that Chargers general manager A.J. Smith will slap Merriman with the franchise tag until Smith believes English is ready to take over, or Merriman forces his way out of town. However the financial end of it goes down, Merriman's value was showcased in last season's ineffective pass rush. And after talking to him this offseason, he sounds more focused than at any other time of his career.

4. Owens' latest fresh start
There is nothing more humbling than being a castoff superstar who is forced to sign a one-year deal. Terrell Owens(notes) arguably has as much to prove now as he did after getting dumped by the Eagles. He's aging, he dropped passes again last season and he's yet to shake the tag of being a guy who goes from savior to cancer after year one with a new franchise. But you can say this for Owens as he steps in for the Buffalo Bills: he has made quarterbacks better. From Jeff Garcia(notes) to Donovan McNabb(notes) to Tony Romo(notes), Owens factors into career years for his quarterbacks. And following his departures, Garcia and McNabb's numbers dipped in the first season after he left them behind. In a one-year scenario, Bills quarterback Trent Edwards(notes) stands to take a big step forward. And if it's going to happen, we should see some obvious flashes in the preseason.

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Will Stafford take over from Day 1?
(Leon Halip/US Presswire)

5. Rookie pressure
There is always added burden on first-round draft picks, but a handful come into this season with seemingly more than usual. All that talk about Matt Stafford taking a one-year back seat to Daunte Culpepper(notes) in for the Detroit Lions has diminished pretty quickly, and if/when he does start, there will be no escaping the talk about what Matt Ryan(notes) and Joe Flacco(notes) did last season. Particularly considering Stafford is inheriting arguably the best young receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson(notes) – a better passing target than either Flacco or even Ryan had (all respect to Roddy White(notes)).

But Stafford is hardly alone. Mark Sanchez(notes) won't be on the bench long with the New York Jets, and one need only revisit Eli Manning's(notes) first two months as a starter to remember how quickly fan affection can turn into a bloodbath in that city. We've yet to see Michael Crabtree(notes) do anything of substance athletically since the Cotton Bowl. For all the raves amongst NFL evaluators, I just can't get the J.J. Stokes hype out of my head. He was also picked 10th overall, by the way … by the San Francisco 49ers. And maybe no rookie walks into a better situation than Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Wells(notes). He'll never see more than seven in the box next season, and he certainly wasn't drafted to sit behind Tim Hightower(notes).

6. Denver vs. Chicago on Aug. 30 at Invesco Field
Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) returns to face the hot mess that has become the Denver Broncos. You'd need a dump truck to carry all the storylines in this one. You have Cutler, the jilted former centerpiece of Denver's future. You have Kyle Orton(notes), who never truly had the full backing of the Bears coaching staff and front office. You have Josh McDaniels, who arguably has more to prove than any other first-year coach in recent memory. And you will likely have Brandon Marshall(notes), who doesn't want to be in Denver and likely won't be able to let go of "the way it was" with Cutler. Oh, and it's the third preseason game, so the starters should get at least a full half of burn. The perfect preseason storm? It might be.

7. The insanely overhyped 2006 draft class
There was a time when some scouts were calling the 2006 draft quite possibly the best haul of talent in league history. Entering the fourth season for those draft picks, the personnel world is overrun with tumbleweeds and crickets when it comes to revisiting those assessments. That said, you have to believe this is the watershed year for that class. The three marquee quarterbacks have all had some kind of massive public relations malfunction along the way, from Vince Young's(notes) meltdown to Matt Leinart's(notes) image fiasco to Cutler's Cuban missile standoff with McDaniels. The marquee running back, Reggie Bush(notes), has carved out a larger rep as Kim Kardashian's boyfriend than he has as an elite NFL talent. The supposed one-in-a-lifetime tight end, Vernon Davis(notes), made more headlines getting booted off the field by 49ers coach Mike Singletary than he ever did catching passes.

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Bush has only led the Saints in rushing in one out of three seasons.
(Matt Stamey/US Presswire)

So what gives? All of those players are heading into pivotal preseasons. Young and Leinart are backups who need to show they have at least some shot at taking over for Kerry Collins(notes) and Kurt Warner(notes) – two men who are amongst the oldest starters at the position. Bush has to show he can bounce back from microfracture surgery on his left knee and actually play an entire NFL season without getting hurt. And Davis needs to show he can at the very least be a consistent 50-catch, 600-yard tight end. And that's without considering the litany of other first-round picks from 2006 that have yet to make good on their talent (Oakland Raiders safety Michael Huff(notes), Cleveland Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley(notes), St. Louis Rams cornerback Tye Hill(notes), etc.). Clearly there is a lot of work to do.

8. Russell defends his position
Make no mistake, Jeff Garcia will Bogart the Raiders starting job if given the chance. And this wasn't exactly the offseason of dreams for JaMarcus Russell(notes), who got some rather mediocre reviews for his strides over the last few months. The patience with Russell won't last forever, especially if veterans in the Oakland locker room think Garcia gives them a better chance to win. The scariest thing of all? Some players in the Raiders locker room are still referring to Russell as the quarterback of the future. That's a backhanded slap for a guy who is entering his third year in the NFL. It's time for Russell to be the quarterback of now. And if he can't show that ability in the next five weeks, Garcia will pounce. Bank on it.

9. The NFC East
The division is loaded with talent, but can anyone honestly look top to bottom and find a clear favorite? Every single team has some significant questions going into training camp. The New York Giants don't have a dominant receiver and lost one half (Derrick Ward(notes)) of their remarkably potent rushing tandem in free agency. The Dallas Cowboys were an utter mess down the stretch last season, and suddenly there are questions about whether Tony Romo is truly an elite quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles are probably as talented and harmonious as they have been since Owens' first season with the franchise, but the health of running back Brian Westbrook(notes) and attitude of cornerback Sheldon Brown(notes) are major question marks. The Washington Redskins landed the free agent stunner in defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth(notes), but left quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) (who is in the last year of his deal) twisting in the wind for a large part of the offseason.

And yet, you could make a case that all four teams have a legitimate shot at a Super Bowl run. We'll get an early compass reading on all those issues in training camp, but don't be surprised if this division is even harder to call when September rolls around.

10. Burress burden
Goodell began his review of Plaxico Burress'(notes) self-inflicted shooting in late June and has yet to announce how the incident will impact the wideout next season. But NFL teams have waited in a holding pattern until there is some kind of determination regarding the former Giants wideout. Like Vick, there isn't a clear indication of Burress' presumed punishment. But in lieu of a long-term suspension, he'll likely land a one-year deal, although the money likely won't be guaranteed. Burress' pending legal issues virtually rule out a long-term deal.