It will be hardfor the NFL's preseason to be as newsy as the off-season (a labor disputeresolved at the 11th hour, a commissioner retiring, a surprise at the top ofthe draft and Terrell Owens on the move), but there are compelling storylinesto follow as teams sweat their way toward the Dolphins-Steelers season openeron Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh.
Six topquarterbacks are rehabbing from surgery. Which ones will be back in form by theend of August? Of all the high-profile passers who went under the knife--NewOrleans's Drew Brees (shoulder), Miami's Daunte Culpepper (knee),Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb (sports hernia), Cincinnati's Carson Palmer(knee), the Jets' Chad Pennington (shoulder) and Pittsburgh's BenRoethlisberger (facial fractures)--the biggest question mark might be Brees. Hehad arthroscopic surgery in January to repair a torn labrum in his rightshoulder, and he'll bear watching. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, whosigned the former Charger as a free agent, said last Saturday that his newquarterback will be on a daily pitch count at camp in Jackson, Miss. "Theonly thing Drew didn't do in our last round of organized team activities [inlate June] was cut loose on the long downfield throws," Loomis said."He has said all along that he thinks he'll be ready to open the season,and he's the best gauge of that." Brees's health is vital to the Saints,who don't want to put too much pressure on first-round pick Reggie Bush to betheir offensive savior.
Which of thehigh-drafted rookie quarterbacks will impress his coach enough to play early inthe season? While first-rounders Vince Young (Titans), Matt Leinart (Cardinals)and Jay Cutler (Broncos) made the news on draft day, Kellen Clemens, thesecond-round pick of the Jets, has a better shot than any of them to playearly. Of the four passers vying for the New York starting job in full-squadmini-camps during the spring (Clemens, Pennington, fourth-year man BrooksBollinger and fifth-year vet Patrick Ramsey), the rookie out of Oregon showedthe quickest delivery and the strongest arm. New Jets coach Eric Manginipraised Clemens's leadership ability, and incoming offensive coordinator BrianSchottenheimer said Clemens was one of the brightest quarterbacks he'd everworked with. While it would be an upset if Clemens started the season opener,it wouldn't be a surprise to see him playing by October if Mangini andSchottenheimer--who are starting with a clean slate and installing a newsystem--think he's the best man for their offense.
Who will be thesurprise player to watch coming out of the preseason? Write it down: ChesterTaylor, the Vikings' $3 million-a-year free-agent steal from the Ravens, willrush for 1,200 yards this year. Minnesota plans to rely heavily on runs behindthe monstrous left side of their offensive line (tackle Bryant McKinnie,6'8", 335; and guard Steve Hutchinson, 6'5", 313), and Taylor averaged4.3 yards per carry for Baltimore over the last three years. Taylor'sdurability inside and burst outside should fit perfectly in the new offense offirst-year coach Brad Childress.
Who's the Boss?
Given the way the NFL usually plods along, there's beensome skepticism that the league's owners will be able to decide on a successorto outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue before the start of the 2006 season.But one source close to the league's eight-man search committee, which narrowedthe field to 11 candidates on Monday, is confident that a decision will bereached by the end of the Aug. 7--9 owners meeting in Chicago. (The strongfront-runner remains NFL chief operating officer Roger Goodell.) Whatever thecase, Tagliabue has let it be known within league circles that he and his wife,Chan, have planned a trip to India in early fall, a not-so-subtle hint that theowners better get the job done soon.
MICHAEL C. HEBERT (BREES)
THREE TO WATCH Brees (left) and Clemens (6) are iffy; Taylor is set for a breakout season.
JOHN IACONO (CLEMENS)
RICK A. KOLODZIEJ (TAYLOR)
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