Plenty of big names face challenges
A trio of quarterbacks and some high-profile wideouts have murky futures
Plaxico Burress's release from prison left many observers asking the same question: What will happen to his career now that he has lost two full seasons to incarceration?
Optimists point to Michael Vick's success in Philadelphia and say Vick is the best example of how quickly Burress could return to stardom after being imprisoned. Skeptics look at Burress' age (he'll turn 34 on Aug. 12) and his time away from the game and assume that he has a hard road ahead him.
What most people don't mention, however, is that Burress will have plenty of company when it comes to big names trying to answer serious questions about their careers this fall. Including Burress, here are 10 players facing unique challenges this coming season and what they might have to do to overcome them once the NFL lockout ends:
1. Plaxico Burress, WR
Situation after lockout: Unrestricted free agent
Pros: Burress has a Super Bowl ring and a ton of swagger, and he didn't lose his 6-foot-5 frame while locked up. A team that needs a reliable red zone threat is certain to come sniffing in his direction.
Cons: No matter how hard Burress trains, he'll be rusty whenever the season starts. Teams also have to wonder about his attitude. Plenty of jokes have been made about Burress shooting himself in the leg, but his constant feuding with Giants coach Tom Coughlin was problematic as well. If that Burress is the same as the one who just walked out of jail, he'll have major problems.
Prediction: Burress would be best served with a coach who's familiar with him and would give him latitude. St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo makes plenty of sense, especially because he was the Giants' defensive coordinator when Burress played in New York. The Rams also have a talented young quarterback, Sam Bradford, who needs more targets.
2. Donovan McNabb, QB
Situation: Stuck on a Redskins team that basically gave up on him last season
Pros: McNabb has six Pro Bowls, four NFC East titles and one NFC championship on his résumé. Few quarterbacks in the league can lay claim to those kinds of accomplishments.
Cons: McNabb's first -- and certainly only -- season in Washington was a disaster. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan pulled him near the end of one tight game and benched him in favor of Rex Grossman late in the season. McNabb handled the slights with his signature classiness, but his reputation took a hit in the process.
Prediction:: Minnesota made sense until the Vikings used the 12th overall pick in this year's draft on Florida State QB Christian Ponder. Arizona also seemed like a nice landing spot until reports of the team's interest in McNabb's former backup in Philadelphia, Kevin Kolb, gained steam. But veteran quarterbacks with McNabb's pedigree always are in demand. Look for a team with uncertainty at that position -- such as Miami or Cincinnati -- to show interest.
3. Vince Young, QB
Situation: Soon to be dumped by the Tennessee Titans
Pros: Young still is youthful enough and talented enough to be a good NFL quarterback. Look no further than Vick for proof. He went from being an unpolished passer who thrived on his superior running skills in Atlanta to an MVP candidate who dazzled both in the pocket and on the move in Philadelphia. If Young gets the right coaching, he could evolve in similar fashion.
Cons: Young hasn't just been immature in Tennessee. He has given the painful impression that he's a pampered crybaby who knows how to lead only when everything is going well for him. In fairness to Young, he was not the quarterback former head coach Jeff Fisher wanted in the first place. That said, by the end of last season Young gave Fisher plenty of ammunition to say, "I told you so."
Prediction: No team will make Young its starter next season. Look for him to find a situation where he can compete for the job down the road or show his maturation by backing up a more accomplished quarterback for a year.
4. Randy Moss, WR
Situation: Unrestricted free agent
Pros: Even at 34 years old, Moss still has enough deep speed to make people think he's worth having on their roster. When he's playing nice, he's the kind of weapon who can stretch secondaries and open up offenses. There is a reason New England's Tom Brady enjoyed a career season in 2007 while Moss was both motivated and eager to please.
Cons: Moss can be insufferable when his mood sours. He turned toxic in Oakland and New England and during two separate stints in Minnesota. None of those franchises wasted much time in dumping him because they all eventually realized that all that talent doesn't make up for a player who can go from happy to cancerous in record time.
Prediction: Like Burress, Moss needs to find a place where coaches know how to handle him. St. Louis is one stop that makes a lot of sense for Moss as well. Former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels now runs the Rams' offense, and he might still know how to get the most out of the enigmatic receiver.
5. Terrell Owens, WR
Situation: Unrestricted free agent
Pros: Owens was solid in Cincinnati last season (72 receptions, 983 yards, 9 touchdowns), but even those respectable numbers were below his career averages. At 37 years old, he still takes great care of his body and plays with the same relentless attitude. He has even been less controversial in the past two seasons.
Cons: Every receiver declines in his late 30s, and Owens is sure to be no different. He's also as high-maintenance and controversial as they come, which is why he has played on five teams in the past eight seasons. In a league where talent trumps everything else, Owens may finally be at a point in his career where people fear his drama more than they covet his contributions.
Prediction: Owens was productive enough -- and quiet enough off the field -- to warrant a look from somebody. He'll find a home as some team's second option.
6. Reggie Bush, RB
Situation: Uncertain future in New Orleans after the Saints drafted RB Mark Ingram in the first round
Pros: Bush still can be a multidimensional threat if he's with a creative coach and has plenty of talent surrounding him. He has the hands and quickness to create mismatches out of the backfield, and he's a dangerous return man. Along with those skills, Bush has long been a favorite of Saints coach Sean Payton.
Cons: Bush has never lived up to the hype that followed him into the league as the second overall pick in 2006. He has struggled with injuries throughout his five seasons and has never been sturdy enough to be an every-down running back. He also has been so overpaid that the $11.8 million he's owed in 2011 seems downright criminal.
Prediction: There was no indication Bush was willing to take a pay cut before the lockout, and he even used his Twitter page as a forum to say farewell to Saints fans after the draft. With Ingram now in the fold, look for the Saints to release Bush and for him to find a team with more realistic expectations of his potential.
7. Chad Ochocinco, WR
Situation: Future in Cincinnati is uncertain because of a rift with head coach Marvin Lewis
Pros: Ochocinco is the best wide receiver in team history. He has 751 career receptions in 10 seasons, and he has been able to rebound after lackluster seasons. He did so in 2009 -- when he followed his 53 catches in '08 with 72 grabs -- and he's surely motivated to prove he's still better than his 67 receptions and four touchdowns last season suggest.
Cons: Ochocinco and Lewis weren't exactly bosom buddies last season. The coach said that Ochocinco was being "his mopey self" when coping with an injury late in the year. Ochocinco later admitted he wasn't happy his coach had thrown him "under the bus" with those comments. There's also the question of whether Ochocinco's playful personality and thirst for attention finally have worn thin in Cincinnati.
Prediction: This is an interesting case because of Ochocinco's contract. The Bengals still own his rights but already have paid out all guaranteed money owed to him. That means they can trade or release him with no financial consequence. At this stage, the more likely scenario is that cooler heads prevail and he returns to Cincinnati for an 11th season, particularly because the Bengals can't afford to lose their top receiver and quarterback Carson Palmer (who has threatened to retire if he's not traded) in the same offseason.
8. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR
Situation: Unrestricted free agent
Pros: A durable possession receiver throughout his career, Houshmandzadeh averaged 93 receptions from 2006 to 2009 before joining the Baltimore Ravens in 2010.
Cons: Houshmandzadeh never really fit in Baltimore, where he caught onlty 30 passes last season. He also had a critical drop at the end of the Ravens' AFC divisional-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh in January. Houshmandzadeh wasn't happy with his role -- which wasn't helped by the fact that he didn't join Baltimore until September after being cut by Seattle -- but his age might be the bigger issue. He'll turn 34 in September.
Prediction: Houshmandzadeh said he enjoyed being in the Ravens organization and would love to return to a team with Super Bowl potential. If that doesn't happen, he could end up in Oakland, where he is close with head coach Hue Jackson (who served as offensive coordinator during part of Houshmandzadeh's career in Cincinnati).
9. Braylon Edwards, WR
Situation: Unrestricted free agent
Pros: The 6-3, 214-pound Edwards has all the tools teams covet in receivers. He has the size to produce over the middle, the speed to go deep and the body control to make impossible catches look easy. He also has been a productive (53 catches, 904 yards, 7 touchdowns in 2010) target for young New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Cons: Edwards has never returned to the Pro Bowl form he showed in Cleveland in 2008. His hands still remain inconsistent, and his maturity came into question this past fall when he was arrested on a charge of drunken driving. That incident was so damaging that even Jets owner Woody Johnson said Edwards will have hurt his long-term NFL future if he's found guilty of the charge.
Prediction: Edwards has said he wants to remain in New York, and the Jets would be wise to keep him (especially because he seems willing to play at a discounted level). The safe bet says that happens.
10. Alex Smith, QB
Situation: Unrestricted free agent with a one-year deal on the table with San Francisco
Pros: Smith has grown up plenty during his six seasons with the 49ers, and he's the team's best option at quarterback once the lockout ends. Although he has been blamed for many of the team's failings during his tenure, he's still athletic and smart enough to be a productive NFL quarterback. His willingness to help second-round pick Colin Kaepernick -- the team's quarterback of the future -- learn the offense also earns Smith points for leadership.
Cons: Smith seemed to be turning the corner when former coach Mike Singletary named him the starter in 2009, but things fell apart last season. Smith's biggest problem is that he has never been consistent, and after six seasons he's run out of excuses for his shortcomings (including all the coaching changes he has endured). Some people suspected he would've been better off with a fresh start on a new team two years ago. It's starting to look as though those people were right.
Prediction: New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has offered plenty of praise for Smith since taking this job in January, but we all know where this is heading. Smith will run the team for one more season, then hand the reins over to Kaepernick.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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