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Lessons from rookie minicamp

At training camp last year, I remember Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly saying he had more offseason time with college players than he does with NFL players.

With the tweaks the NFL has made to its offseason schedule, that's the new reality. It's mid-May, and 26 teams have conducted their first rookie minicamp. Four more go next week. With no contact and no pads, the minicamp exercise is more mental than physical, as signed rookies and veterans on tryouts learn playbooks.

The clock is ticking. The last OTA and minicamp day is June 19. Making matters worse is the NFL rule that restricts rookies out of schools on the quarter system. Draftees from Pac-12 and Big Ten schools can't return to their teams after rookie minicamp until their classes conclude in June, leaving some with only a handful of days to prepare for training camp.

But those are the rules, and everyone knows them. Here is what we learned during this big minicamp weekend.

Michael Sam was lucky the St. Louis Rams drafted him. As the first openly gay athlete to be drafted, Sam had a lot going through his mind during the past week. He agreed to have the Oprah Winfrey Network do a documentary series about his life. Even though that conflicts with his statement that he wants to focus on playing football and trying to make the team, I can see why he would accept. He is part of sports history. Later in the week, however, it was announced the show would be put on hold, probably at the urging of the Rams. Sam reshaped his priorities and decided to concentrate on learning the left end position and special teams. He landed in the right spot, even though the franchise is deep at defensive end.

Sammy Watkins didn't disappoint in Buffalo. Watkins was catching everything at the Buffalo Bills' rookie minicamp even though he didn't have EJ Manuel throwing the ball. Watkins said he appreciated the fact that the Bills moved up five slots in the draft to take him at the expense of a No. 1 and a No. 4 next year. The trade put a lot of pressure on the coaching staff to make it work with Watkins. He's off to a good start.

Receivers were impressive all around the league. At the combine, it was easy to see this receiving class was special. Most of the players were excellent with their hands. On drills, the ball rarely hit the ground. This weekend proved that was no accident. I watched two days of the Seattle Seahawks' rookie minicamp, and wide receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood looked like the best players on the field. They caught everything. In Arizona, speedy John Brown showed he might be the Cardinals' best deep threat, an important weapon in Bruce Arians' offense.

Johnny Manziel is off to a humble start in Cleveland. Regardless of whether you like the idea of minimizing national television coverage of Manziel's first minicamp, his start was a good one for the Browns. He said the right things. He did the right things. His best comment was how the draft humbled him. "I got passed up 21 times," he said.

The pace of draftee signings is incredible. Close to 100 draft choices reached agreements in the first eight days after the draft. It makes sense. Every salary is slotted. If you know the money value of the deal, why not get the signing bonus and accept it? It puts money in the players' pockets, and getting all the draft choices signed allows the organization to concentrate on getting contract extensions for veterans.

From the inbox

Q: You recently mentioned that the draft may expand to four days, with the first round split into two separate days. Understandably, the NFL is capitalizing on how starved we are for football in the spring. Has there been any talk of moving the Pro Bowl to the spring? This would turn the most underwhelming spectacle in sports into a highly anticipated cash cow for the NFL. Thoughts?

Jason in Kansas City, Missouri

A: I'm with you in thinking a quiet period is created in early April. The NFL is trying to find ways to fill that. The Pro Bowl can't be moved to the spring for several reasons. First, the new CBA featured no football contact from the end of the season until roughly the third week in April. Players wanted the time to relax and refresh their bodies. Putting a game at that time would interfere with that. Second, it would put the best players at risk of injuries. Unless those Pro Bowlers trained as if they were getting ready for regular-season games, they could blow out a knee or an Achilles. Teams and players wouldn't like that. Finally, I'm not sure such a move would create added interest in the Pro Bowl.

Q: If the league is looking at its pot penalties, why not make them apply now? It seems a bit silly for them to be suspending players when they are going to be looking at the policy. Another question, on Robert Mathis. If the evidence and records provided point to fertility drugs as he indicated, couldn't Roger Goodell and the league have fined him game checks but not suspended him? I shake my head sometimes at their rulings.

Sam in Waterloo, Ontario

A: On the marijuana changes, the NFL will be cautious in making bold adjustments too soon. Marijuana is still illegal in all but a few states. Until there is a change, the league has to have the same penalties. Those are the rules. You can see an adjustment may be coming, but there is no guaranteed timetable. The Mathis question is simple. The fertility drug has been used by players as a masking agent. Both the NFLPA and the NFL agreed to having that drug on the banned list. It would be a different story if Mathis and his doctor had contacted the league and the team and had his use of the fertility drug approved. Mathis' mistake was trusting the doctor, who told him it wouldn't be a problem. The linebacker's four-game suspension could lead to a slow start for the Indianapolis Colts. They play the Denver Broncos and the Eagles in the first two weeks, followed by divisional games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.

Q: I was wondering, how long do you think before Mike McCarthy is on the hot seat? I'm not saying I want him fired. For the most part, I like him as the Packers' head coach. I like his offensive system, although his play calling is questionable from time to time. The part that concerns me is he didn't see the change in culture on the defensive side until it was too late, and we're now just starting to get it back together. At the same time, I also don't see a great football-minded coach on the horizon I'd replace him with.

Rick in Dartmouth, Massachusetts

A: He's on the cold seat. The team is talking about a contract extension with McCarthy. The Packers have no desire to make a change at head coach. The defense will be under plenty of scrutiny this season. That could lead to a change of coordinators. By then, McCarthy should have a nice, long extension. He's been great for the Packers, and the organization recognizes it.

Q: Over the last two years, the NFC West has been regarded as the best division in the NFL. While this is not an understatement, I feel like the NFC North is and has been one of the most competitive divisions because of the ability of the teams to beat up on each other.

Dan in Austin, Minnesota

A: I agree that the NFC North has been one of the most competitive, but the NFC West has been better. You can make the argument that the NFC North is second to the NFC West. What drops it down a little bit is the up-and-down nature of the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings. The Packers have been solid. The Bears usually are in the running.

Q: As an avid Bills fan, I am sick of hearing all the analysts give grief to the Bills for trading the 2015 first-round pick to move up and grab Sammy Watkins. The talent in this year's draft is much higher than next year's. Aside from a top-15 pick next year, would the Bills really be giving up that much more than if they gave a second-rounder from this year instead? Also, I would imagine they would have had to give up four picks instead of the three that they did.

Derek in Denver

A: It will be a disaster if the season ends up horrible and the Bills blow a chance to get a top quarterback in the 2015 draft. For that to happen, EJ Manuel would have to have a bad season. If that happens, the Bills might be looking to draft a quarterback. Giving up what might be a top-eight pick would be a disaster. The reason you don't criticize the move is your understandable frustration over numerous losing seasons. A move like this is usually done by teams that are one player away from winning. I don't know if the Bills are one player away.

Q: Has the NFL finally come to the point -- thank goodness -- where QBs will be drafted on their true value and not overdrafted? For decades, QBs have been overhyped for their personalities, schools they attended (think BYU, Miami, Notre Dame at various times), their college team's performance (Vince Young), or outrageous numbers in inferior conferences (Colt Brennan).

Fred in Tampa, Florida

A: Quarterbacks won't lose value and will still be overdrafted. It's hard to win consistently without a good quarterback. You saw more teams being cautious because they don't want to make mistakes. There were enough questions about Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater that they fell. Blake Bortles still went as the No. 3 pick in the draft. If you don't have a quarterback, you have to find a way to get one.