The 10-week NFL offseason training period has concluded, giving way to six weeks of summer vacation for league personnel (except for Patriots writers, apparently).
In that light, here is a look back at the top 10 story lines to emerge from minicamps and organized team activities:
1. Mark Sanchez is still the top dog with the Jets — for now.
The writing is obviously on the wall that Sanchez’s time in New York is short. The Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round, and signed David Garrard this spring before he was forced to retire because of a knee injury. And anyone who watched Sanchez last season, when he posted an atrocious passer rating of 66.9, knows his confidence is rattled and he’s probably not going to make it in New York.
But don’t kick Sanchez to the curb just yet. While he rotated with Smith this spring with the first-team offense, Sanchez still is the Jets’ most polished quarterback and likely gives them the best chance to win in 2013 — an important distinction for coach Rex Ryan, whose seat is getting increasingly hot.
“I think Mark is a fantastic quarterback for us, and I think he can do some good things,” center Nick Mangold said last week. “He showed some good flashes in the spring, getting [the new] system down and commanding the offense.”
2. Who will catch passes in New England?
Wes Welker is in Denver. Rob Gronkowski can barely get off the couch following back surgery and might miss the first part of the season. Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch were kicked to the curb. Julian Edelman has missed the offseason with a foot injury. Danny Woodhead bolted for San Diego. And Aaron Hernandez is embroiled in a murder case that could keep him off the field for a long time.
That’s 375 catches, 4,364 yards, and 32 touchdowns from last year currently unavailable to the Patriots.
On top of that, rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce missed minicamp with injuries. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will have to spin some incredible magic to get the Patriots’ offense up to speed early in the season.
3. Top draft picks switching sides.
For the first time in NFL history, left tackles were the first two picks in the draft when Kansas City chose Eric Fisher and Jacksonville took Luke Joeckel. Philadelphia then took another left tackle, Lane Johnson, fourth overall. The lesson, elite left tackles are still important, and hard to find.
Yet as they begin their pro careers, all three have switched to right tackle this offseason. The Chiefs have Branden Albert at left tackle, the Jaguars have Eugene Monroe and the Eagles have Jason Peters.
Seems curious for the teams to make their top picks learn a new position. Then again, it worked for the Ravens and Jonathan Ogden, who switched to left tackle in his second season and is now entering the Hall of Fame.
4. Does anyone want to catch Eli Manning’s passes?
The Patriots aren’t the only contender with receiver problems. Victor Cruz held out all offseason as he sought a long-term contract extension from the Giants that still hasn’t come. And Hakeem Nicks stayed away from OTAs, though he claimed it wasn’t because he was unhappy with his contract, which expires at the end of this season.
Cruz ultimately signed his one-year tender worth $2.879 million before the Giants had the ability to pull the offer back and replace it with a minimum salary. And Nicks showed up to mandatory minicamp to avoid up to $60,000 in fines.
But the Giants’ stars are clearly unhappy, and this situation could turn toxic if the Giants get off to a bad start.
5. The Dolphins are talking tough.
A free agent spending spree worth $98 million guaranteed has brought a little bravado and maybe even a sense of cockiness to South Florida.
It’s one thing for Brian Hartline to say the Dolphins now have the best receiving corps in the AFC East (though the Bills look pretty nasty on paper), or for Mike Pouncey to say that the team expects to be “great” this year.
But the team’s Twitter account has been using the hashtag “ItsOurTime” all offseason. Pretty strong sentiment for a team that has had one playoff appearance since 2001.
6. First-round picks slow to sign.
The new collective bargaining agreement was designed to end rookie holdouts, and has players signing their first contracts at a record pace — as of Friday, all but 32 of the 254 drafted players.
But 23 of those 32 players are first-round picks, who for the second straight year are squabbling over “offset money” — the teams want contracts to have a clause that prevents a player from double-dipping on salary in case they are cut and sign with another team within the next four years.
7. Total secrecy in Philadelphia.
How will Chip Kelly adapt his jail-break offense for the NFL? Will he implement the read-option attack or transition to a more conventional passing offense? Who will be his starting quarterback — Michael Vick, Nick Foles or Matt Barkley? Will Kelly fully transition to a 3-4 defense, or stick with the Wide 9 alignment the Eagles made famous? And how tough will he be on players who get arrested, as Peters did last week for drag racing and resisting arrest?
Kelly has provided few answers, but being secretive has been his M.O. He refused to announce any coaching hires this offseason until the entire staff was finalized.
8. Renewed hope in the desert.
The Cardinals have had three pretty lean years since Kurt Warner retired, compiling an 18-30 record with Derek Anderson and Kevin Kolb leading the offense.
But both have been discarded, Carson Palmer is the new man in charge, and there’s a renewed sense of optimism in Phoenix. “We’re very, very close now,” coach Bruce Arians said this spring, and no one may be happier to see Palmer in Cardinal red than Larry Fitzgerald, who had just 71 catches for 798 yards and four touchdowns last season.
New NFL analyst LaDainian Tomlinson said last week that Palmer and Fitzgerald are now the best quarterback-receiver duo in the NFL. And Palmer and Fitzgerald will spend most of the next six weeks working out together, both in Southern California and Fitzgerald’s hometown of Minneapolis.
9. Last chance for young quarterbacks.
Christian Ponder, Jake Locker, Josh Freeman, and Blaine Gabbert are still the starters for the Vikings, Titans, Buccaneers, and Jaguars — for now at least. None of the four former first-round picks has experienced much success in the pros, and time is running out for them to prove their worth.
And each quarterback has stiff competition breathing down his neck — Matt Cassel in Minnesota, rookie Mike Glennon in Tampa, Chad Henne in Jacksonville, and Ryan Fitzpatrick in Tennessee. Don’t be shocked if one of the four young quarterbacks isn’t starting in Week 1.
10. Contenders keep quiet.
Heard much about the 49ers lately? What have the Ravens been up to since winning the Super Bowl? What about the Falcons, Seahawks, Broncos, and Texans?
The top contenders have been mostly quiet and distraction-free over the past three months. Belichick and Robert Kraft have had more distractions than all of those teams combined.
Patriots’ options appear to be limited
So, with Rob Gronkowski on the shelf for most of training camp and perhaps up to six games of the regular season, and Aaron Hernandez’s status up in the air, who can play tight end for the Patriots this season?
The options are short on experience (and talent):
■ Daniel Fells (6 feet 4 inches, 265 pounds): Eight-year journeyman played in 24 percent of snaps last year, finishing with four catches for 85 yards.
■ Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 263): Fourth-year pro caught five passes for 109 yards last year, played about 25 percent of snaps, and was mostly used as a blocker.
■ Jake Ballard (6-6, 275): Former Giants folk hero hasn’t played since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the Super Bowl in February 2012. Had 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 2011, his only full season, but looked stiff during OTAs and is not nearly as athletic as Gronkowski or Hernandez.
■ Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 255): Undrafted rookie from Nevada is a terrific athlete who excels in both receiving and blocking, but has an extensive injury history and only stayed healthy for one of six seasons in college.
■ Brandon Ford (6-3, 240): Undrafted rookie from Clemson was a starter for one season, catching 40 passes for 480 yards and eight touchdowns for the Tigers in 2012.
Available in free agency: Kevin Boss, Chris Cooley, Dallas Clark, Travis Beckum, Will Heller, Randy McMichael, Leonard Pope.
Rams could make a moving argument
The Jaguars are usually the first team mentioned when people talk about moving a team to Los Angeles (or London). But perhaps it’s time to jump off that train and start focusing on the Rams, who have a tenuous stadium deal in St. Louis and, conveniently, a built-in fan base in Los Angeles from when the team played there from 1946-94.
The Rams have a 30-year lease deal with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission to play at the Edward Jones Dome, but might be able to opt out after 2014. The lease reverts to a year-to-year deal if the stadium is not deemed to be among the top 25 percent of NFL stadiums (it’s one of the most outdated stadiums in the league).
The CVC had proposed $124 million in renovations, but an arbitrator recently ruled in favor of the Rams’ more comprehensive proposal, which could cost upward of $700 million. If the CVC balks at that price, don’t be shocked if the Rams look to move after 2014.
If this NFL thing doesn’t work out for Tim Tebow, maybe he can fall back on a baseball career.
Turns out that Tebow, a sidearming pitcher at Nease High outside Jacksonville, was almost drafted by the Angels in the summer of 2006.
“We wanted to draft him,” Tom Kotchman, a Florida scout for the Red Sox who then worked for the Angels, told WEEI last week. “But he never sent back his information card. Who knows if it got to him, and if it did we just never got it back. Otherwise, we were going to take him.”
Tebow’s baseball prowess isn’t exactly a revelation. In 2010, he added another chapter to his legend by hitting 12 home runs in 15 pitches at a high school baseball field in Memphis while he was training at the school for the NFL draft.
Putting on a show
Now playing at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas: Terry Bradshaw?
Yes, the wisecracking quarterback and “Fox NFL Sunday” analyst has his own one-man Vegas show: “Terry Bradshaw: America’s Favorite Dumb Blonde . . . A Life in Four Quarters” in which he shares stories about growing up in Louisiana, his four Super Bowl rings, three marriages, his days as a toupee model and failed cattle rancher, and anecdotes from his time as a broadcaster and actor. He’s also joined on stage by his singer/dancers, appropriately named “The I-Qties.”
He’s currently booked for just two shows — this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. — and tickets range from $49.99 to $69.99, plus tax.
Slip, slidin’ away
From the “NFL players are really just big kids” file: To reward players for a long offseason of hard work, many teams, such as the Patriots, canceled practice on the final day of minicamp and let the players get a headstart on summer vacation.
The Dolphins, though, took it to the next level. Coach Joe Philbin surprised his players by taking them to a nearby water park last week, where they had a little fun and tossed their coach into a pool.
“The players have always been on me about going to a water park and blah, blah, blah,’’ Philbin told USA Today. “We kept it a pretty good secret. I didn’t think they were expecting it.”
The Bills are hosting a little whine and cheese party this offseason, with the team’s official website writing an article last week complaining that the Bills will face five teams coming off extra rest in 2013 — either a bye or a 10-day rest. In addition, the website said the Bills’ bye has been “compromised” because the Falcons will also have 10 days of rest when they face the Bills.
Not a good look for the Bills to already be whining about the schedule before new coach Doug Marrone holds his first training camp.
The Patriots, meanwhile, don’t face any opponents coming off extra rest in 2013.
Caught by surprise
The Redskins surprised many people around the NFL last year when they used their second draft pick — a fourth-rounder — on quarterback Kirk Cousins after already trading the farm for Robert Griffin III.
Apparently Cousins was pretty surprised. He has a new book coming out this week — “Game Changer: Faith, Football & Finding Your Way” — and reveals interesting details about his draft-day conversation with Mike Shanahan.
From the book, via the Washington Post:
“Kirk, this is Mike Shanahan of the Washington Redskins. We will be selecting in two picks and we’re going to draft you.
“My response was something like: ‘Really? Are you sure you want to do that?’ After four months of intensely working toward this moment, it was not the response I was expecting of myself.”
Words to live by
Remember what your mother always said: “Nothing good happens after midnight?” As Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski proved over the last week, the saying absolutely applies to the NFL: Nothing good happens in June.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.