Strong starts in jeopardy
Recent developments could create early problems for Steelers, Texans and Vikings
Although the first wave of rookie minicamps has created a positive buzz throughout the league, a few teams are dealing with negative developments that could affect their chances of getting off to a strong start.
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The Texans found out on Friday that linebacker Brian Cushing will miss the first four games after a positive test for what he calls a non-steroid substance. The Steelers already know that QB Ben Roethlisberger could be out as few as four and as many as six games.
The concern for all the above teams is starting 2-2 or 1-3. The Steelers have the biggest concern. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers risk potential home losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens. Throw in a tough road game against the Titans, and a 1-3 start is possible. That's why it would be surprising to see the Steelers go with inexperienced Dennis Dixon as opposed to the veteran presence of Byron Leftwich.
Cushing's suspension couldn't have come at a worse time. The Texans ended an eight-year climb by finally getting over .500 with a 9-7 record last season. Their next challenge is becoming more competitive in the AFC South. The Texans open the season at home against the Colts, who have won 15 of 16 meetings with Houston. Cushing's absence could take enough out of the defense to give Peyton Manning an advantage, and if that happens, once again the Texans will be chasing Indy all season.
The Vikings also risk a tough start if the Williamses finally have to serve their four-game suspensions. The Vikings open the season against New Orleans, a team that can run the ball as well as throw it. But they also have to worry about two hard-running AFC East teams -- the Dolphins and Jets -- if they don't have the Williams Wall clogging the middle of the defense.
What Minnesota doesn't want to do is give the Packers an early lead in the first month, and that could happen. The Packers have a tough opening game against the Eagles, but they follow with games against the Bills, Bears and Lions, teams with a combined 2009 record of 15-33.
From the inbox
Q: John, as I watched the draft two things really stood out 1.) The Raiders actually looked like they had a plan, and this year could this be a turning point for the once-proud franchise. What was different in their war room this year as apposed to years past? 2.) What were the Bills doing; they drafted C.J. Spiller even though they already have two running backs with All-Pro potential? Wouldn't a left tackle have been a better pick there?
Chad in Greenville, S.C.
A: My hat is off to the Raiders because they acted as though they had a good plan for this draft. They drafted good defensive players in Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston. Waiting until the fourth round to take Bruce Campbell now looks brilliant. The most important thing they did was trade for Jason Campbell. Now, they have a quarterback. As for the Bills, they got a good runner, Spiller, but they don't have the offensive line to take advantage of his skills. The Bills might try to trade for Baltimore's Jared Gaither to be their left tackle, but they would have to give up more than what they received in return for Jason Peters, who left in 2009 as an established Pro Bowler.
Scott in Baltimore raises a great question. After hearing that Titans running back Chris Johnson is staying away from the team while he tries to get a new contract, Scott wonders about Adrian Peterson, who is still on his rookie contract. Well, I know the Vikings have briefly talked about Peterson's contract with his agents, but neither side is close to anything. I would have to think Peterson will get a deal before Johnson. Al in Mendham, N.J., didn't understand how I put Carolina and Chicago ahead of the Dolphins after the Dolphins had one of the best offseasons, acquiring Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby, along with grabbing Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. The answer is the schedule. The Panthers' schedule gives them a chance to have a slightly better record than the Dolphins, and I think the Bears have a chance to improve a couple of games with Mike Martz as offensive coordinator. The Dolphins are in a tough three-way race in the AFC East. Jeremy in Massillon, Ohio, sees a thin Browns receiving corps and suggests going after Terrell Owens. I can't see team president Mike Holmgren doing that to coach Eric Mangini's locker room. I offer the same thoughts to Ross in Tampa. The Bucs have done a nice job getting younger and more talented at wide receiver. No need to add T.O. there. Owens needs to go to a team that is one receiver away from getting over the top. Rick in Honolulu, I do think the Cowboys will have problems on the offensive line, but at least they will get some help with the addition of Alex Barron at left tackle, freeing up Doug Free to possibly challenge Marc Colombo at right tackle. Josh in Seattle, Mike Williams has the edge on Reggie Williams to make the Seahawks' roster. The Seahawks could keep six receivers, including Sean Morey, who will help on special teams. Ronnie in Greensboro, N.C., is excited about the Panthers and wonders why critics are underestimating the team this season. I think they have a chance to be a contender even though they are young at quarterback and have a young roster. I think they will surprise everyone. Forrest in Indianapolis, the Lions acquired tight end Tony Scheffler in a trade as insurance in case Brandon Pettigrew is slow coming back from knee surgery, but Scheffler also gives them a good receiving threat out of two-tight end sets.
Q: What would the NFL landscape like if there's a lockout in 2011 and then a cap is put back in place in 2012? Which teams right now look to be in the best position to benefit from the lockout and the fallout of such actions?
Drew in Charlotte, N.C.
A: If there is a lockout -- and I still hold out hope for a settlement by early next March -- the owners aren't crazy enough to lose games and lose revenue, so there will be a 2011 season. There is no question teams are cleaning up their caps for future years. The Redskins dumped more than $60 million of dead cap money before the start of free agency and have continued to clean out their cap problems this year. The Eagles have made some similar moves. I'm still hoping that 2010 is more like a cap cleanup year than the preparation for all-out labor war.
Q: So I'm thinking about the NFL's plan to schedule division games at the end of the season to make the last two weeks more exciting. How about we take it one step further -- making the last two weeks of the season divisional tournaments. Kinda like the league tournaments at the end of the season in college hoops: In Week 16, the first-place team in the division plays the fourth-place team, while the second-place team plays the third-place team. In Week 17, the two winners play for the division championship with the winner getting an automatic playoff spot (the two losers play that week as well). How exciting would that be? What do you think? Never happen, right?
Steve in Lunenburg, Mass.
A: You're right, it will never happen. You have to have a set schedule for the fans so they can buy tickets and know what they are buying. Having a tournament would create too much confusion, too many travel problems and too many other issues. I'm not sold the switch to having all divisional games in Week 17 will work anyway. The Colts and Chargers, for example, have a chance to wrap up their divisions weeks before those final divisional games. I don't know that runaway divisions and meaningless games in the final two weeks are fixable problems.
Q: Some of your colleagues dismiss the idea of Brett Favre retiring. We know this is unpredictable, but why doesn't anyone talk of the great risk of injury, especially to older players. Favre likely has had multiple concussions that weren't revealed, and we know about his arm and ankle injuries.
Gary in Wausau, Wis.
A: Favre and every other player know the injury risks, but their love for the game keeps them in football. That's going to be the case with Favre. He loves football. It showed last year and I'm certain he will be back for another year. It's hard to get players to retire when they believe they can still play. Steve Young wanted a few more years despite his concussions. So did Troy Aikman. Favre's body will tell him when to stop. For now, he just has to take things one season at a time. I think he will be there this season.
Q: How good of a move was the addition of Jason Campbell in Oakland? I know he is better than JaMarcus Russell, but I would rather see Donovan McNabb there instead. Can Campbell be a winning QB in Oakland? I just don't think he can be with the receivers and the O-line in place there.
Eric in Wapakoneta, Ohio
A: I drew a few critiques by saying the Campbell acquisition, along with their schedule, should make the Raiders a surprise team, but I really believe that. I don't think they will make the playoffs, but they will be a better team under Campbell. Campbell gets half of his passes to wide receivers. Russell doesn't complete passes to his wide receivers often. There is no question McNabb would have been a better option, but he didn't want to go to Oakland. Campbell was so happy about going to Oakland he accepted a one-year contract extension. He will work well with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. His presence should help the Raiders get close to .500.
Q: John, I was somewhat surprised with the Chiefs' selection of Eric Berry (I figured they would go O-line instead of defense), but he looks to be an excellent pick. How would you rate the Chiefs' draft overall? Also, I know they got some O-line help in the offseason, but is it enough to give Matt Cassel good protection and make the Chiefs more competitive?
Patrick in Omaha, Neb.
A: The Berry selection over Russell Okung shouldn't be a surprise. Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli doesn't believe in taking an offensive tackle that high in the draft. Like the Patriots' Bill Belichick, Pioli has always leaned on taking defensive players that high if given the chance. Pioli, the Pats' onetime vice president of player personnel, loves taking top defensive players out of the SEC. Berry was the right fit. I still think Branden Albert is good enough at left tackle. The middle of the offensive line is better with Ryan Lilja and Casey Wiegmann. Remember, the the Chiefs are building. They aren't going to get everything done in just one year, but they are moving in the right direction.
Q: Last year the Texans had the fewest starters over the age of 30 of any NFL team and this year it looks like they will not have any. How do you think their youth will affect them? I see it as a wonderful sign for the future but would really like to see them make the playoffs soon as well as later. They seem to have some good, high-quality character leaders in Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub and DeMeco Ryans, but would adding a few more experienced veterans help them in those close games they keep losing and get them over the hump?
Aaron in Charlottesville, Va.
A: Last year, I had the Texans as one of my surprise teams. They came through at the end of the season with a 9-7 record and Schaub emerged as an elite quarterback, throwing for 4,770 yards. I like what the organization is doing, but I think it's going to be tough this season because of the schedule. The Texans will have to work harder and be better just to get to nine wins. The key for them is winning against the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans need to win their opener at home against Indianapolis. They were close to winning a game against the Colts in Indianapolis last season, but let it slip away. For the past couple of years, the Texans have played their best football outside the AFC South. They need to match up better against their rivals and pull out victories in divisional games to take the next step.
Q: What do you think about Seattle trading its 2011 first-round pick for Vikings DE Ray Edwards?
Josh in Los Angeles
A: If the Seahawks were one player away from being a top-level team, I'd say that would be a thought. It would not be a good plan for this team. The Seahawks need young players. Trading first-round picks for veterans can eventually come back to hurt rebuilding teams. Though you may be acquiring a known commodity, you may not have that player as long as you would a talented rookie. The Seahawks did well this year with nine draft choices and three veterans picked up via trades. Having that first-round pick also gives the team the flexibility of moving up or down to get the type of young player who would fit a need. The Seahawks' wait for a pass-rushing defensive end may have to wait until next year. Don't be surprised to see linebacker Aaron Curry rushing the passer a lot this season. He's 260 pounds and has a great first step.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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