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NFL Debrief: The end of football?

Was Lem Barney onto something? Will anyone challenge the Falcons in the NFC South? Does the spring depth chart matter at all?

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Lem Barney gives the sport of football another 20 years before it's gone. The Hall of Fame defensive back offered his prediction and acknowledged his regret over playing last week at the Sound Mind and Body Camp in Michigan. On Sunday, Barney was apologizing for making a room full of football coaches face an uncomfortable reality about the game. He stood by the content of his remarks.

Barney spent 11 seasons in the NFL, all with the Detroit Lions. He played cornerback, returned punts, returned some kicks and even did a little punting early in his career. He isn't the first former player to speak out about the nature of the game, only the latest. But his comments foreshadow what is likely to be the first real threat to the NFL's prominence.

A federal court in Pennsylvania could put the NFL in imperiled waters with a forthcoming decision about whether or not to proceed with a lawsuit pitting some 4,000 former players against the league over the impact of head injuries. Barney is one of the plaintiffs.

There isn't an easy way to hammer the concussion lawsuit into a football analogy. I've tried. Judge Anita Brody is merely deciding, at this stage, whether or not the issue belongs in labor mediation, as the NFL argues, or if it stays in court.

If the case, or at least part of it, goes forward, we could see a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the NFL, the stuff the league and its 32 teams work hard to keep the rest of the world from seeing. We might also get some closure on what duty, if any, the league has to its players with respect to health and safety during and after their careers. Remember, the NFL still won't acknowledge whether or not concussions and head trauma have a detrimental impact on players' long-term health.

There is also the potential for a hefty settlement to be paid out of league coffers.

Football isn't just going to disappear completely. The case threatens the NFL's primacy at the top of the professional sport food chain. The game could turn into more a niche sport with a small, passionate audience.

It's unlikely that football disappears entirely, but Barney's warning shouldn't be ignored.

Alex Green and a lesson about OTAs

I'm looking forward to the day when we're talking about actual football, game play itself, in this space. We've got seven weeks until the first preseason game.

I know what you're thinking: "ugh, preseason football." And I agree. However, it does at least give us something more tangible to talk about than spring OTAs. No hitting, no pads makes everyone a winner at spring practices. Unfortunately, tidbits from the field get fed to us with the same seriousness as Week 16 of the regular season.

There's an obvious example of just how inane OTAs are: Tim Tebow. But let's use something less obvious to make the point.

That's where the usefulness of the spring practice sessions end.

Alex Green is the top running back on Green Bay's depth chart. He led the rushing-starved Packers with 135 carries last year, but posted a measly 3.4 yards per attempt. Green finished the season buried on the depth chart, not even getting on the field after Week 15.

The Packers drafted Alabama running back Eddie Lacy in the second round this year. They nabbed UCLA's Jonathan Franklin in the fourth round.

Lacy, Franklin, Green, DuJuan Harris and others will battle for a bigger role. It's a good bet that Lacy will get the lion's share of the work, but rookies rarely start on top of the depth chart, especially in spring OTAs when they're getting their first taste of the playbook.

OTAs are a nice preview for what's to come in training camp and the preseason. That's where the usefulness of the spring practice sessions end.

Drive South

The NFC South belongs to Atlanta. Any way you look at the four teams in that division, it's clear that the Falcons have the upper hand. Picking Atlanta to win is the easiest prediction any back page pundit can make this year.

But the Falcons won't have it easy inside the division.

The Carolina Panthers finished last season with a four-game win streak that started with a Week 14 win over the Falcons. Cam Newton threw five touchdowns, 936 yards and just two interceptions during that stretch, posting an 87.2 rating. He added another pair of rushing touchdowns, as former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski had finally been convinced to run the ball by this point.

Best division in the NFL?

Carolina beat the New Orleans Saints in a shootout, with a total of 82 points scored and nary a shred of defense to be found. That Saints team finished its throwaway season with a 2-2 record. Obviously, Drew Brees carried the team. He led the league with 1,503 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. Someone had to do something. The Saints defense allowed an average of 439 yards.

And then there's the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the weak link in my theory about this being a tough division from top to bottom based on the last month of the 2012 season. Greg Schiano's team collapsed at Thanksgiving, finishing the year 1-5. They did at least end with a Week 17 win, beating the Falcons. During the last four games, the Bucs posted a 11-3 turnover differential. Tampa Bay emphasized its woeful pass defense with an offseason spending spree this year. If Josh Freeman gets his struggles ironed out, or Mike Glennon surprises us, the Bucs should be a better team.

Best division in the NFL? Maybe. I'll still take the Falcons to win it.

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