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Sunday, June 23, 2013
Break until camp is no vacation

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

After the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings finished their minicamps Thursday, NFL teams officially entered vacation mode.

Coaches, general managers and players have spread themselves throughout the country and overseas to get a month of rest before the start of training camps. But like for most businesses, not all the work is complete.

Here are 10 top items left undone on team's to-do lists.

1. New England's backup plan: The New England Patriots have to prepare a disaster plan for their passing offense. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is involved in a homicide investigation and reportedly is the expected to be arrested on a charge of obstruction of justice. Rob Gronkowski is recovering from four forearm operations and back surgery and could start the season on the physically unable to perform list. Gone are Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Deion Branch. Quarterback Tom Brady enters camp with his five top pass-catchers of 2012 gone or in question, representing 356 of last year's 401 receptions . As camp starts, Brady might have to develop a two-tight-end offense with Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and Jake Ballard as options. They have 60 starts among them. Danny Amendola is Welker's replacement and will have to be Brady's main receiver.

2. San Francisco's receiving situation: The San Francisco 49ers have to sort out their receiving corps. They concluded precamp preparations with questions about how to fill in until Michael Crabtree recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. In minicamp, Jim Harbaugh had Anquan Boldin playing out of position at flanker. To fix that, the 49ers are thinking about using tight end Vernon Davis as a wide receiver. Mario Manningham might have to start camp on the physically unable to perform list, so young receivers A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton have to develop quickly.

3. Determining if another receiver is needed: The Baltimore Ravens still have to decide if they need to add another wide receiver. The same can be said for the New York Jets, who might have Santonio Holmes on the physically unable to perform list because of his slow recovery from a bad Lisfranc injury. The Ravens traded their leading receiver, Boldin, pushing Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss into the top three receiver positions. Is that enough? General manager Ozzie Newsome has to decide that before camp. The Jets signed tight end Kellen Winslow at the end of their minicamp. Stephen Hill struggled with his hands at the minicamp. Former Jets Braylon Edwards and Chaz Schilens would have to be under consideration.

Michael Vick and Chip Kelly
Will Michael Vick be the Eagles' starting quarterback? Chip Kelly isn't ready to say yet.

4. Picking the Eagles' quarterback: Veteran Philadelphia Eagles players, including Michael Vick, would prefer it if Chip Kelly named his starting quarterback before the start of training camp. The Eagles' new head coach has kept everyone in suspense. He is installing one of the more anticipated offenses in recent years. He will be trying to run a fast-break offense that hopes to average 80 to 90 plays a game.

5. Giant decisions at wide receiver -- New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin entered vacation with good news. Victor Cruz signed his one-year tender so Cloughlin won't have to worry about a Cruz holdout. General manager Jerry Reese is left with the unsettling problem of figuring out long-term deals for Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, who is a free agent at the end of the season. Because he is an outside receiver, Nicks could command the $10 million-plus contract Cruz would like to receive. Because Cruz works out of the slot, it would difficult for Reese to go above $8 million a year to satisfy him.

6. Breaking the ice on Matt Ryan extension talks: Matty Ice is a free agent after the season, but everyone anticipates the Atlanta Falcons reaching a long-term deal with him before the start of training camp. The problem isn't the $20 million-a-year price tag. The difficulty is finding a deal that won't cause the Falcons to restructure after three or four years. Most people believe a deal will get done, though.

7. Finishing up the rookie contracts: After the Jacksonville Jaguars completed a four-year deal with tackle Luke Joeckel, only 34 draft choices remained unsigned. Included in that list were 22 first-rounders. The new slotted rookie pool has taken a lot of pressure off teams trying to get their deals done. Still, teams have to close the final deals.

8. Preventing veteran holdouts: All the restricted free agents have signed their deals, but two franchise players -- Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady and Bills safety Jairus Byrd -- don't have deals. Both sides have until the middle of July to complete long-term deals, but if that doesn't happen, Clady and Byrd could hold out of camp.

9. Converting to a 3-4 defense: The New Orleans Saints have to decide if their linebackers fit their conversion from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. They had a setback in June when linebacker Victor Butler blew out his ACL and was lost for the season. That happened to the San Diego Chargers when they lost linebacker Melvin Ingram for the season and ended up signing Dwight Freeney. Sean Payton has to sort out the Saints' linebacker position in camp.

10. More quarterback decisions -- Gus Bradley will carry the Jaguars' quarterback battle between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne into training camp. With the Buffalo Bills' release of Tarvaris Jackson, Kevin Kolb appears to have the edge in beating out rookie EJ Manuel, but nothing is officially decided. Mark Sanchez left minicamp with the lead for the New York Jets' quarterback job, but Rex Ryan hasn't named him the starter yet ahead of rookie Geno Smith.

From the inbox

Q: If the premise of bye weeks is for teams to rest and recover from injuries, why doesn't the NFL schedule its bye weeks later instead of starting in Week 4? I've always wondered this. Assuredly it's easier to schedule games earlier in the year rather than later when weather can make a difference in travel and game-play too, right? Yet 20 of 32 NFL teams won't be into the second half of their schedule this year until after their bye week. Isn't it a huge advantage for a contender like Seattle to get a chance to rest up in Week 12?

Tim in Chicago

A: Whenever bye weeks are scheduled, it limits the number of good games that are available to CBS and Fox, which have the Sunday afternoon packages. Baseball may not have the viewership draw of pro football, but it does have an impact on ratings. Week 4 is around the start of the baseball playoffs. The NFL doesn't mind having a few fewer games while the baseball playoffs are going on. But you are right, it is an advantage getting a later bye week, but I don't know if it is that much of an advantage. After baseball is over, though, the NFL wants to dominate the November and December numbers and not have bye weeks in the final six weeks.

Q: I actually think the Lions' additions of Jason Jones and Ezekiel Ansah will be better than Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril last year. I know that's a big statement for a raw rookie and a non-superstar in Jones. I heard reports of their long frames knocking down passes and disrupting Matthew Stafford. With Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, could this be a great D-line? Second, Darius Slay is getting great results; without his injury he could have gone much higher in the draft. Am I a little too enthusiastic about the Lions this year? Or should I have some reserve?

Shane in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A: No problem being optimistic, but I wouldn't go overboard. Ansah is raw and still learning, but he should be able to rush the quarterback. That will help. Jones is a good inside pass-rusher, but he was brought in to play end, which I don't think is his best position. Slay should be good. Just getting two rookies who have a chance of starting is a good thing. The running game should be better. I still have some worries about the offensive line, though. Still, this isn't a bad team. I don't know if I'd put the Lions at playoff level, but they've got to be around an eight- or nine-win team.

Q: Which of the big three rookie QBs from last season (Wilson, Luck, RG III) do you see having the best statistical sophomore season?

Joel in Indianapolis

A: I think Andrew Luck will have the best improvement in stats. Russell Wilson isn't going to throw many more than 26 to 28 passes a game. Robert Griffin III should be a little better with the stats, but he is still coming off a knee injury. Let's hope there aren't any setbacks. Luck is changing a lot of things. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is calling for more three-step drops and shorter, safer passes. Luck led the NFL with attempts longer than 10 yards and attempts longer than 20 yards in the air. He had a lot of low-percentage attempts, which put him at that 54 percent level. I can see Luck completing more than 60 percent of his passes.

Q: I have to disagree with your Raider summary. Yes, there has been lots of turnover. The draft class was better than most want to give credit for. D.J. Hayden, Sio Moore and Menelik Watson will all make an impact. Could Tyler Wilson be the one we've waited for? Also, I think Conner Vernon, the ACC kid, is going to be a Wes Welker type. Time will tell, but I'm sure we have some real playmakers.

Mel in Denver

A: I still don't see enough playmakers at wide receiver and I worry about the offensive line. If Vernon can be a young Welker, that's only going to be a receiver working out of the slot, which limits the yards-per-catch average and the number of big plays. We'll have to see about Hayden's health. Wilson is too raw to have early hopes of helping as a rookie, although it was great that they drafted him for the future. The Raiders had more than four needs. Maybe they will be better on the field than they look on paper, but we'll have to see it in the regular season. I know the offense really struggled in the minicamp.

Q: Since the Super Bowl, the Ravens have lost some of their biggest assets on defense, replacing them with younger and faster players. Do you think it is possible that these younger guys could pick up where their Hall of Fame predecessors left off?

Alexander in Maryland

A: None of the additions were Hall of Famers, so you can't expect to see the next Ray Lewis on the field. But I do think the team can be better on defense. Chris Canty and Marcus Spears should make the run defense better. They should be better in the secondary. Terrell Suggs is healthy, and then you add Elvis Dumervil. That should help the pass rush. I worry about the offense. They don't have a replacement for Anquan Bolden and they let Vonta Leach go without having a top replacement at fullback. Nevertheless, Ozzie Newsome did well under difficult circumstances.

Q: As a lifelong Bears fan, I am wondering if, in his contract year with an offensive guru, Jay Cutler doesn't elevate to the next level and get a playoff win or two, where do the Bears go next?

Nick in San Diego

A: I could see the signing Josh Freeman if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't keep him. After that, though, I see a problem. If Cutler doesn't do well, the team is too talented to be toward the top of the draft. Even in a bad season, they should win eight or nine games, so they will be drafting pretty low to get a good quarterback. Their best hope is to make it right for Cutler and then give him the money.

Q: Why doesn't the NFL have a minor league system? I'm not counting the arena league or the CFL, but something to the effect of each team has one farm team and they can call up or send down players as they need. The minor league games could be held on a day that doesn't already have games scheduled, and the NFL teams could have more flexibility with their rosters.

Brian in Belding, Mich.

A: I actually think that will happen over the next couple of years. Last year, the NFL was talking with several groups willing to invest in a developmental league. Those talks stopped when the NFL realized it had labor issues with the officials. The NFL needs to develop a pool of players who can come in during the season and help teams. Be patient; it could be on the way.

Q: This wouldn't be an issue if the NFL would scrap the archaic rule of only allowing 46 active players on game day, but why wouldn't the Patriots consider listing Tim Tebow as an H-back to avoid the third quarterback rule in game situations?

Christian in Fort Worth, Texas

A: They can list him anyway they want, but only 45 players can be active for a game. If they list him as a third quarterback, they get a little more flexibility. That gives them the option to get him in uniform without playing him unless they eliminate the top two quarterbacks from play. If Tebow shows he can help Bill Belichick, the Patriots will find a way to get him a uniform and a chance to play.