Since most NFL training camps will open within the next week, it's time to start thinking about some serious questions. One that should interest many football fans is which players are ready to step up their games this fall.
There are a handful of stars who are trying to bounce back from hard seasons in 2008, because of crippling injuries or substandard play. Then there is another group of players to consider -- the ones who are trying to live up to the heavy expectations that came with new roles during this offseason.
One person who will be under the microscope is Brett Favre, the 10-time Pro Bowl quarterback who soon will reveal whether he's coming out of retirement once again, this time to play for the Minnesota Vikings this fall. If his latest comeback were official, Favre would top this list. But since -- as I write this -- he's not officially back in the game, here are 10 other players with plenty to prove as training camps begin:
1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: All the recent reports indicate that Brady is having a successful return from surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee last September. The people in attendance at a Patriots minicamp in May saw him take snaps with the first-string offense and talk about his renewed love of the game. Look, there's no question that Brady has done everything possible to get himself back on the field after playing less than one quarter in 2008. The question now is what kind of player he will be in his first season after such a devastating injury.
Recent history tells us that it could take him some time to find his groove. After all, the Philadelphia Eagles lost three of their first four games in 2007 after quarterback Donovan McNabb struggled in his return from major knee surgery. We also know that Daunte Culpepper hasn't been anything close to a Pro Bowler since he blew out his knee four years ago. Of course, this isn't to say Brady won't return to Pro Bowl form. (By the way, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer performed well after his own knee reconstruction.) It just means his return to elite status may not be as smooth or as quick as some people might imagine.
2. Chad Ochocinco, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: The player formerly known as Chad Johnson has been sending mixed messages over the last couple of months. First he said he was rededicating himself to being the best player he possibly could be, especially after a miserable 53-catch season in 2008. He later told a radio show host that he was contemplating using Twitter during games. For Ochocinco's sake, let's hope that second statement was just a good old-fashioned attempt at having fun on the air.
The reality is that Ochocinco, now 31 years old, is badly in need of a strong bounce-back year. If he comes out with the same desire and dedication that turned him into a five-time Pro Bowler, he'll be fine. If he wants to keep focusing on the same antics that make him look more like a self-promoting street performer than an elite receiver, he's going to take another step backward. Whatever route he chooses, we'll know more about where he's headed based on his attitude in camp.
3. Shawne Merriman, OLB, San Diego Chargers: You want to know what Merriman's absence for a full season meant to the Chargers' defense? That team went from 42 sacks in 2007 to 28 in 2008. That defense also saw its coordinator, Ted Cottrell, replaced by Ron Rivera midway through the season. In other words, the loss of Merriman -- who needed surgery to repair two torn ligaments in his left knee at the start of last year -- nearly crippled the Chargers' season.
So far, the early reports are that he's had a successful rehabilitation and he's feeling a sense of urgency. That might have something to do with the Chargers' decision to use a first-round pick on another pass-rushing specialist, Larry English, and the fact that Merriman is in the final year of his contract. Either way, Merriman sounds like a man who's eager to return to the form that led to 41˝ sacks in his first three seasons. If he is 100 percent, he could be a front-runner for Comeback Player of the Year.
4. Kyle Orton, QB, Denver Broncos: Orton makes this list for one reason -- he isn't Jay Cutler. When the Broncos traded Cutler to Chicago earlier this offseason -- and acquired Orton as part of their compensation in that deal -- it put Orton in a difficult spot. From the moment the Broncos kick off training camp, people will be wondering whether a reliable, understated game manager really can make up for the loss of a cocky, big-armed gunslinger who just made his first Pro Bowl. My guess is that Orton will have a hard time making that case this season.
Though Orton is good at limiting his mistakes -- and did play well in Chicago last season -- he is still a system quarterback on a team that will be searching for an identity. That might be enough for first-year head coach Josh McDaniels, but Denver isn't exactly a town that is kind to quarterbacks it doesn't love. Just ask Jake Plummer and Brian Griese how hard it can be to live in that city when things aren't going well. It says here that Orton might learn exactly how those players felt by season's end.
5. Larry Johnson, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: It is truly amazing that Johnson is still a member of the Chiefs. He had done nearly everything possible to get himself run out of town, including missing four games last season because of suspension or deactivation. Johnson also publicly said it was time for him to find another team. The only problem is that new Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli apparently wasn't paying much attention to those facts. He still sees something salvageable in a running back who gained 874 yards in 12 games while also seeming hell-bent on throwing away his career.
One bet you probably can make on Johnson's upcoming season is that he won't be getting 25 to 30 carries a game anymore. It's quite likely that he'll be part of a backfield rotation with Jamaal Charles and Kolby Smith, which might not be bad news for Johnson. He will turn 30 on Nov. 19 and might never be the same bruising runner who made two Pro Bowl appearances. But he does seem willing to be a more manageable player these days, and the Chiefs seem content to keep him around as long as he stays that way.
6. Joseph Addai, RB, Indianapolis Colts: It's still hard to pinpoint exactly what happened to Addai's career. He ran for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two NFL seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 2007. Then last year he became the face of a feeble rushing attack that was largely the result of his career lows in rushing yards (544), average yards per carry (3.5) and touchdowns (five). It was as though an entirely different player, one far less equipped to succeed in the league, had invaded the man's uniform.
As easy as it is to apply some blame to the Colts' offensive line issues last year, Addai's decline has plenty to do with him. For one thing, he has a hard time staying healthy. (He hasn't played a full season since splitting time with Dominic Rhodes as a rookie.) He also didn't appear nearly as confident as a runner last year. And the fact that Indianapolis drafted UConn running back Donald Brown in the first round of this year's draft means we aren't the only people concerned about those issues. Bottom line: Addai had better turn some heads fast this summer.
7. Terrell Owens, WR, Buffalo Bills: The two things you don't have to worry about with Owens are production (he has 14,122 receiving yards and 139 touchdowns in his 14-year career) and work ethic. Unfortunately, the list of other things you do have to worry about with him is far too long to include in this space. Let's just get right to the point: Most people are wondering how long it will take the Bills to regret ever allowing this guy within 10 miles of their facility.
The reality, however, is that those people might be surprised by what Owens brings to the Bills this fall. He has a one-year deal, so he knows he has to play nice to make money after this season. He also is still dangerous enough to spark an offense that was bland and inconsistent last season. Plus, the 35-year-old Owens is on the downside of a Hall of Fame career and is surely motivated by the way the Dallas Cowboys dumped him earlier this offseason. So don't be surprised if he spends more time trying to help Buffalo win instead of laying the foundation for his next media circus.
8. Aaron Kampman, OLB, Green Bay Packers: With 37 sacks over the last three seasons, Kampman has been as consistent a pass rusher as you'll find in the NFL. Now we'll see whether he can continue being that steady when he's a 3-4 outside linebacker instead of a 4-3 defensive end. There's little question that Kampman has the athleticism to make the switch. The major issue, however, is how long it will take him to find a comfort level in that new scheme.
The best example of a player making that kind of switch is current Oakland Raiders defensive end Greg Ellis. He reluctantly moved from end to linebacker in Dallas in 2006 and wound up making the Pro Bowl with 12˝ sacks in 2008. The Packers will do their best to help Kampman's own transition, a strategy that includes putting him back in a down position in certain sub packages. But make no mistake: He needs to get acclimated in a hurry if a defense that was disappointing in 2008 is going to rebound this fall.
9. Marion Barber, RB, Dallas Cowboys: Barber hasn't convinced many people that he has the stuff to be a lead runner in this league. After getting his first real shot at the job, he saw his average per carry drop (from 4.8 in 2007 to 3.8 last season) and scored only seven touchdowns (after producing 21 overall in the previous two seasons). Barber was supposed to be the relentless, hard-charging force who intimidated anybody who blocked his path to daylight. Last fall, Barber seemed more like an overhyped, inconsistent runner who was way out of his comfort zone as a starter.
Now for the good news. First, Felix Jones is back from injury, so both he and Tashard Choice should help ease Barber's load. Also, Barber should be more effective without the nagging toe injury that plagued him late last year. But the most important thing the Cowboys can do is return Barber to the role of being the second-half finisher for their offense. That's how Barber made his name in the first place, and that's how he'll rebound from an underwhelming 2008 campaign.
10. Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle Seahawks: No team's record was more distorted last season than the Seahawks'. Hasselbeck missed nine games because of back and knee injuries, and his absence was a key reason the Seahawks finished 4-12. But don't think that Hasselbeck won't face more questions now that he's heading into his 11th season. At 34 years old, he's reached a point in his career that his physical condition should be on the minds of everyone in the Seahawks organization.
On top of that, Hasselbeck will have to be ready to guide an offense that has been declining in talent over the last couple of years. The running game is suspect. The receiving corps added T.J. Houshmandzadeh in free agency, but Deion Branch and Nate Burleson have fought injuries during their tenures in Seattle. Even future Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones is 35 and coming back from microfracture knee surgery. That means Hasselbeck can't just be fit; he must also be ready to carry this unit on his shoulders if necessary.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.