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Debrief: What matters -- and what doesn't -- during OTA season

The league's reigning MVP and the Patriots' next-most dominant player in team history have yet to attend organized team activities -- and it's not that big of a story. Consider this progress.

The combined absences of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski from Patriots OTAs will be duly reported, because reporting on the NFL is a 12-months-a-year job, but there is not the same fervor that might have accompanied the story if it had occurred five years ago. No one believes the game that is covered on Sundays in the fall -- the one that counts -- will be truly impacted.

As Phase 3 of OTAs kicks off in earnest this week with on-field, non-padded practices, every NFL reporter faces a daily existential question: Do the stories from this time of year matter in the long run? The answer depends on what type of story it is.

What doesn't matter

Veterans skipping work: This is a tricky category this year, because of Brady's involvement and the sheer star power of the players not expected on the field this week. The list looks like the beginning of a 2010s All-Decade Team: Brady, Gronkowski, Le'Veon Bell, Julio Jones, Aaron Donald and Earl Thomas.

The Brady story has layers of intrigue going back through last season and provides some great copy, but I've yet to see the hot-take artist who has claimed it will directly impact Brady's performance in September and beyond. These are all proven veterans who have earned the right to choose how they prepare for the upcoming season.

They all know the real preparation -- the real football -- starts in late July, when training camp kicks off. They are Ph.D. recipients asked to study Football 101 in shorts and T-shirts during May and June. It can't hurt to bone up on the basics, and there is value to spending time with teammates, but there's no need to blow it out of proportion. This is the time of year when business is the first priority, and the players above are all using what little leverage they have to push their contractual hopes to the forefront. Trust the process.

Injury recovery timetables: There are some injury nuggets to glean from this time of year (more on that below), but most of what coaches say should be taken with a mountain of salt. Nearly every player is "ahead of schedule" and "expected to be ready for training camp." Coaches are under no obligation to provide injury information, so they don't usually provide anything meaningful. By the time half the players "expected to be ready" start camp on the PUP list, writers and coaches alike have spent three weeks on vacation and have forgotten all about the space-filling quotes that ran rampant during OTAs.

Any evaluation of performance: It's easy to spot the overzealous hot takes from OTAs, intended to score a link from ProFootballTalk. Just find the reporter who claims that some defensive lineman or running back has been flashing in non-padded practices and is zeroing in on a starting job.

No meaningful position battles will be won in May and June. I don't care what the order of reps were for Jets quarterbacks or how those evolve over the next three weeks. If a starter can be named by the end of minicamp, there was never really a battle.

Some of the feverish observations from this time of year come from a true love of football. When I wrote at Rotoworld, it took me a number of years to fully realize I placed too much emphasis on players who earned a few kudos before training camp. It happened partly because I wanted what I was covering daily to be meaningful, so I indulged in a self-justifying exercise with a dose of recency bias. History says, however, that this is not the time of year for evaluation, for risers and fallers, for falling in love with a 178-pound jitterbug that (surprise!) looks great running routes when there are no pads involved.

Bill Belichick stresses that this is the time of year for learning, and training camp is the time for competition. Grading players -- from the rookie quarterbacks on up -- on OTAs and minicamp performance is like scoring a student before they take their first test.

What matters

Suspensions and legal issues: There are a number of NFL players -- like Saints running back Mark Ingram, Chargers defensive tackle Corey Liuget and Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis -- who have already learned about their NFL-mandated suspensions to start the season. 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster, Jets receiver Robby Anderson and Packers running back Aaron Jones are among the players who are still waiting to find out their status for the 2018 season after various legal issues.

New infractions related to the league's policies on personal conduct, PEDs or substance abuse also will inevitably pop up this time of year.

Significant injury developments: The coachspeak at this point can mostly be ignored. But there are undeniably injury stories worth tracking for context throughout OTAs and minicamp.

It was in May last year where we began to learn how far behind Andrew Luck was in his recovery from shoulder surgery compared to Cam Newton. There are plenty of star players other than Luck to keep an eye on over the next month, even if the true test of their status will come closer to when the preseason starts.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that Ryan Tannehill is all systems go for OTAs after tearing his ACL last August. That puts him ahead of players -- like Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson and Dalvin Cook -- who suffered their torn ACLs during the regular season.

J.J. Watt, Julian Edelman, Odell Beckham and Richard Sherman are others to keep an eye on, but their progress is expected to be incremental. Any declarations short of "fully cleared for all football activities" don't say that much.

The bigger injury news, unfortunately, often comes from newly reported problems. Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker tore his ACL early in OTAs. Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collinsbroke his foot two weeks ago. Reports of Eagles defensive tackle Tim Jernigan's back surgery emerged after the draft. And on Tuesday, Eagles linebacker Paul Worrilowwas carted off the field following an in-practice collision that led to a leg injury, with Rapoport reporting later that Worrilow will miss the 2018 season with a torn ACL. Getting through this time of year healthy is the first goal of shorts and T-shirt practice season, because coaches know the real football hasn't even started yet.

Contracts and trade talks: Ingram is the rare player who fits into three categories discussed in this article, as he's dealing with a suspension and a potential desired new contract while being an outside candidate for a trade. After an offseason trade tsunami overtook the league in February and March, I'm keeping an eye on reports from Rapoport and other NFL insiders about players who could possibly be dealt before the season. Earl Thomas is one star to monitor, especially if the Seahawks don't want to give him an extension.

Any contract that is finished before the league-wide break at the end of June will also save anxiety before training camp starts. It feels like it's only a matter of time before Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donaldbecomes the league's highest-paid defender, with Khalil Mackwaiting in the wings. There is a July 16 deadline for franchise players like Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner to get new contracts finished.

That deadline is nearly two months away, just before the 2018 season truly sets sail.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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