Camps are underway, and seasons are being shaped.
This is the third year of full training camps under the new collective bargaining agreement. In 2011, the league was coming off the lockout, so camps were short. Although they might not like it, coaches continue to adjust to the limits of what they can do. Padded practices are weekly, not daily. There are no two-a-days.
As a result, coaches aren't pushing players who have minor injuries. If there is a doubt about a player's injury status, the coach is letting him sit for a day or two. Coaches understand it is a marathon, not a sprint.
Here are five observations from the early days of camp:
1. Soft-tissue injuries are expected: Last year, there was an average of about one ACL tear per day in the first 15 days of leaguewide camp practices. The major injury problem hasn't gone away. San Francisco 49ers running back Kendall Hunter blew out an ACL on Friday. Since the start of camps, there have been four season-ending Achilles tendon tears: Indianapolis Colts halfback Vick Ballard, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Aaron Ross, New England Patriots wide receiver Greg Orton and Houston Texans guard Cody White. Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts and Carolina Panthers halfback Jonathan Stewart are out with hamstring injuries. Going from the post-organized team activities summer break to the start of training camp can be a shock to a body. Sad to say this, but expect 10 or 11 more major injuries over the next week and a half.
2. Good news on the ACL front: Although an ACL tear can be devastating for a team and a player, the recovery period for players is getting better. In the old days, a player might need 12 months to recover from a knee reconstruction. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski passed his physical and was available for practice despite blowing out his knee in early December. On Sunday, he was running half speed through drills, but that's progress. Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton didn't have to go on the PUP list after suffering his tear the third week of September. Reggie Wayne was available for the Colts. So were Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams and Brian Hoyer of the Cleveland Browns.
3. The owners minimized holdouts when they negotiated the 2011 CBA: Even though Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson and Kansas City Chiefs halfback Jamaal Charles reported late, there were only two true holdouts this year: Seattle Seahawks halfback Marshawn Lynch and San Francisco 49ers guard Alex Boone. Compare that to 1991, when 103 draft choices and 193 vets reported late. The penalties for staying away from camp that are part of the CBA discourage holdouts. Look at Lynch. He's losing $30,000 a day in fines. If his holdout goes to the sixth day, the Seahawks could ask him to repay $900,000 of his $6 million signing bonus (15 percent). Each additional day could cost Lynch another 1 percent of the signing bonus up to a maximum total of 25 percent. If the holdout gets past Aug. 5, Lynch would lose a year toward free agency. A missed preseason game would cost him a game check from his $5 million base salary.
4. There's no way Johnny Manziel will be a Week 1 starter: Although Johnny Football doesn't plan to change his social life, you can see that the Browns are planning to go into the season with Hoyer at quarterback. Head coach Mike Pettine says he wants to name a starting quarterback before the third preseason game. Manziel, who has struggled at times, won't have enough time to catch up to Hoyer. On Saturday, owner Jimmy Haslam said that Manziel has made rookie mistakes and that he'll have to see whether the quarterback is getting the message to slow down some of the off-the-field stuff. That's a major change from the OTAs and minicamp, when the team had a hands-off approach to Manziel's weekends.
5. Could Rolando McClain be the surprise of the summer? Early word is the Cowboys think they got a steal in McClain, who came out of retirement and was traded by the Ravens to Dallas. Alabama coach Nick Saban told the Cowboys that McClain has gotten his mind and body right. He has done a few good things at the beginning of camp. The Cowboys are desperate to replace injured Sean Lee at middle linebacker. McClain could be a real find.
Q: Your on-air opinion that Ray Rice should have been suspended for four games instead of two amounts to a second slap on the wrist. There is no excuse or extenuating circumstance that justifies a man hitting a woman. None. Rice (and Greg Hardy) should get a lifetime ban with an annual possibility of reinstatement on the recommendation of an independent advisory board of psychologists with expertise in domestic violence. The NFL should be leading by adopting a zero-tolerance policy. Instead, Roger Goodell might as well have held Rice's coat.
Paul in Richmond, Virginia
A: There is no question two games isn't a long enough suspension. But a lifetime ban with a review? That's too much. You are 100 percent correct in saying no man should ever hit a woman. An action like that deserves a swift and strong penalty. Your idea about having an advisory board is a good one. Maybe having one domestic expert making recommendations would be a good one. Having such an expert could allow for a longer suspension. You could set up a standard in which six games or four games could be the adjustable penalty based on the expert's opinion. Of course, the case would have to go through the court system before a suspension could be implemented.
Q: How will teams with elite players from the old rookie wage scale address contract extensions? I believe Ndamukong Suh is making around $22 million. Obviously, that is far too much. If the Lions let Suh hit the market, would a team give him an Albert Haynesworth-type deal, or will players in his situation actually take pay cuts to the appropriate market value. Having Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, and Suh taking up 55 percent of their cap obviously straps the Lions from building a team with depth.
Matt in Richmond, Virginia
A: The problem will be cleaned up for all teams within the next year or two. There are only 25 former first-round draft choices from the old system playing out their rookie contracts. Michael Crabtree is the only one left from the 2009 draft. Suh, who is a free agent next year, and the rest are from the 2010 class. The Suh situation is tough because the sides aren't close to a deal, which leaves the Lions tight against the cap this year. His salary is $12.55 million, and the rest is prorated signing bonus. Teams in free agency will try to sign him for about $13 million a year. We'll see whether he can claim a bigger contract. He's in a great spot for leverage. The Lions can't franchise him next year because the number would be too high. If he can't get an extension in Detroit, he will be a huge player in the free-agent market.
Q: Since the Seahawks have roughly $7 million left in cap space with little left to spend on this year, why doesn't it make sense for the Seahawks to pay Marshawn Lynch an extra couple of million this year to keep him happy if they're just going to cut him next year? Is it a matter of rolling more money into next year to sign Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner or Russell Okung? It seems like a no-brainer to keep Lynch happy for at least this year if they have the room.
Nate in Seattle
A: It's not that easy. Giving Lynch a couple of million would take away the chance to give K.J. Wright a contract extension. It would take cap room away next year, which would affect getting deals done with Wilson and Wagner. Plus, the Seahawks wouldn't want to create the precedent of rewarding players who ask for more money in the middle of their contracts. What if, in two years, Earl Thomas thinks he has outplayed his contract? He could say, "If you did that for Lynch, you should do that for me." You also have to consider the age of the running back. He's 28 and likely will be a cap casualty next year. Also, don't forget that $7 million under the cap can dry up quickly when you add the practice squad, salaries for injured players and the signing of injury replacements.
Q: If the NFL is concerned about the logistics of a team in London, wouldn't starting with two overseas teams make it easier? Two teams in the same division have 10 common opponents, right? Play in London one week, Frankfurt the next. It worked for baseball when both the Giants and Dodgers fled for the West Coast.
Brian in Green Bay, Wisconsin
A: That would make sense, but to accommodate that you'd have to talk about moving three or four franchises. I can't see that many moving around. First, the NFL has to take care of the Los Angeles market. A generation of fans has grown up without an NFL team in Los Angeles. Patriots owner Robert Kraft is talking about eventually having one AFC and one NFC team in Los Angeles. That could be the Oakland Raiders and the St. Louis Rams. But what would be the next team to move? The Chargers could get a deal at some point to stay in San Diego. Some people cite the Jaguars, but the owner is trying to invest enough to keep the franchise in Jacksonville.
Q: I've been watching some replays of this past year's college football games and came across a game involving Georgia. Can you please explain why Aaron Murray wasn't a first- or second-round pick? At 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, he's nearly identical in stature to Drew Brees, who's 6-foot, 209 pounds. His arm strength isn't incredible, but it certainly seems adequate, especially since we've seen players like Peyton Manning and Brees improve their arm strength from college to the NFL. He has all the intangibles you could ask for, and his accuracy and football IQ seem to be that of an NFL quarterback. His ability to make NFL back-shoulder throws again and again is astounding. I simply don't understand how he was only a fifth-round pick.
Garrison in Crestwood, Kentucky
A: The ACL injury didn't help. Not being a tall quarterback dropped him down a little. Not having great arm strength also lowered his ratings. But he can be successful in the NFL. He's smart. He's accurate. Now, he's healthy. Teams projected him to be more of an NFL backup than a starter. Maybe the scouts were wrong. We'll see over the next four years whether he can prove them wrong and be a steal for the Chiefs.
Q: It went unnoticed by many how good the Steelers played in the second half of last season. They were a field goal away from entering the playoffs. With the addition of LeGarrette Blount, further development of Le'Veon Bell and offensive line coaching by Mike Munchak, the Steelers' run game is set to improve. What are your thoughts on the Steelers' offensive potential this season?
Hardeep in West Nyack, New York
A: I think people have noticed. The Steelers have a chance to bounce back and become a playoff team again. They've drafted well. The offense has speed. Bell should be a good back. The offensive line is coming together. Ben Roethlisberger seems to be in a good place mentally in regard to some of the changes in the offensive philosophy. The defense is younger and has more speed. The AFC North should be a three-way race among the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens.