While the opening of training camp is a hopefest for every NFL fan – dreams of Super Bowl titles flowing through their brains (though really, it's just the delirium caused by dehydration) – there is another side to it.
Players report to camp between July 25 and Aug. 2. Schedule
Opening camp also means that tension rises in real (full-pad practices) and artificial (the manipulation of depth charts) ways. Considering that, there are a number of players, coaches and even some executives who are already facing scrutiny this season.
Here's a look at 20 individuals, pairs and even a whole group that bear watching as camp opens:
1. Contract seekers
From New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins(notes) in the east to San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson(notes) and left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes) in the west, training camps throughout the NFL will likely feature more holdouts than ever. There are several reasons, but they generally come down to the collective bargaining agreement. Jackson and McNeill aren't happy they were stuck as restricted free agents. Same goes for Mankins. In Indianapolis, Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne(notes) reportedly is pondering a holdout as he seeks more money before a possible work stoppage in 2011. In Houston, Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is upset with his contract. Beyond all of that, quarterbacks Peyton Manning(notes), Tom Brady(notes) and Drew Brees(notes) are headed into the final years of their contracts, something unheard of in the past in regards to elite signal callers.
2. Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler and
offensive coordinator Mike Martz
Cutler, who is an odd duck to say the least, is coming off a woeful first season with the Bears, including an absurd 26 INTs. Martz is a genius when it comes to the passing game, but he's also one of those guys who rubs people the wrong way and often puts his quarterback at risk. It will be a fascinating marriage. Martz loved Cutler back in 2006 leading up to the NFL draft, but Martz has never had great success with first-round picks.
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If you thought the Democrats and Republicans didn't play nice in Washington, wait till you get a load of these two. Talk about a match made in hell; these guys want no part of each other and training camp is going to be one long watch of who will blow up first (my money is on Big Albert). Haynesworth has to show up or he risks losing a lot of the $32 million he has already been paid by the Redskins. Shanahan wants to dump him, but justifying that to owner Dan Snyder is still difficult given the money Snyder paid.
4. New York Jets CB Antonio Cromartie
Surely, there are bigger stories in the grand scheme of the NFL, no? In the long-term, yes. But Cromartie plays for a Super Bowl contender and he could be a huge factor in whether the Jets live up to expectations. Cromartie is a freakishly talented guy who can simply dominate games when his mind is right. Combined with fellow CB Darrelle Revis(notes) and head coach Rex Ryan's aggressive scheme, Cromartie could have a huge year. Add in that he could be a free agent after the season and the incentive is certainly there.
5. Philadelphia Eagles QB Kevin Kolb
All you Donovan McNabb(notes) bashers finally got what you wanted. But as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Plenty of people around the Eagles believe Kolb is going to be great. Hopefully for Kolb, that's the case. The problem is that his margin for error in the growth cycle is small. Eagles fans think this team should be a Super Bowl contender, even after losing McNabb and RB Brian Westbrook(notes). While buying into that is a stretch, the Eagles really aren't far off, either. Much of the hope depends on Kolb and how he handles the ascension.
After a season of awful play from the secondary, the Giants gave Rolle a reported five-year, $37 million contract, including $15 million guaranteed. That makes him one of the highest paid safeties in the game, depending on how you calculate the numbers. The problem is Rolle is not really in the class of Troy Polamalu(notes) or Ed Reed(notes), but his contract and the New York market may create outlandish expectation, particularly with a championship still fresh in people's minds. The test is how fast Rolle and the rest of the secondary can get on page with new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
In a division with a lot of weak teams, Crabtree could put the 49ers over the top. In fact, if he's as good as expected, they could run away with the NFC West. It says a lot that despite missing the first five games of last season because of a holdout, Crabtree had an impact last season. In fact, if he had signed on time for camp, he might have challenged Minnesota's Percy Harvin(notes) for offensive rookie of the year honors. When you account for all the missed time, Crabtree's total of 48 catches, 625 yards and two TDs compare quite well with the rookie seasons of both Jerry Rice (49 catches, 927 yards, 3 TDs) and Terrell Owens(notes) (35, 520, 4).
8. Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow and
head coach Josh McDaniels
There's probably no QB/coach combination conjoined at the hip stronger than first-round pick Tebow and second-year coach McDaniels. Their respective futures rest on the success of each other, which is not necessarily a good thing for either one. For Tebow, it's hard to imagine him playing extensively as a rookie. Even playing in his second year might be tough. For McDaniels, who got off to a great start last season before the Broncos fizzled, there is going to be a huge temptation to play Tebow if anything goes wrong. Given that the Broncos are still in a serious rebuilding mode, a lot can go wrong.
Marshall got his wish to escape the aforementioned McDaniels and the Dolphins got the receiver they have desperately needed for years. The problem is nobody is quite sure if Marshall is going to be the recalcitrant child he was in Denver or the productive, tough and sometimes charming person he can also be. Marshall is very emotional and the Dolphins are going to have to watch that. The future of the franchise and QB Chad Henne(notes) are wrapped up in Marshall's success.
10. Dallas LB Anthony Spencer
Spencer produced more sacks last season (6) than he did during his previous two NFL seasons (4½). Worse, he has done that while playing in the same front seven with DeMarcus Ware(notes) and Jay Ratliff(notes). Bottom line is that Spencer has to make a huge step this season to become a better complementary piece in the Dallas defense, otherwise the Cowboys are going to waste another year of their great talent.
11. Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren
The good folks who comprise the Browns fan base are desperate for something that smells of consistency. Anything that can give them the slightest glimmer of hope that the halcyon days of Otto Graham and Jim Brown will someday return and that they can finally forget The Fumble. Right now, Holmgren is trying to right a ship that has been lurching under the false hope of guys like Carmen Policy, Butch Davis and Derek Anderson(notes). The really interesting part is whether Holmgren is going to give coach Eric Mangini a chance to succeed in a real way or whether Holmgren is just setting this all up for a return to the sideline in a year or two.
It's unclear which happens more often: a Bengals playoff run or a chupacabra sighting. All jokes aside (and there are a lot of them when it comes to the Bengals), a return to the playoffs is not out of the question for this misbegotten franchise. Bryant is a big reason why if he can stay healthy and focused. Bryant is a tough guy who gives QB Carson Palmer(notes) a threat in the middle of the field that he can trust. The Bengals sorely missed that after an injury to WR Chris Henry, who was later killed in a tragic accident. If the Bengals can score more effectively, their defense should still be good enough to make a run.
13. Tennessee Titans QB Vince Young
Coach Jeff Fisher misplayed things last season by not putting Young in earlier when the Titans got off to an 0-6 start. It's not because Young was such a great catalyst for the team's 8-2 finish and return to respectability. It's that the Titans really still aren't sure what they have with Young and there's a lot of disagreement. Mainly, owner Bud Adams still believes Young is destined for greatness. While Young was better, he also got a lot of help from RB Chris Johnson, whose performance is not sustainable over the long run. If you take a really good look at the numbers and his performances, Young is still not a great passer and the NFL is a passing league. Add in an offseason scuffle at a strip joint and you have to wonder about whether Young really is ready for the task.
Here's something really troubling to consider: All three of the quarterbacks taken in the top 11 picks of the 2006 draft are on this list. That means that four years into their respective careers, none has firmly established himself. Leinart, the guy many thought was the most prepared, has done the least to cement his future. In fact, there are plenty of people who think he's the most mentally fragile of the group, lacking in toughness and leadership. This is a huge year for Leinart because his contract takes a major turn north after this season. If he's not at least a Pro Bowl alternate, he's going to be on the street after this season. Bank on it.
15. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll
Speaking of former USC guys who are trying to escape their past, Carroll headed about as far up I-5 as you could get to escape the sanctions the NCAA put on the Trojans. While Carroll keeps pulling a Sgt. Schultz routine on the USC subject, the fact is that every time his name is brought up, the discussion shifts to his past rather than his future with the Seahawks. Carroll needs to do something soon to make people think he's actually a good coach and not just a great recruiter. That said, there's very little about his past performance as an NFL coach that portends greatness.
The idea of Sanders being healthy for an entire season (let alone 10 games) is so absurd that you'd get better odds in Vegas that Glenn Beck will vote for Barack Obama in the next election. In fact, there are even concerns that his playing career is over. In six seasons, Sanders has missed at least 10 regular-season games four times. Over the past two seasons, he has played in eight of 32 regular-season games. Over his entire career, he has missed more games (49) than he has played (47). That said, he remains one of the keys to the Colts defense even if the team made it to the Super Bowl last year without him. Sanders is primarily a run defender, but he's so good at it that he allows other guys to focus on the pass. His presence would have significantly changed the way the Colts had played against the Saints in February. Then again, that's based on limited info because Sanders' is so limited.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers SS Troy Polamalu
When Polamalu injured his knee in the season opener against Tennessee last year, the feeling was that he'd be fine after three or four weeks. He returned, but the knee was never stable and, as a result, neither was the Pittsburgh defense. In an era when great safeties aren't always necessary, Polamalu is one of a handful of exceptions along with Ed Reed. Polamalu is one of the best students of the game in this era. His ability to read plays is uncanny. He can create plays behind the line and deep in the secondary. He is truly special to watch. Sadly, like Reed and Sanders, injuries are marring his career. He has missed 19 games over the past four seasons. The Steelers can't afford that trend to continue.
So which Bowe shows up this year? We'll probably know the answer in training camp because the question revolves around work ethic. The new Chiefs front office and coaching staff didn't like the way Bowe carried himself all of last year and they're still not sure he gets the message. His first two seasons showed plenty of promise. He averaged more than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns those two years. Some of those stats were empty numbers put up on bad teams, but production is production at a certain point. If Bowe gets it together, the Chiefs have two legit receivers (Chris Chambers(notes) is on the other side) and could make some noise in the weak AFC West. Certainly, new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has done more with less in the past.
19. Atlanta Falcons RB Michael Turner
Players with bad bodies (Turner is listed as 5-foot-10, 244 pounds) have a tendency to overreact when things start to go bad. Last year, Turner's production dropped by nearly half (from 1,699 yards rushing to 871). Turner, who admits his weight had crept well over 250 pounds, decided to lose some this offseason. Hopefully, Turner doesn't go too far because his ability to shed tacklers with his power is a key to his running style. Of course, there's a balance between weight that robs you of quickness and weight needed for power running. That's why Turner is the kind of back who probably isn't going to have a long career if he's the bell-cow guy. Sometimes those are the breaks for players.
In Detroit, Matthew Stafford(notes) showed people enough that the fans are starting to believe they finally have an answer at quarterback. Same goes for Jets' Mark Sanchez(notes). As for Freeman, the third of three first-round picks in the 2009 draft, the Bucs did a good job to get Freeman 10 games of action last season, which he desperately needed. The problem now is that the Bucs haven't done as good a job as the Lions and Jets of surrounding their young QB with offensive talent. That means that Freeman (and the Bucs fans) must be patient. Fortunately, Freeman is a kid with his head on straight and has a good family foundation to get him through tough times. But there's no question, it's going to be a test.