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If the first two weeks of the preseason is any indication, the National Football League (NFL) is officially back. With the lockout threatening the start of the season (not really) for most of the spring and early summer, the return of organized activity led to a dizzying array of transactions and signings. Now that the dust has settled, here are ten storylines to follow as we approach the start of the 2011 campaign.

10. Dallas Cowboys

As “America’s Team” and with Jerry Jones as your owner, the beginning of any NFL season will cast all eyes on the Cowboys by default. Tony Romo is still the starting quarterback, and with Jessica Simpson no longer around to blame for his failures on the field, the question is will he finally play to his potential and get the ‘Boys deep into the postseason after a year where they failed to post a winning record? The answer better be a resounding “yes” or head coach Jason Garrett (career backup QB that he was) may have to throw on a jersey and become a player/coach.

9. Cam Newton

The overall number 1 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft was taken by a team that already had a young quarterback in Jimmy Clausen. Seen as a pick the Carolina  Panthers could not pass up, Newton is currently in a battle with Clausen for the starting QB job. Newton will get to show his stuff for the first three quarters of Carolina’s next preseason game on Thursday (Aug. 25th). Will he impress enough to earn the starting nod once the games count?

8. Brett Favre comeback part…?

Brett Favre

This was a non-story when the NFL lockout ended until Michael Vick tweeted that he would be “honored” to have Favre as his backup in Philadelphia. That tweet was quickly deleted, but sent the rumor mill spinning out of control. The Eagles have since signed Vince Young to hold the clipboard for Vick, but that did not kill Brett Favre Voorhies yet…

7. Peyton Manning

The 4-time NFL MVP had neck surgery in the off-season and while it was common knowledge that he would not be ready for the pre-season, there are now whispers that Manning won’t be ready for opening kickoff. Re-enter Brett Favre. The Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted (in jest, we hope) on Sunday (Aug. 21st) that he was “in Hattiesburg” (as in Mississippi, where Favre lives). Now the sports world is forced to endure another pre-season of Favre “will-he-or-won’t-he” rumors because the Colts may need a starting quarterback. Shoot me now.

6. Jay Cutler

His team’s season ended in a NFC Championship playoff game loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, but Cutler was done about more than half the game before the final whistle. Cutler went down early in the game with what seemed to be a minor injury. Problem was Cutler never returned and, even worse, looked unaffected by what was happening on the field. Cutler took a beating on Twitter from his fellow players watching at home. Everyone from running back Maurice Jones-Drew to Deion Sanders questioned Cutler’s toughness. Turns out that Cutler had ligament damage in his knee. Still the players that called him out never apologized. Can Cutler rebound, and will his teammates (including Brian Urlacher, who did defend him after the game) respond to him as their leader this season?

5. Carson Palmer

In one of the weirdest developments of the off-season Cincinnati Bengals starting quarterback Carson Palmer threatened to retire if he was not traded to another team. The Bengals did not budge, but they did bend a little just in case Palmer was serious. They drafted quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round and signed former Raiders QB Bruce Gradkowski. They also re-signed Palmer’s younger brother Jordan (also a quarterback). To add insult to the game of chicken, long-time Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco was traded to perennial contenders The New England Patriots. Carson is not even on the Bengals official roster as of Monday Aug. 22nd, but if he decides to just show up for the start of the season the first QB to be cut would be his little brother. Insane.

4. Donovan McNabb

Thought to have found a new life in Washington, McNabb’s only season in the nation’s capital was the worst of his career. He was benched for the final three games of the season, a demoralizing slap in the face for a QB with McNabb’s track record. His exodus from the Redskins was a given, now the question is will he be able to lead the Minnesota Vikings to the promised land or was his season in Washington more than a fluke?

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

Similar to the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers are always a team to watch heading into an NFL season because of off-the-field drama. The last couple of seasons the microscope has been on starting QB Ben Roethlisberger, but with Big Ben being a virtual choir boy leading the Steelers back to the Super Bowl after missing the first four games of the 2010 season the acrimony has come from other areas of the “black and yellow” squad. It began with linebacker James Harrison‘s comments criticizing Roethlisberger’s play in the Super Bowl. Harrison, who is no stranger to controversial remarks, in this case needed to, in the immortal words of ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the morning, “just shut up” here. Your quarterback got you to the Super Bowl after missing four games with a suspension. He pretty much beat the Jets in the AFC Championship game by himself. Smh. Then you have Hines Ward, who showed off his twinkle toes on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, then was pulled over for in a bizarre incident with a female companion that was deemed a misunderstanding, yet followed that up with a DUI arrest practically a week later. These guys prove that they feed off turmoil. I would not count them out.

2. Plaxico Burress

The Giants wanted him back (after turning their back on him at his lowest point), but he signed with the Jets. After hauling in a touchdown pass in his 2011 preseason debut eerily similar to the catch he made to win Super Bowl XLII for the other New York team, Burress is officially back. Can he lead another New York team to a Super Bowl victory?

1. New York Jets

For the third season in a row Jets head coach Rex Ryan predicted the Jets would not only make it to the Super Bowl, but win it. After falling short in the AFC title game two straight seasons, the average viewer had no reason to believe Ryan this time. After all, the Jets’ best chance was presumably this past season where they vanquished their bitter rival Patriots in an emotional Divisional playoff game. Unfortunately it seems to the Jets that was their AFC title game because they ran out of gas to the Steelers. Ryan must have known something the rest of the sports world did not. He already had a Super Bowl hero in Santonio Holmes at WR and could not get it done in 2010. Then the Jets signed Plaxico Burress. Burress cannot be covered as he proved time and again as a member of the Giants and Steelers. With both Burress and Holmes on the ends that can go up and get the ball on a fade route, you have to like the Jets’ chances to be there at the end.

BONUS:

Tiki Barber

After four years away from the game, Barber wants to come back to the NFL after a failed attempt at broadcasting. Does anyone want a 36 year-old running back who hasn’t played for four years. Some say the layoff has kept wear and tear off his body, but with the lifespan of an elite running back peaking at age 30, Tiki’s plight may be daunting.

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