The National Football League season is upon us with pre-season – the NFL hates to have the media or fans call them exhibition – games about ready to start. Unlike last year when they had to contend with a sizzling New York Yankees team and the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race, the NFL may have a clearer path toward dominating fans and collectors' minds in these dogs days of summer.

There are numerous questions facing the league and collectors alike; the e-mail queries are numerous, as people want to know what will be hot and what won't be hot as the season gets set to kick off for real in September.

Here are the most asked questions -- and answers -- to collectors who want to know what the smart investments will be for the upcoming season.

Question: Are all the rookie quarterbacks going to make it, and which rookie cards will be the most valuable in say five or 10 years?

Answer: All of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL draft have guaranteed contracts but no guaranteed future. The holdouts by some, particularly Donovan McNabb of the Eagles and Cade McNown of the Bears are particularly harmful, because both figured to have great chances starting their first regular season games. However, because of the length of contracts they will all sign, there is a good bet they will all be around – barring injury – for the next five years.

Which rookie will be the most valuable?

Chances are it won't be a quarterback. Cleveland did sign former Kentucky QB Tim Couch early, but he may not be the starter for the expansion team early. The best bet for rookies is New Orleans running back (and former Heisman Trophy winner) Ricky Williams. Mike Ditka traded all of his draft picks for him, and he will get plenty of rushing attempts. The sleeper for collectors: Champ Bailey of the Washington Redskins, who may be the best athlete among rookies.

The Oakland Raiders have always been among the most popular NFL teams for collectors; will they stay that way and which teams are on the rise in popularity?

The Raiders have been either No. 1 or in the top three as far as NFL merchandising for the past five years. But because they haven't been as consistently good on the field and have fewer "name" players collectors, should take a hard look at investments of the Raiders. Part of the lure has been the vagabond moves of Al Davis, taking the team from Oakland to Los Angeles and back to Oakland, then flirting with LA again. That has pushed up the value of collectibles, but most collectors and fans have called Davis' bluff and believe he is staying in Oakland.

But what teams are on the rise for collectors?

Cleveland Browns. Before Art Modell foolishly transplanted the original Browns and moved them to Baltimore, Browns' collectibles were among the most popular right up along with the Raiders. The "new" Browns have retained all of the old team's colors, insignias and history, meaning the expansion team should be a prime source for collectors this year. And, the Browns may not be as bad on the field as previous expansion teams because they have several former members of the San Francisco 49ers running their front office.

Next would be the Tennessee Titans, only because this is the first year under their new nickname that replaced the old "Oilers" dating back from their days in Houston (there aren't many oil wells in Nashville). Titans' collectibles in this first year will have significant worth, even if the team hovers around the .500 mark as most predict for the upcoming season.

John Elway retired last year, so did Reggie White. Who is likely to hang it up this year and will have cards, autographs, etc. rise in value?

If you believe Barry Sanders, he is out but don't think it will last. Sanders has tremendous talent and has avoided serious injuries, meaning even though he is upset with the Lions, doesn't mean he wouldn't come back. Dan Marino of Miami saw Elway leave the game on top and may opt not to play past this year if he sees the Dolphins don't have a serious chance at winning a Super Bowl. Thurman Thomas of Buffalo also is staring at retirement.

Denver won the Super Bowl the past two years under Elway. Is the run over for them and for collectors who have invested in the Broncos?

Not necessarily. Bubby Brister items shouldn't be discarded. The veteran quarterback replaces Elway and did a great job filling in for him when Elway was hurt last year. All of the key ingredients are back for the Broncos including running back Terrell Davis. Should Denver win the Super Bowl, it would be the first franchise ever to win three straight, making all Broncos' stuff extremely valuable for years to come. However, injuries could play a key factor in a Denver return to the championship game this season.

Randy Minkoff is a former reporter, writer, editor and author, with more than three decades of journalism experience and a unique combination of both print and broadcasting. Minkoff is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and Crain's Chicago Business. He has been syndicated nationally as a radio/TV critic and has also written a weekly column for the Daily Herald. He is the author of Ron Santo; For Love of Ivy, the biography of the former Cub third baseman and his battle against diabetes. A native of St. Louis, Mo., he is a graduate of Drake University School of Journalism.

A favorite with collectors, John Elway.
A favorite with collectors, John Elway.
A 1984 Topps Football display, currently for sale on Superior Sports Auctions.
A 1984 Topps Football display, currently for sale on Superior Sports Auctions.