Favorable schedule could make Raiders respectable

Chicago's Matt Forte and Detroit's Kevin Smith will soon become very familiar to fans of the NFC North. US Presswire

Having toured the NFC North with the exception of the Vikings, who are on my schedule for their Thursday scrimmage against the Chiefs, I had the chance to get a sneak preview of the division's running backs. Of course, I don't think I need too much of a look at Adrian Peterson. In one season, he's established himself as the best back in the division, if not the conference.

The NFC North has undergone an amazing overhaul in the backfield. Cedric Benson was cut by the Bears. Kevin Jones was cut by the Lions and ended up on the Bears physically unable to perform list. Ryan Grant was a second-half backfield savior for the Packers last season, but he's holding out for the right long-term contract.

Which brings us to Matt Forte of the Bears and Kevin Smith of the Lions, the two sleeper backs of this draft. In Chicago, it's Forte's job to lose. Smith is an odds-on favorite to overtake Tatum Bell either by Week 1 or sometime thereafter. Forte is an upright runner who hits the hole quickly; his style fits perfectly in the Bears' zone-blocking scheme, but his upright style could lead to fumbles.

Smith also runs upright, but not as tall as Forte. He's also not as fast to the hole as Forte, which will limit the number of long runs. But Smith also shows an extra move or two more than Forte. I'd say each has a chance reach at the 1,000-yard mark.

From the inbox

Q: Do you think the Packers' allegation of tampering against the Vikings was a pre-emptive strike -- a frivolous accusation just to get NFL headquarters in the mix? By that, I mean, suppose the Packers didn't have anything concrete but decided to file charges anyway. That way the Packers have the NFL and media all over this and in a de facto way assure that Brett Favre doesn't go to the Vikings. That is what it smells like from here. Should the Packers (or any team) be fined a draft choice for making erroneous charges?

From Jim in Minneapolis

A: I think you are on to something, Jim. Even if the Vikings aren't found guilty by commissioner Roger Goodell, the Packers have all but assured Favre couldn't go to the Vikings if he were cut or traded. With the admission that Favre talked to head coach Brad Childress and his offensive coordinator, the Vikings would be perceived guilty of tampering if Favre ended up there.

Putting Favre on the Vikings would make them the favorite to win the NFC.

Plus, Childress' system is ideal for Favre to learn quickly.

The Packers achieved several strategic advantages by filing the tampering charge. First, it could cost the Vikings a draft choice. Goodell can't ignore the contact by the Vikings' coaches. Second, the tampering charge puts Favre in a bad light because it makes him look like a traitor in Green Bay. Still, nothing makes up for the damage done to the Packers from the whole Favre experience.

Q: John, the Raiders have certainly spent the money to improve with additions of big names on offense and defense. Will the money spent be worth it in the end? Also, how do you see JaMarcus Russell playing this upcoming season?

Jordan in Columbus, Ohio

A: Clearly, the Raiders overpaid for most of their big acquisitions, but if the group plays at 70 cents on the dollar, the Raiders could be a .500 team. Remember, their schedule is easy. Only one of their first 12 opponents had a winning record last season.

Russell has been throwing the ball well, although he developed a sore elbow Tuesday, an injury that isn't considered serious. Russell throws one of the prettiest balls I've seen in years. Because it is his first season as a starter, I don't see him completing 60 percent of his passes or better, but if he completes 55 percent of his passes and doesn't throw many interceptions, the combination of his big-play ability and the top-notch running attack should get the Raiders to 7-5 by December. Al Davis doesn't mind overpaying as long as the Raiders just win, baby.

Q: John, Do you see the Cowboys making a play for Anquan Boldin now that Terry Glenn has been given his walking papers? You have to think Jerry Jones is not comfortable with Patrick Crayton in that No. 2 wideout spot.

Steve in Austin, Texas

A: They tried, but you can't acquire what isn't on the market. Boldin is clearly unhappy with his contract, but he has three years left on it. The Cardinals aren't trading him. The Cowboys tried to acquire Chad Johnson, Roy Williams and others. Face it, no one is giving up a No. 1 receiver because there aren't 32 No.1s to fill 32 teams. At one point, I thought Matt Jones was an option, but I can't see Jerry Jones doing anything there. Plus, the Jaguars have Reggie Williams and Jerry Porter on the sidelines with injuries, so Matt Jones will be with the Jaguars throughout the preseason. You know the Cowboys will be looking, though. In the meantime, someone has to step up among the backups.

Q: Why isn't anyone giving thoughts of a Brett Favre trade to 49ers or K.C.? Neither team is playing the Packers this year and both could use a veteran quarterback. The 49ers need him badly and the Mike Martz offense would be perfect for Brett.

Ray in Bethesda, Md.

A: Trust me on this: Alex Smith will win the 49ers' starting job and the Chiefs believe they have to see if Brodie Croyle can stay healthy and be productive. Remember this, too: Favre probably doesn't want to go to either team because neither gets him closer to the Super Bowl.

Q: Donovan McNabb has guaranteed that his Philadelphia Eagles will be the team to beat in the NFC. John, do you think McNabb has fully recovered? If so, do the Eagles have a chance of going to the playoffs this season?

Ozzy in Atlanta

A: McNabb could have a monster season, which gives the Eagles the chance to challenge for the NFC East title. No one gave him credit for playing as well as he did last year, coming off the knee reconstruction. Last year also was a big one for McNabb because he reconstructed his status with Eagles management. Though they won't admit it, the Eagles started to think of the post-McNabb days last year. They drafted Kevin Kolb and McNabb sensed he was under extra scrutiny. He proved his value. This is a quarterback-driven league, and he's one of the best quarterbacks in the game. This could be a fun year for him.

Q: John, what do you think of the Lions' chances in the NFC North this year and is the defense improved without Shaun Rogers?

Nick in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A: The Lions remain stuck in neutral. I'm still amazed they changed offensive coordinators after Martz added six points to their scoring offense in the two seasons he was there. I do like some of the things they are doing with QB Jon Kitna. The rollouts and bootlegs should add some diversity to their offense and set up some possible play-action passes. Calvin Johnson is like a young Randy Moss and is catching everything. Roy Williams is a stud. And they will run the ball. Coach Rod Marinelli has taught team football to his players, and they have bought into it. Still, there are too many holes to forecast a winning season.

Q: What is the difference between an unrestricted free agent and a restricted free agent?

Robert Griffith

A: After a player's third season, he has a right to shop himself as a restricted free agent. If a restricted free agent receives an offer sheet from a new club, his old club can either match the offer to retain him or let him go to receive one or more draft choices in return. The draft choice compensation is dependent on the player's qualifying offer, which is predetermined by the collective bargaining agreement. Unrestricted is unrestricted. After four accrued seasons, a player can leave for a new team in free agency.

Q: My question is about Troy Polamalu. Injuries seemed to really affect his performance in 2007. Do you see him coming back to his Pro Bowl form in 2008 or will his style of play limit his effectiveness?

Brennan in Pittsburgh

A: Polamula and Bob Sanders of the Colts play the game at such a high level, they are going to be subject to injuries. Polamalu started camp on the physically unable to perform list, but I think he is going to be fine. Still, the Steelers have a tough schedule. Attrition because of injuries could be a problem all season.

Q: Hey John. Big fan. My question is how do you see the combination of Jason Taylor and Andre Carter performing this year? How good can LaRon Landry be, and lastly, what's your take on the Skins' rookie wideouts?

Rob in D.C.

A: Modestly, the Redskins' defense should be able to get between 45 and 50 sacks. This is the best pass-rush combination for the team since Dexter Manley and Charles Mann. I believe both Taylor and Carter will have double-digit sacks. Landry can be a great one. He has range and hitting ability. The receiving corps -- tight ends included -- is deep and gives new coach Jim Zorn plenty of versatility. The key for the season, though, is injuries, and the long list of injuries concern me.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.