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Ten people, places, things that'll define '17 NFL season

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Less than a month before the start of the regular season, Al Riveron knows there is plenty to work on.

As of last Friday, a review of all preseason games up to that point had already been completed. There were the test runs of the league's adjusted centralized replay system. There was the approval of the hiring of 21-24 full-time officials, all of whom "should be in place early this season," the NFL's new head of officiating told me.

"We're looking for consistency," said Riveron, speaking from the league offices in New York City last week. "We're looking forward to expanding the avenues of communication through our 17 crews."

Given all that, I asked, does he feel comfortable, just a few months after taking over for former NFL officiating chief Dean Blandino, sitting in what Sports Illustrated recently called "the big chair?"

"Are you suggesting I need a bigger chair than Dean?" he said, laughing.

Riveron, who broke into the NFL in 2004 and became a crew chief in 2008, said that his officiating experience will ease the transition and perhaps give him an advantage.

"It's the ability to relate to the guys; to pull the guys in and say, 'What do you think?' I kiddingly say to the guys now, 'I'm the best official in the world,' because I sit here for hours a day and I watch film. I can do it from my seat," Riveron said. "However, I don't have that view at that speed that they do on the field. And I have to keep reminding myself of that."

He also reminds himself that perfection is fleeting. No referee has ever called a perfect game, but Riveron understands what it's like to be in a zone and how to communicate with those trying to find it.

"I eye 100 percent," Riveron said. "And if I don't keep my eye on that goal -- it's not a cliché. I eye 100. My goal is where I don't have to take a phone call from a coach and say, 'Let's talk about this one.'

"It's very difficult for me to sit here and say, 'We're at 100 percent,' and we still have some individuals who don't believe we're there. But our goal is 100 percent. No doubt about it. Are we going to achieve it? Wow. I hope we do. One hundred percent is a lofty goal, but that is what we have to shoot for."

Riveron and his crew will certainly play a major role in professional football this year. Relaxed celebration rules, a continued push to remain vigilant on player safety and, for Riveron, the responsibility of explaining it all to the masses will all be common topics of conversation throughout the NFL universe.

But they won't be the only people driving the story of the season. Every NFL campaign takes on its own identity. There are various people, places and things that will help define 2017 on its own. In an effort to get ahead of the curve, NFL.com is projecting 10 such people, places or things to track in the year ahead. Riveron and Co. are one -- nine more are listed below:

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The temporary home of the Los Angeles Chargers, located in Carson, California, will provide a fascinating look at the country's most popular sport in a micro-stadium environment. Before the Chargers fell significantly behind in their preseason opener, early indications were that Bolts home games could take on the feel of crowded Major League Soccer matchups -- which, as those who have been to one know, can become a raucous environment advantageous to the home team.

"I've talked to coaches around the league that knew of this stadium, and they said, 'Gus, it's unique and it's cool,' " Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told ThePostGame in February. "I mean, it's intimate and it's close. It's pretty good. And these are guys who have no ties to the Chargers."

It could provide an interesting window into the future of stadiums in various mid-level markets. The Chargers drew more than 21,000 for their preseason opener and sold out of season tickets back on March 27.

Aaron Donald

Donald, alongside Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack, is in line to become the face of NFL defensive play over the next decade. The 26-year-old Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman is also taking measures to become the face of players who significantly outplay their rookie contracts, which have been fixed in the past few years according to a scale set by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

Donald technically has two years remaining on the rookie deal he signed in 2014 ($1.8 million for 2017 and a much higher club-option number in 2018, though neither figure is consistent with a star interior pass rusher who has logged 28 sacks in just three seasons so far). But he has yet to report to the team as he pushes for a new contract.

"We're hoping that we can figure this out, because Aaron's a very important part of what we want to do," new Rams head coach Sean McVay told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week.

There is already a "huge, huge deal, one that many players would take," on the table for Donald, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, but apparently it's not enticing enough for Donald to return. Should Donald succeed, it could open the door for rookies who feel trapped by their current inability to negotiate much of anything in their first contract, save for money distribution and offset language. Of course, Donald's play also set the bar quite high when it comes to staging such a protest.

Odell Beckham Jr.

If Donald is poised to become the next face of defensive play in the NFL, Beckham is poised to become the next face of the entire league. Beckham's performance-art practices have become as much a spectacle as the games themselves. Watching what he did to seasoned cornerback Janoris Jenkins was like watching Thierry Henry waltz into a game of street fútbol in France during his prime.

Beckham is charismatic, bold, stylish and, perhaps most importantly, wonderful with the game's budding foundation of fans under 18.

Beckham, like Donald, flirted with the idea of challenging the contractual status quo this offseason. While he did show up for mandatory minicamp, he also said that he wants to become the highest-paid player in football. This would require an investment at the receiver position of roughly $10 million above what the Steelers are currently paying Antonio Brown ($17 million).

The common-sense brigade has already lined up to shoot this down, but it begs the question: Who has had more star power than Beckham in the last decade? What is that worth to an NFL owner looking to make a splash?

The sit-and-wait-for-QBs philosophy

After a week of preseason play, it's clear that the Bears, Texans, Chiefs and Browns all have very talented rookie quarterbacks on their roster. All four teams also seem intent on sitting those quarterbacks for at least a few weeks -- or even a few years.

This is the largest intended test run of the Aaron Rodgers-Brett Favre transitional model, in which Rodgers waited behind Favre for three years before taking the reins in Green Bay. The Chiefs could theoretically sit first-round pick Patrick Mahomes for more than one year, planning his takeover for the expiration of Alex Smith's contract at the end of 2018.

When a plan works in the NFL, it is studied, picked apart and, ultimately, copied. The Jets tried completely redshirting 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg and delaying his debut until 2017. The Texans are holding firm that Tom Savage -- not first-rounder Deshaun Watson -- will be the starter, while the Bears continue to roll with Mike Glennon over No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky.

Like always, ownership and fan pressure often derail the best-laid plans, and these quarterbacks end up coming in far earlier than anticipated. Will that happen on the potentially playoff-bound Chiefs or Texans teams? Can the Browns resist the temptation to start second-rounder DeShone Kizer early? What about Trubisky, who exploded out of the gate in his preseason debut with an 18-of-25 performance against the Broncos for 166 yards and a score?

Perfection

This is the best New England Patriots team since the 2007 unit, which came within one helmet catch of a perfect 19-0 season. Bill Belichick's roster is so deep in certain places (running back, receiver, linebacker, cornerback) that cut players could end up being scooped on roster-trim day and plugged into other teams' lineups for opening week.

While the Belichickian scholars on Twitter roll their eyes at the talk of perfection -- mostly following Belichick's lead -- it is a legitimate talking point. Consider the Pats' six AFC East games ... The Jets and Bills are both in a rebuild. The Dolphins lost their starting quarterback to an ACL injury and will be gambling on the 34-year-old sometimes-effective Jay Cutler.

Earlier this offseason, I tried to make a list of teams that I feel, on any Sunday, have a legitimate chance of beating New England -- and I struggled to come up with six.

Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson

Johnson was rooting for Bell to get paid this summer. Bell, who has yet to report to the Steelers after he and the team failed to agree on a new deal before the deadline to do so for franchise-tagged players, told NFL Network's Ike Taylor this offseason that he wanted to be paid for exactly what he was: The league's best running back and a No. 2 wide receiver. This would elevate Bell into the $16 million per season category -- a little less outrageous, relative to the norm, than Beckham saying he'd like to be the league's highest-paid player, period.

But ... Johnson and Bell represent the next wave of NFL running backs: rushers who are just as much a part of the passing game as they are between-the-tackles pile pushers. The Panthers spent a top-10 pick on Christian McCaffrey to create a similar vibe. Bell cannot succeed in his contract goals this year, since he is already past the negotiating deadline. In Arizona, though, Johnson and head coach Bruce Arians are talking about his approach toward a 1,000/1,000 season, which would put Johnson in a pretty enviable negotiating position heading into the lame-duck year of his contract in 2018.

At that point, the Cardinals could be losing quarterback Carson Palmer and top wideout Larry Fitzgerald to retirement. Johnson could be their entire offense and would presumably -- and rightfully -- not take the field until getting paid like it. Changing the salary dynamics for running backs has been tricky for years, but these two represent their best, and maybe last, hope for a long time.

The right to protest

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins will continue to raise his fist above his head during the national anthem. Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett will take a seat. Both are operating in the space normally headlined by Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who became the face of sports activism last year by taking a knee during the national anthem but has yet to find a roster spot for 2017 -- and they surely won't be alone.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has already recognized their right to do so, but as the world saw during last year's season, Kaepernick and other players willing to put themselves out there to highlight injustice were not always received well. Giants owner John Mara told The MMQB that he never received more fan mail than on the subject of Kaepernick. Where will the player protests take us as a country this year?

The recent jarring and tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, which have already caused a number of players to speak out, could add an additional layer to an NFL population that already seems to be more socially conscious and active than ever.

Shoulders

Two of the league's best quarterbacks under 30, the Panthers' Cam Newton and the Colts' Andrew Luck, underwent surgery on their throwing shoulders this offseason. Luck is still on the physically unable to perform list but apparently should be off by the start of the regular season. Newton's throwing program has been sporadic to date.

While neither seems to be staring down significant long-term damage, it will be a constant point of evaluation this season. For the first few weeks, every interception, every slump and every underthrown pass will be bracketed with the reminder of offseason surgery. It will also have to be a significant point of concern for both team doctors moving forward. When quarterbacks like Newton or Luck are injured, it impacts everyone, from the receivers and offensive linemen to the coaching staff and executives. That's why both have been encased in bubble wrap so far this preseason.

U.S. Bank Stadium

The Vikings' 1-year-old stadium, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, will be the site of Super Bowl LII in 2018. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will be on the call for NBC. It will be the city's second Super Bowl, after the Redskins beat the Bills in 1992 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. A relatively seamless Super Bowl XLVIII in New York seemed to ease fears of a massive undertaking in a cold-weather city. Those representing Minneapolis' host committee will hope to produce something as memorable as New York's event.

It will be there, during that week, that all of these defining moments, themes and people will converge for one final game: a solitary moment in the football universe where nothing but the movement on the field matters.

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