The biggest change in NFL coverage over the last decade has nothing to do with the games. Football has turned into a year-round sport because of the increased attention on the silly season: scouting combine, free agency, draft and OTAs/minicamps.
There were always daily newspaper articles during the offseason. But after I read those every morning, the news was usually over for the day. That has changed dramatically since everyone realized there was great interest (and money) at stake in keeping fans informed all day, every day. Even in May.
That changes over the next month. The NFL is not a quiet 12-month-a-year sport because of the next four weeks. NFL Network won't go dark before training camp, but we have officially started our one truly quiet time of the year. (Fingers crossed.) Coaches will re-introduce themselves to their children, and writers will take vacations before it's too late. In the meantime, there are still some hanging stories that deserve monitoring.
Here are seven things to keep an eye on over this next month before training camp starts:
1. Potential suspensions for big names
There are always a few potential suspensions this time of year, but it's rare that there are so many impact players facing uncertain futures. Let's break it down:
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens: Just two years removed from a big contract extension, Rice faces big questions on and off the field. Rice and his wife met with Commissioner Roger Goodell last week after Rice's assault arrest from February. Rice is coming off a season during which he looked much older than his 27 years. A suspension could arrive any day; Bernard Pierce is likely to start at running back while Rice is out.
Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns: We first learned during the NFL draft that Gordon is facing a potential lengthy suspension. Gordon was suspended two games and fined four game checks by the NFL for violating the league's substance-abuse policy last year.
We've heard dramatically varying estimates on how long Gordon could be suspended. The process has clearly not moved along quickly. The length of Gordon's suspension will re-shape the Browns' season, and they could get their answer before training camp.
Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers: The pass rusher will be sentenced on July 25 in Santa Clara County Superior Court after pleading no contest last month to felony weapons charges, in addition to a drunk driving charge. It's unlikely that Smith will hear from the NFL on a suspension before then, and it's possible he could face jail time. It would be a big surprise if Smith was not suspended for a big chunk of the 2014 season, if not the whole thing.
2. Jim Irsay's potential suspension
The Indianapolis Colts owner was charged with two misdemeanors in connection with a March traffic stop that led to his arrest on suspicion of intoxicated driving. Irsay has a pre-trial hearing on July 28 and is facing an Aug. 28 trial date. It's unclear if the league will wait for the legal process to finish before handing down any suspension.
The NFL said in May that they are "reviewing the matter and will take appropriate action in accordance with the (NFL's Personal Conduct Policy)."
3. Jermichael Finley seeks clearance
The longtime Green Bay Packers tight end is the most intriguing name available on the free-agent market. But he hasn't been able to get clearance from any NFL team despite some positive reports from an independent doctor.
The Packers sound open to bringing Finley back, but this is a medical decision. Finley could either retire or become a huge X-factor in the 2014 playoff race.
4. Alex Smith, Andy Dalton seek new contracts
Smith's hanging contract situation is one of the reasons that the Chiefs cut Brandon Flowers last week. (Flowers signed with San Diego on Tuesday.) The Chiefs need extra salary-cap space to extend veterans like Smith who they value more. Smith and Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton are in similar situations as mid-tier starting quarterbacks. They must balance their desire to max out their contracts with the uncertainty of playing out their contract year without a new deal.
The agents for both players should be motivated to get a max deal done. You can make statistical arguments for Smith and Dalton that they deserve something close to Jay Cutler's contract ($18 million per year), but they don't inspire the same league-wide respect. (And they should totally ignore whatever kind of money Cam Newton signs for if he gets a new deal this offseason.)
Based on NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport's reporting and public comments by team officials, it sounds like Dalton is closer to a contract than Smith. Both quarterbacks should realize that they are in ideal situations, supported by quality teams that believe in them. We don't think Dalton or Smith would approach $18 million per season on the open market; their shortcomings would cost them money.
Andy Reid's system in Kansas City is perfect for Smith. Dalton is supported by a great defense and A.J. Green. If both players "bet on themselves" by playing out this year, they could find their market value dip dramatically by next offseason.
5. Resolving potential holdouts
Smith isn't the only contract that the Chiefs have to worry about. Outside linebacker Justin Houston skipped mandatory minicamp this month, looking for a new deal. He's among the most likely veterans to get a new contract before training camp. Vernon Davis and Alex Boone of the San Francisco 49ers are also seeking new deals; we give Boone a better shot of securing more money.
Marshawn Lynch potentially could get a bump in pay, but he doesn't look like a threat to skip training camp. The Dallas Cowboys would love for Kyle Orton to show up for work, but it sounds like the backup quarterback is leaning toward retirement.
Star Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson is the toughest holdout to consider. He's getting paid plenty, but isn't happy with the direction of the team. He's been talking with new coach Bill O'Brien. Johnson truly has little recourse to affect change; his contract makes him almost untradeable. We'd expect Johnson to show up to training camp after potentially skipping some time, because what veterans truly like two-a-day practices?
6. Paying Jimmy Graham
An arbitrator should decide this week whether Jimmy Graham should be classified as a tight end or wide receiver under the franchise tag. That decision will provide leverage for the winning side, but we don't expect Graham to play under a one-year contract either way. Look for the Saints and Graham's agent to come to a long-term contract, and that deal probably will pay him closer to wideout money.
It would be a small upset if they completed a deal before training camp, but not a huge shock.
7. Surprise surgeries
Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey underwent hip surgery on Monday, a procedure that could keep him out for much of the regular season. We also learned about surgery for Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno the same day.
Players never want to go under the knife, but June and July surgeries are particularly troublesome. They are usually for injuries either suffered in non-contact practice or for injuries that teams hoped would heal naturally. A few pop up every year.
Perhaps the next month won't be so quiet after all.