Deflategate nearly suffocated any other news from the NFL over the last year and a half, producing as much irritation and short-temperedness as the summer heat waves that make the training camps starting this week such grueling affairs. If there is any good news, it is that there is finally, as the second season since those fateful footballs were in play begins, closure to Deflategate for everybody whose top concern is not collective bargaining agreements and the deference given to arbitrators.
Tom Brady will serve his four-game suspension when the regular season begins, and whether the NFL Players Association chooses to try to take his case to the Supreme Court is, for now, beside the point. The Patriots begin training camp knowing when they won't have their starting quarterback, knowing that they will have to get Jimmy Garoppolo ready and knowing that this whole saga is finally drawing to a close, although there could still be far-reaching ramifications this season. Here's just one from the margins: How do you think the Cleveland Browns feel about drawing the Week 5 matchup against New England -- for Brady's return?
The development of Garoppolo, who will be entrusted with keeping the first month of the Patriots' season on track for another playoff run, will be a dominant storyline, because how he fares could shape the look of the AFC East and perhaps who gets home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Not incidentally, it will also affect the interest level in him from other teams seeking a starting quarterback after this season. The Patriots' veterans report on Wednesday and begin practice on Thursday, and there will be plenty of scrutiny about how snaps are split between Brady and Garoppolo and at what point in the preseason the Patriots fully turn to Garoppolo as the starter.
But as all NFL teams regather for camps, the talk is finally about football and not footballs. There are seven new head coaches. There is -- really! -- a team in Los Angeles. These are the dying days of Deflategate, and here are 10 other stories that will challenge it for the headlines this summer:
1) Of all the offseason injuries and suspensions that will affect teams, J.J. Watt's back surgery is the most worrisome. The Houston Texans are hopeful Watt will be back for the season opener -- he has never missed a game in his five NFL seasons -- but back injuries often nag and linger, and there is almost no way he will be 100 percent when he returns. The Texans will have to spend training camp preparing for the worst -- if Watt can't go in September. The trickle-down effect on a team (with regard to the play of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, among others) that relies so heavily on defense for its hopes to repeat as AFC South champions bears watching.
2) It seems as if this is really happening: Mark Sanchez is going to replace Peyton Manning for the Denver Broncos in their NFL title defense. Unless Trevor Siemian or rookie Paxton Lynch is. Gary Kubiak is a quarterback whisperer, and he has not yet given Sanchez the starting nod going into camp. The Broncos can certainly win with defense. But how this goes will be a referendum on how John Elway managed the Brock Osweiler contract offer and the ensuing search for Denver's next starter.
3) Speaking of Sanchez ... Jets fans probably didn't think it could get more nerve-wracking than the way the Sanchez era ended in New York. Buckle up. With Ryan Fitzpatrickghosting Brandon Marshall and contract talks at a standstill, the unthinkable is now eminently possible: Geno Smith could be the Jets' starter once again. Listen closely for the comments of veterans if this drags on.
4) The Eaglestraded Sanchez away in March, but their crowded quarterback room -- and how rookie coach Doug Pederson manages it -- will dictate how Philadelphia does this year. Sam Bradford is the starter -- for now -- but whether backup Chase Daniel or second overall pick Carson Wentz press him at some point in the year will provide the drama and might determine how competitive the Eagles are in the wide-open NFC East.
5) The Eagles let Chip Kelly remake their roster and then fired him. He won't have as much personnel control in San Francisco, and he won't have as good a roster as the one he inherited when he arrived in Philly. Let's see what he does with Blaine Gabbert and/or Colin Kaepernick, and let's see if Kelly's second act lives up to the expectations that accompanied him as he jumped from Oregon to the NFL.
6) The reboot of the Cleveland Browns has been sweeping, and much attention will eventually be focused on how their analytics-intensive front office fares in personnel evaluation. But in the short term, the fate of this iteration of the Browns rests squarely on Robert Griffin III's shoulders, as he tries to rebuild his own career and hold off Josh McCown and Cody Kessler for the starting quarterback job. The early evaluation of him from offseason work was middling. These are critical weeks for the future prospects of both Griffin and the Browns.
7) A reminder that the Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs and had one of the league's most explosive offenses last season despite losing Ben Roethlisberger and Le'Veon Bell for a combined 15 starts. But losing Bell to a four-game suspension and receiver Martavis Bryantfor a year-long suspension stings at a time when the Steelers would otherwise be a favorite for AFC supremacy. The goal for this training camp should be simple: keep everybody healthy and on the field and get Antonio Brown and DeAngelo Williams ready for big seasons.
8) Relocation still looms over some teams. There is a lot to watch with the Los Angeles Rams this season, beginning with how they will handle their peripatetic existence as their permanent practice facility and stadium are built. In case you forgot, they also have the first overall pick, Jared Goff, set to become the face of the NFL's long-awaited return to Los Angeles, although he is not yet the Rams' starter. Training camp and preseason games will give us an early look at how Goff will do and how much excitement the Rams can generate in their new home. And how will the San Diego Chargers, coming off a four-win season, survive the constant questions as their own future home still hangs in the balance?
9) Preseason games could see lots of experimenting on kickoffs, as the league's new rule to put the ball at the 25-yard line following touchbacks on kickoffs -- to discourage kickoff returns -- goes into effect. Last season, just 41.1 percent of kickoffs were returned, but the league wants fewer still. When the rule was first passed in the spring, some coaches and players speculated that teams might try for a short kickoff to force a return that would result in the opponent being pinned deep in its own territory. Know this about the one-year experiment: Giants owner John Mara, a Competition Committee member, said if the league could figure out what to do with the onside kick in end-of-game situations, the kickoff would likely be on its way out entirely.
10) Remember the Al Jazeera report suggesting PED use by some players, including James Harrison, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers? The league wants to interview those players during training camp as part of its investigation. (The league "found no credible evidence" that Peyton Manning used HGH or anything else.) Meanwhile, the NFLPA is resisting making players available for in-person interviews because the report is notably shaky. More sparring between league and union is likely to ensue before this is settled.