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And 12 other burning questions heading into the start of 2013 NFL season

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The 2013 NFL season unofficially began July 17 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookies became the first group of players to report for training camp. The Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys were the first to have their full squads report three days later. USA Today NFL sportswriter Tom Pelissero examines 13 questions for the 2013 season.

1. Are the Patriots in trouble?

NOT the legal kind, although that's part of the picture. Tom Brady didn't just lose Aaron Hernandez, who was cut shortly after being arrested on a murder charge. He'll be without Wes Welker, who signed with the Denver Broncos. He may be without Rob Gronkowski, who is a PUP-list candidate following back surgery. He'll be without Danny Woodhead (signed with San Diego) and probably Brandon Lloyd, who remains a free agent after his March release. Yes, the Patriots signed away Danny Amendola from St. Louis. Yes, Brady -- who just signed a $57-million contract extension -- can still elevate the players around him at age 35. And yes, Bill Belichick's brilliance has yielded 10 consecutive 10-win seasons. That's still a lot of production to replace on offence, and trying Tim Tebow at tight end isn't the answer.

2. Who's the top dog in the loaded NFC West?

THE San Francisco 49ers are coming off a Super Bowl appearance, with dynamic Colin Kaepernick at QB and one of the league's most complete rosters. The Seattle Seahawks looked past Percy Harvin's character flaws to add another toy for Russell Wilson. The St. Louis Rams quietly took a big step forward in Jeff Fisher's first season, tying and beating the 49ers on the way to seven wins -- five more than a season earlier. And the Arizona Cardinals acquired Carson Palmer, giving Larry Fitzgerald a chance to play with a competent QB for the first time since Kurt Warner's retirement. That's two championship contenders and no obvious doormat in the bunch, just three years after Charlie Whitehurst helped Seattle win the division at 7-9.

3. Can last year's rookie QB class avoid a sophomore slump?

ANDREW Luck's solid rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts almost was overshadowed by the No. 1 overall pick's read-option counterparts. The No. 2 pick, Robert Griffin III, was an instant star with the Washington Redskins. And Wilson, a third-round afterthought, had the Seahawks within a field goal of the NFC title game. Luck and Griffin got their teams to the post-season, too. If the Miami Dolphins' aggressive off-season approach pays dividends as hoped, Ryan Tannehill could have a chance to join them there in Year 2. The right knee Griffin blew out in the playoff loss to Seattle replaces Peyton Manning's neck/arm as this year's most-watched body part of camp.

4. Do the remodelled

Baltimore Ravens have

a shot at defending their title?

RAY Lewis and Matt Birk retired. Ed Reed signed with the Houston Texans. Anquan Boldin was traded to the 49ers. Dannell Ellerbe (Miami), Bernard Pollard (Tennessee), Paul Kruger (Cleveland) and Cary Williams (Philadelphia) are gone as well. The Ravens will have a new look -- and that may not be a bad thing, especially if modest investments in veterans Elvis Dumervil (five years, $26 million), Chris Canty (three years, $8 million) and Michael Huff (three years, $6 million) fill the void on defence. Joe Flacco earned his $120.6-million extension during the Super Bowl run and will be asked to take on an even greater leadership role with Lewis' departure.

5. Can anything save Rex Ryan?

WELL, he did survive the New York Jets' butt-fumble to 6-10 in 2012. Ryan showed his coaching chops during those consecutive AFC title-game trips that feel like a century ago. But his roster just isn't very good as new GM John Idzik begins an overhaul. Throw in another quarterback debate -- even one not involving Tebow -- and it's not hard to imagine Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith devolving into another gong show. The only other coaches who kept their jobs after winning six games or fewer in 2012 were Tennessee's Mike Munchak, Detroit's Jim Schwartz and Oakland's Dennis Allen. Oddly, given the Raiders' history, Allen probably has the longest leash of the group.

6. Will Michael Vick be an Eagle in Week 1?

THE Eagles open the Monday night slot against RGIII's Redskins. Whether Vick is there is anyone's guess. New coach Chip Kelly isn't as tied to him as predecessor Andy Reid and hasn't ruled out Nick Foles, rookie Matt Barkley or even Dennis Dixon winning the job -- which probably would mean Vick and his restructured deal (one year, up to $7.5 million) getting released. Nobody else this side of Sanchez is as established and in as much peril. It's Kevin Kolb-E.J. Manuel in Buffalo, Blaine Gabbert-Chad Henne in Jacksonville and Matt Flynn-Tyler Wilson in Oakland.

7. Will the NFL's latest major safety measure mean fines

for its big stars?

BARRING ball carriers from using the crown of the helmet as a weapon outside the tackle box and at least three yards downfield could take some getting used to. Violent runners such as reigning MVP Adrian Peterson, who was part of the violation tape shown by officials before owners approved the measure 31-1 in March, have been taught since childhood to protect themselves by getting behind their pads. Now, some of the blows that have delivered a message to opponents in the past will deliver a 15-yard penalty instead, plus possible fines and suspensions. Coaches remain skeptical about enforcement, even with three sets of eyes on each potential violation.

8. Can Peterson take another run at Eric Dickerson's record?

NEVER say never if Peterson stays healthy. He came up eight yards short in 2012 despite not cutting properly off his reconstructed left knee the first month. He carried the Minnesota Vikings during Christian Ponder's midseason struggles and ran for more than 1,000 yards after suffering a sports hernia that required off-season surgery. But coaches believe the Vikings are a more dangerous team if Peterson doesn't have to run for 2,105 yards. If they want to catch the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North, Ponder will have to produce more in a passing game that lost Harvin but gained superior route-runner Greg Jennings and first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson.

9. Which new coach

has the best chance

for an instant turnaround?

THE easy pick is Reid, who inherited a Kansas City Chiefs roster that produced six Pro Bowl picks last season but went 2-14 under Romeo Crennel. The biggest issue was shoddy QB play, and new GM John Dorsey moved swiftly to address that issue, acquiring Alex Smith from the 49ers. The Manning-led Broncos may have a strangehold on that division, but it's not as if the AFC is brimming with wild-card front-runners. Mike McCoy has some talent to work with in San Diego, too. Ditto Marc Trestman in Chicago and Kelly in Philadelphia. Arizona's Bruce Arians has his work cut out in the NFL's toughest division. Doug Marrone in Buffalo, Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland and Gus Bradley in Jacksonville likely have rocky roads ahead.

Perhaps no sport is as team-oriented as football, but that doesn't mean individual players can't have major impacts.

10. Will Sean Payton's return put the New Orleans Saints

back in the post-season?

SHORT answer: probably. Payton should have been a coach of the year candidate in 2012, considering how lost the Saints looked while stumbling to 7-9 during his Bountygate suspension. Drew Brees needs Payton just as much as Payton needs Brees, and having them back together -- even with a major patch-up job in progress on defence -- gives the Saints a chance. That said, the Atlanta Falcons convinced Tony Gonzalez to come back for one more season and have a lot of pieces in place to make another run themselves. Those two regular-season matchups will be must-watch TV. Meanwhile, former Saints defensive co-ordinator Gregg Williams is now in the NFL equivalent of witness protection as senior defensive assistant with the Titans.

11. Will Cam Newton grow up?

THIS will be the former No. 1 pick's third season, which is a big one for any quarterback. The Carolina Panthers' chances for keeping up with the Falcons and Saints -- not to mention the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were excellent for stretches in Greg Schiano's first season -- start with Newton being more consistent on the field and more resilient off it. There's no doubting Newton's talent, but QBs can't sulk. They have to be leaders, no matter how things are going for themselves or the team, and Newton has earned the intense scrutiny he gets in that regard.

12. Which Texas quarterback and/or coach comes

under fire first?

THE spotlight always shines brightly on the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones makes sure of that, which at times is part of the problem. Since last year's 8-8 finish -- the third non-playoff year in a row under Jason Garrett -- they've switched defensive schemes (hiring Tampa-2 guru Monte Kiffin), hired a new offensive play-caller (Bill Callahan) and handed a $119.5-million contract extension to 33-year-old Tony Romo, who is 1-3 in playoff games. Garrett seems to be dangling by a thread. Things are calmer in Houston, with the Texans coming off another AFC South title. They've been outclassed in the division round two straight years, though, and both coach Gary Kubiak and QB Matt Schaub could find themselves in the crosshairs if it happens again.

13. Who is playing for

next year's No. 1 pick?

THE reconstruction process continues in Oakland, where GM Reggie McKenzie has the NFL's only eight-figure payroll ($92.2 million) and more than $36 million in dead money on the 2013 books. The Jets are trying to fix their salary cap, too. The Jaguars and Bills are both starting over with new coaches, again. The Titans probably should have joined them. And the Browns have found a way to lower their own bar, with an owner whose company is under investigation by a federal grand jury for alleged fraud.

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 28, 2013 A1

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