Kirk Cousins' contract talks among items to watch in NFL's lull

The Shadowy League Figures have done an excellent job extending the NFL calendar, but one desolate time of year remains. Even Bill Belichick needs days off.

The end of mandatory minicamps on Thursday signaled the start of football's downtime, a six-week stretch which concludes when teams begin training camp in late July. Still, not all will be quiet while team facilities gather dust and Belichick boats around Nantucket. Here are five things for fans to watch for during the NFL's dead period:

1) Eric Decker and other free agent signings

There are still plenty of name-brand players available in free agency, including Decker. The former Jets receiver met with the Titans this week and could be a quality No. 2 receiver for any team that picks him up. Former Jets center Nick Mangold could help a team like the Ravens. I still believe Colin Kaepernick is too talented not to be on a roster by the middle of August and perhaps, a move will happen before then.

Dwight Freeney, Jared Odrick, Erik Walden are three defenders who are still too productive to not find work. Big names like Darrelle Revis, Anquan Boldin and Vincent Jackson could consider retirement if they can't find work.

2) Kirk Cousins and Le'Veon Bell's franchise tag deadline

The Redskins and Steelers have until July 15 to work out long-term deals with their star players or both will have no choice but to play under one-year franchise tag tenders in 2017. (Unless they chose to not play at all, which isn't happening.)

A new contract for either player doesn't sound likely, although Bell is the bigger long-shot. Coming up with the right figure for Bell will be challenging. He's coming off groin surgery, another injury career marked with durability issues. Bell's history of suspensions and the high price of his franchise tag ($12.1 million) makes a one-year contract more logical than it would for most players who defy the space-time continuum.

The tone surrounding Cousins' contract talks has grown more civilized, perhaps the clearest sign yet that Cousins is the man to unite a divided national's capital. Cousins knows he doesn't need a deal anyhow. He's set to earn nearly $24 million in 2017 and has admirers up and down the West Coast ( 49ers' Kyle Shanahan and the Rams' Sean McVay), poised to pay him if necessary next year.

3) Suspension decisions

NFL coaches fear the weeks surrounding the Fourth of July. A few arrests are inevitable in a league with thousands of employees and some of them could lead to missed work in the fall.

The league could also announce discipline for a few hanging legal situations. In Dallas, starting defensive lineman David Irving has been "facing" a four-game suspension for PEDs since May. Irving is appealing the suspension. Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott has been involved in a lengthy NFL investigation related to domestic violence accusations, which still haven't been resolved.

The Vikings signed wide receiver Michael Floyd knowing that he would be under house arrest until June 17 and that he was facing an NFL suspension. The league still hasn't announced any discipline for Floyd stemming from a DUI conviction last year. These cases could be resolved in the coming weeks and the league is always good for a few pre-camp suspension surprises.

4) Cameron Newton and Andrew Luck shoulder updates

The No. 1 overall picks of the 2011 and 2012 NFL Drafts are both recovering from shoulder surgeries, although not all surgeries are created equally. Despite going under the knife more than two months after Luck, Newton is expected to begin throwing in June. Luck is highly uncertain to be ready for training camp and it remains unclear when he'll be able to throw at all. It's tough to get injury updates during this time of year, but Luck and Newton could be the exception because of their high profiles. Their respective recoveries are among the biggest hanging questions in football entering training camp.

5) New contracts for big-name veterans

Becoming the highest paid player in the NFL comes down to timing. Derek Carr has established himself as a top-10 quarterback and is vastly underpaid, so it should be his turn at the plate soon. Carr is pushing for a new contract before training camp and it's possible that he could top $25 million-per-year, just north of Andrew Luck's last deal. The "highest-paid quarterback" tag never lasts for long anyhow. Eventually Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan will pass Carr and someone will pen a column asking, "Is quarterback X worth it?" when starting quarterbacks are the most underpaid athletes in pro sports. Carr would probably get more than $50 million per year if there was no salary cap. The same is true for Matthew Stafford, who is also in line for a new deal. Stafford's agent might wait closer to the season for a contract to allow Carr to set the mark first.

While Carr has a chance to become the league's highest-paid quarterback, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald could pass J.J. Watt as the highest-paid defender before camp starts. Like Carr, a new contract for Donald is as inevitable as this quiet time in the NFL is going by way too fast.

UPDATE: The Raiders and Derek Carr finalized a five-year, $125 million contract extension on June 22.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.