Top NFL storylines for the 2011 season

February 07, 2011|By Sam Farmer, Tribune Newspapers

With the NFL's labor situation in limbo, the league heads into what promises to be a turbulent offseason filled with questions, uncertainties and speculation.

Team owners are dug in, as are players, and each side is waiting for the other to flinch — with the real possibility that a lockout could compromise training camps and even lead to games being missed.

Still, the football world doesn't stop spinning. Teams are jockeying, planning, positioning themselves to be just where the Green Bay Packers are now: clearing room in the display case for the Lombardi Trophy.

Here's a look at some of the people, issues and moving parts we might be talking about in 2011:

Donovan McNabb: Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder made the rounds on radio row at the Super Bowl, saying he doesn't "have a clue" what the franchise plans to do with McNabb this season. That means the quarterback could wind up sticking around or with his third team (and there are at least a dozen looking to make a change at the position).

Cam Newton: There's speculation the Heisman Trophy-winning Auburn quarterback could wind up with the Redskins, but that likely would require the Redskins' trading up from the No. 10 spot to get him.

Tom Brady: The New England Patriots quarterback was the first player to sweep the polls in the Most Valuable Player competition, landing all votes from all 50 media members. His health has to be a concern to the Patriots, though. He's 33 and has had surgeries during or after each of the past three seasons — on his knee, shoulder and foot.

Larry Fitzgerald: The Arizona receiver is heading into the final year of his contract, and the Cardinals' keeping him likely hinges on their getting a quarterback. That could mean a seasoned veteran who can be a bridge at the position while a young replacement is being groomed. People have long speculated McNabb could wind up there — he lives in Arizona during the offseason — but it might be a more likely landing spot for Marc Bulger or Matt Hasselbeck.

Trades: With no collective bargaining agreement in place — it expires March 4 — teams cannot trade players, only draft picks. That could create some interesting scenarios for teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles, who might be willing to part with backup quarterback Kevin Kolb if the price is right.

Plaxico Burress: The Pro Bowl receiver who shot himself in the leg is likely to be released from prison in June. What will his value be on the open market, seeing as he hasn't played football for two years and has lost 20 pounds off his already-thin frame? The New York Giants haven't ruled out bringing him back, but it's just as likely he winds up elsewhere. Hello, Oakland Raiders?

Nick Fairley: It's early, but this Auburn defensive tackle could be the first player selected in the draft. There's no question the Detroit Lions were happy with their decision to use the No. 2 pick on Ndamukong Suh last spring, and the tackle out of Nebraska was voted the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year. With speculation about Fairley's character swirling, there are questions about whether he's closer to straight-arrow-type like Suh or more of a headache like Albert Haynesworth.

Haynesworth: As immensely talented as he can be, Haynesworth was a colossal bust with the Redskins. Where he'll wind up next season is anyone's guess. But don't rule out Philadelphia, where he would be reunited with defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who got the best out of him with the Tennessee Titans.

Chargers: Is this their last season in San Diego? They are the clubhouse favorite to relocate to Los Angeles, and the NFL will be looking to move back into the nation's second-largest market once the CBA is resolved. If the Chargers can't get a stadium deal in San Diego — and the prospects of one are looking bleaker by the day — they will be looking to exercise the escape clause in their Qualcomm Stadium lease.

Tim Tebow: Although he showed some encouraging flashes as a rookie, the quarterback has yet to prove he's anywhere close to the first-round investment the Denver Broncos made in him. Now that John Elway is part of the day-to-day running of the franchise, can he help bring along the former Florida star and turn him into a reliable NFL starter?

Jeff Fisher: The Titans have parted ways with the league's longest-tenured coach and co-chairman of the competition committee. Watch for Fisher to resurface as a TV analyst rather than jumping right back into coaching.

Damage control: The Chicago Bears have a public-relations project on their hands after Jay Cutler's knee injury — and subsequent sideline sulking — in the NFC championship loss to the Packers. LaDainian Tomlinson never recovered his reputation in San Diego a few years ago after cameras caught him on the bench looking uninterested during the AFC title game at New England.

Jets vs. Patriots: This has always been a good rivalry, but now it's taking on Yankees-Red Sox proportions, especially with New York coach Rex Ryan stoking the coals. Under Bill Belichick, New England generally has steered clear of giving opponents too much bulletin-board material — at least before games. But this season, receiver Wes Welker upped the ante with a bunch of none-too-subtle pokes at Ryan's alleged foot fetish. What's next?

Streak breakers?: The Packers were the 10th franchise to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in the past 10 years. So are they just the next in a long line, or will they buck that revolving-door trend? Most of their pieces are in place to make another run, and they reached the top this season with 15 players on injured reserve — including stars such as tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant and linebacker Nick Barnett.

Maybe, as Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, the 2011 season will be about reloading and not rebuilding.

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