Bolts must make most of golden opportunity
In the first installment of his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the Chargers' chances of ruling the AFC, the Giants' chances or repeating, the Bengals' defense and more.
Brett Favre and the Packers can't figure out whether or not he's playing.
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Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb had to cut back his throwing this spring because of a sore shoulder.
Carolina's Jake Delhomme is coming off Tommy John surgery.
San Diego's Philip Rivers is coming off ACL surgery.
We have learned over the past two years that top quarterbacks have amazing recovery skills. McNabb and Carson Palmer taught us pure pocket passers can bounce back from knee reconstructions more quickly than receivers because they can operate in a seven-step box and not worry about breaking into a sprint.
Drew Brees showed us a shoulder reconstruction can't stop a determined quarterback from having a Pro Bowl season.
Manning, McNabb, Delhomme and Rivers should be fine. In the case of Favre, we're learning a fractured relationship with a team can be more damaging than a reconstructed limb. But all the QB developments make speculating on the season interesting.
Q: Having been a season-ticket holder for 15 years and still a big fan, do you think that this is the year for San Diego to get by New England/Indy for the AFC championship?
Reid in Springfield, Mo.
The two-year window for winning a Super Bowl starts now, and the Chargers will never have a better chance than this season. They have the second-easiest schedule in football and should win at least 13 regular-season games. LaDainian Tomlinson is getting older and pretty soon the wear and tear of being an NFL running back will catch up to him.
In a couple of years, some of the contracts of the team's top young stars will expire, and San Diego won't be able to keep everybody. Right now, the Chargers are loaded, and if the Patriots didn't have the easiest schedule in football, I'd boldly predict that the Chargers are the AFC Super Bowl favorites.
San Diego will start camp with some injury concerns, but the only starter who may not be ready for the regular-season opener is center Nick Hardwick, as they signed Jeremy Newberry as insurance. This could be their year.
To Mike in Easton, Pa.: I know you are a loyal Giants fan, but you can't think that the Giants can lead the league in sacks like last year after losing Osi Umenyiora AND Michael Strahan. No team is deep enough to replace 22 sacks. I figure they will have a 40-sack season. ... To Jason, a Giants fan, Kevin Boss may have looked "just as good" as Jeremy Shockey during the Giants' Super Bowl run, but he's not Shockey. I notice a big dropoff in tight end blocking, particularly on short-yardage situations. Boss might end up being a 50-catch tight end, but Shockey still has 70-catch ability. ... Brian in Bloomington, Il, wants to expand the postseason and allow more teams into the playoffs. I say no. It would allow 8-8 or maybe 7-9 teams to get in. That would weaken the playoff process. Twelve playoff teams works for now. ... To Ben in Baltimore, the Steelers' offensive line has to prove itself, but they haven't been horrible in the preseason. They have a chance. ... To Aaron in Philadelphia, Kevin Curtis is probably going to be out four to six more weeks following sports hernia surgery, but the team isn't giving a timeline. Reggie Brown is week-to-week with a hamstring. ... David in Monterrey, Mexico, loves the idea of going to a 17-game schedule and he wants to designate the extra game in a neutral site. The league would love to go international with the 17th game. Mexico would be included in that mix. Still, I think the owners would like that extra home game revenue for a 17th game every other year. That has the best chance. . . . Derrick J from Naperville wonders why the Bears didn't improve their offensive firepower or add pieces to their ailing offensive line. They tried patching with Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd and they thought Chris Williams could take over a left tackle. Whoops. They tried to put a Band-Aid on a major wound.
Thomas in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Thomas, sorry I can't offer a New York accent, but let's talk Giants anyway. Their Super Bowl run was unpredictable and special, but it will be hard to repeat. They enter camp projected behind a Cowboys team with 13 Pro Bowl starters, while the Eagles and Redskins are dangerous sleepers.
Face it, it's hard playing in a division that doesn't have a losing team and arguably has four playoff contenders. Whether they make the playoffs as a division-winner or a wild card, the Giants proved the team that survives the NFC East the best can go to the Super Bowl.
That said, I wouldn't be surprised if the Giants don't make the playoffs this year. They took some hits on defense in free agency and lost leadership with Michael Strahan's retirement. The Giants should have traded Jeremy Shockey this offseason. If they had acquired a second- and a fifth-round pick from the Saints, they could have filled in for him by pairing a talented rookie tight end with Kevin Boss. If the Giants don't make the playoffs, a disgruntled Shockey could make life miserable for the Giants' management.
Q: I think the real story in Cincinnati is the defense. What are your thoughts?
No shock here: How the defense performs is the key in Cincinnati. The Bengals will score 24 or 25 points a game, but if they can't play solid defense, they will have another losing season. The corners are the strength, but everything will fail if the defense can't generate a pass rush. And remember, this defense had no Pro Bowlers last season. New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is putting in an aggressive scheme, featuring a lot of man-to-man defenses.
Q: It seems like the Eagles are falling under the national radar. I believe they are much better than most realize. Most seem to focus on the offense, but that really wasn't the problem. With improved special teams and the much-improved secondary, Jim Johnson's defense should once again be hard to contend with. Do you think they have another serious Super Bowl run in them?
David, Princeton, N.J.
I agree wholeheartedly. They have the easiest schedule in the NFC East and can challenge for a division title. Donovan McNabb didn't have time to work on throwing fundamentals last year while rehabbing from his knee reconstruction, but this year McNabb should be at his best. People make too much of the lack of a pure No. 1 wide receiver. Fewer and fewer teams have true No. 1 wide receivers. The Eagles have enough weapons on offense, and Brian Westbrook is in his prime. The defense is loaded with good, young athletes. Getting Asante Samuel as a defensive playmaker was huge. Plus, the Giants found out last year that flying under the radar isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Seeing Johnson in minicamp was a revelation. He has worked out so hard this offseason -- he's a ball of muscles. It was amazing how quickly he was hitting the holes. He has the ability to get to the 1,400-yard level, but I'm not sure he will have enough carries for that number. The days of the 350-carry back are over, and the Bengals will try to get Chris Perry involved a little. From what I see, though, Johnson has a chance to have a Pro Bowl season. He looks awesome.
Q: Going into Cowboys training camp, Anthony Henry is the starter at the second corner position. At the end of training camp and the preseason, whom do you foresee being the starter: Adam Jones or Henry?
Jeff, College Station, Texas
First, we assume that Jones will be reinstated by the commissioner. The Cowboys can't risk putting too much in Jones' hands that early. The best scenario is to start Henry, have Jones as the No. 3 corner and Mike Jenkins as the No. 4. As the season goes on, they can make plans for Henry to move to safety in 2009. Don't forget how many good tight ends the Cowboys face this season. Henry is big enough to match up against them in the nickel. I just like the mix and the depth of this secondary. What used to be a weakness is now a strength.
Q: Just say something positive about the Atlanta Falcons.Sharell, Raleigh, N.C.
The corporate offices of Falcons owner Arthur Blank are some of the nicest I've ever seen. That's where he held the party for the signing of first-round pick Matt Ryan. The buffet table was excellent. Parking was flawless. Corporate sponsors were friendly. Plus, Ryan should be a good quarterback. There, I said something nice about the Falcons.
Q: I want to know only one thing. Why does everyone at ESPN hate the Raiders so much? Every time you talk about the Raiders, it's like you don't even want to see the upside of anything they are doing. On any given Sunday, anything can happen. This year I think the Raiders are going to have a lot of good Sundays. We'll see how much smack you talk then.
Leo, I have called them one of my surprise teams. I said they will be 7-5 or 6-6 heading into December. It's hard to say good things when a franchise is losing. I don't see how predicting a winning record heading into December is negative. No Raider hate here.
Q: Will Cadillac Williams regain his starting spot in Tampa Bay or will he lose his spot to Earnest Graham? If so, will he go down as one of the biggest blunders in the draft at RB?
Cadillac was a great choice. He just has bad luck, and that happens in this physical game. I'm not sold he will be a factor this year coming off his knee injury, as his was the worst of all the running back knee injuries. That doesn't mean he won't play this season, but it will be hard for him to get back to his old form so soon. That's why the Bucs rewarded Graham with the three-year contract and signed Warrick Dunn. They are covered. Don't count out Cadillac for the future and never consider him a bust.
Coleby, Clio, Mich.
The star will be Jonathan Stewart, but that doesn't mean Williams can't have a productive season. Coming out of college, Williams looked like a young version of Thurman Thomas. Stewart looks like another Steven Jackson. Regardless, the Panthers are going to run the ball a lot this season. They should be among the top-seven rushing teams in the league. Gradually, Stewart will end up the main back.John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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