This week is the beginning of the end of offseason programs in the NFL. Barring injuries -- and there have been some jarring ones already in OTAs -- jobs are rarely won or lost right now, because padless, no-contact practices are much more mental exercises than they are physical.
Still, this is the final football fix for about six weeks, and the last look we'll get at teams -- their strengths and deficiencies -- until things get serious again in late July. With most teams holding minicamps this week, a couple holding OTAs (the appreciable difference between the two is the longer hours teams can keep players in the building during minicamps) and a lucky few already released for summer, here are some storylines to watch this week:
1) The candidates for Evan Mathis' services
Blue-chip players just don't come loose this late in the offseason very often, so the Philadelphia Eagles' decision to cut ties with their Pro Bowl guard still qualifies as a surprise, even if his contract discontent and Chip Kelly's hopes of trading him were well known. Reaching the $5.5 million-per-year salary he was due to make in Philly might be a high hurdle for Mathis, because so many teams already have most of their rosters set and salary-cap space accounted for. But as a free agent, Mathis can survey the landscape for a team with the scheme and bankroll to suit him and hope a bidding war erupts for his services. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told WQAM radio in Miami that "at least a half a dozen" teams had already reached out to him about Mathis, and that he expects the guard to sign by the time training camps open.
It might take less time to list teams that couldn't use a top-flight guard, but let's instead point out the ones that might have the biggest holes Mathis could fill. His asking price might be too rich for some of these teams, but he'll have plenty of options:
» Seattle Seahawks: They've lost two starters off a less-than-stellar line, and solidifying that group could make Seattle the strong NFC favorite.
2) The defending Super Bowl champs' cornerbacks
There was a time when this seemed like the biggest issue the New England Patriots would face this offseason. That was before the Wells Report and Tom Brady's subsequent suspension. But Brady will be the starting quarterback whenever he's allowed to be on the field, although it will be interesting to see how many reps Matt Flynn gets this week after signing to be the third quarterback behind Jimmy Garoppolo. The Pats' secondary isn't quite as settled just yet.
Parting ways with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this offseason was a defense-changing sequence. But from the time they left to the time New England hosts the league's season opener in September, Bill Belichick will have had six months to figure out how to adjust. Considering that the Patriots are one of the game's great shape-shifters -- remember the few hours last season when Jonas Gray appeared to be the new centerpiece of the offense? -- that seems to be plenty of time. Malcolm Butler, who became a Super Bowl hero with his game-saving end-zone interception, could take on a much larger role than he did last season, now that he is out of Belichick's OTA doghouse and back to practice. Among the other corners are Logan Ryan, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain.
The intrigue will come when the regular season starts. Will the Patriots still play the kind of man-to-man coverage Revis and Browner enabled them to employ? Perhaps not. But for years before those two showed up, New England had plenty of success by mixing coverages depending on each week's opponent.
3) The holdouts
This is when things start to get interesting in contract standoffs, because other than missing training camps and real games -- and the checks that come with them -- this is one of the last moments when the players have some leverage. So you won't see Dez Bryant, Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Houston -- all of whom were slapped with the franchise tag this offseason -- practicing this week. But you will see Eric Weddle in San Diego. Why? Because Weddle is under contract and would be subject to fines if he didn't show up, even though he wants a new deal. The other three cannot be fined because they have not signed their franchise-tag tenders.
There are certainly other contract situations that bear watching going into the summer -- Russell Wilson, Mo Wilkerson and Philip Rivers are high on the list -- but because Bryant, Pierre-Paul and Houston were tagged, the clock is ticking loudly for their teams to reach long-term deals by July 15. If they don't, the players will face a difficult choice: play, unhappily because of the lack of long-term security, under the franchise tag, or sit out, probably even more unhappily, because they wouldn't get paid at all. Bryant has already made rumblings about considering the latter option. That ultimately seems unlikely for any of them. But what is said by the teams during these holdouts now -- consider that Giants coach Tom Coughlin said repeatedly that he expected Pierre-Paul at minicamp -- could tell us plenty about how negotiations will go this summer, if they go at all.
4) The rookie quarterbacks
They largely have been off the radar since the draft, which might be a good thing. But when training camps open, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota will be under the microscope as they prepare to open the season as their respective teams' starters. That was long expected for the Buccaneers' No. 1 overall pick, Winston, who came from a much more NFL-like system at Florida State. But Mariota, who was thought to face a steeper learning curve that would require at least some time on the bench, has been thrown into the fire by the Titans, who need not just his accuracy but his star power. Both have been getting rave reviews in OTAs for how quickly they are picking up their offenses, but these last few days on the field with their teammates are critical to their rapid development. We'll know much more when pads go on in training camp -- and when the quarterbacks have to take hits in preseason games -- but this is the moment to hope the early lessons in the mental part of quarterbacking are taking hold.
And then there's a second-year pro who might as well be a rookie: Johnny Manziel. The Cleveland Browns' offense is starting over again -- in John DeFilippo, they have their sixth offensive play-caller in six seasons -- and Manziel is backing up Josh McCown, the projected opening-day starter. So much turnover doesn't bode well for any offense, but Manziel will be under an inordinate amount of scrutiny, considering he spent part of the offseason in a residential rehab program. Coaches have said he is earning the right to compete for his job in training camp, and head man Mike Pettine plans to conduct minicamp as something of a "best hits" selection, without any new installation. That, in theory, should put Manziel, McCown and everybody else in the best position to succeed. And it might give us our first look at whether Manziel has made any progress from his disastrous debut season.