We are still more than a month away from crowning this season's Super Bowl champion. Sadly, more head coaches are likely to lose their jobs following the end of the regular season. The book on the 2011 season is still far from written.
But we thought that in the spirit of the new year that we take a look ahead at the major NFL stories that are likely to dominate the coming 365 days. It's an impossible task to forecast all that is in store, but we polled the PFW staff for the stories that are likely to be at the forefront as we head toward next season.
Some of it, naturally, has to do with carryover from this season and with the big-name quarterbacks who dominated the headlines — Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow, Aaron Rodgers and, yes, even Andrew Luck. Thankfully, with the 10-year CBA signed last summer, there is (relative) labor peace. But that doesn't mean there are not plenty of off-the-field issues to address. There still are lingering concerns regarding concussions, the future of Los Angeles in the NFL, union leadership and HGH testing. There also is a free-agent class with lots of intrigue and new salary-cap rules that likely will affect which stars sign with which teams. No time like the present to take a look forward.
1. The future of Peyton Manning
The NFL's only four-time MVP just recently began throwing and has not practiced or played in a game since undergoing his third neck surgery in 19 months. The Colts looked like runaway winners in the Andrew Luck derby - until beating the Titans and Texans the past two weeks. If Indianapolis loses at Jacksonville in Week 17, it will hold the top pick in next April's draft, which almost assuredly would result in selecting Luck. If the Colts beat the Jaguars, and the Rams lose to the 49ers, St. Louis would have the top pick - and a bidding war likely would ensue for the right to draft Luck. Colts owner Jim Irsay said last week that if Manning is healthy, he will be back with the Colts in 2012. However, Manning is owed $28 million in early March - before the new league year begins - so the Colts will have to be confident Manning can regain his prior form before committing to the payment. If Manning still isn't 100 percent healthy, the Colts could ask him to postpone the payment, allowing them to wait and see on his health and/or attempt to trade him to the highest bidder.
PFW prediction: Thanks to the rookie wage scale in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Colts can afford to have both Manning and Luck on the '12 roster. Indianapolis will lose to the Jaguars in Week 17, securing the top pick and will select Luck in April. Manning will be healthy and back with the Colts next season, allowing Luck the rare opportunity to learn behind one of the all-time greats for at least one year.
2. Will the Broncos commit to Tim tebow long-term?
Because the Broncos have no other quarterback besides Tebow currently under contract for 2012, there is no doubt the team will acquire a signalcaller, either in the draft or via free agency. The question is: Will that person be brought in to challenge Tebow or to back him up? Executive VP of football operations John Elway has been unclear on the team's plans, but after Tebow led the team into the playoff race this season, the pressure will be on the front office to give the unorthodox thrower another chance to start.
PFW prediction: With Kyle Orton gone and Brady Quinn coming off the books, the Broncos will have money to spend on a quality backup QB. That could mean taking a player at the position in the early rounds of the draft and grooming the prospect as the second-stringer behind Tebow. It might not be a long-term commitment, but expect No. 15 to be the starter in Week One next season.
To read the rest of the top-10 story lines for the upcoming 2012 offseason, purchase a copy of the current issue Pro Football Weekly online at the PFWstore.com. In this issue, you'll also find a feature on the Texans and their postseason prospects; our comprehensive fantasy football coverage; and our very popular "Audibles" and "The Way We Hear It."