Breaking Down the Rest of the NFL Offseason Schedule
With the draft and the majority of the big-time free agency signings now in the books, the media, fans, players, coaches, everyone can't wait for the 2012 season to get underway.
But more than four months remain until the regular season begins.
And although we're all impatient for that opening night, it's a good thing that we have that huge amount of time remaining: there's still a ton to get done!
Between training camp, OTAs, minicamp, rookie camp, more free agency signings, and everything that takes place in the preseason, very little is settled as of right now.
Here's a look at what's to come, with a few teasers about some of the most pressing and intriguing issues ahead.
Rookie Camps: NFC North
Packers: May 11-13
Dom Capers will have his hands full trying to get his new top draft choices (Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward) ready to contribute to that shaky pass defense ASAP.
Lions: May 11-13
As if Matthew Stafford and that Detroit offense couldn't get any more explosive, the Lions added Ryan Broyles and Riley Reiff, both of whom come from major programs and should be quick studies.
Bears: May 11-13
Although Shea McClellin was the Bears' top choice, their second rounder, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, should draw just as much attention at rookie camp. The main question: is he in shape and will he stay in shape?
Vikings: May 4-6
In addition to the top offensive lineman in the draft, Minnesota landed two very good defenders early on (Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson), so Leslie Frazier will look to mold them into instant starters who can improve one of the NFL's worst defenses.
Rookie Camp: NFC South
Saints: May 11-13
With all their losses (not just the head coach and defensive coordinator, but now Jonathan Vilma for all of 2012) the development of defensive rookies such as Akiem Hicks and Corey White) will be absolutely critical.
Falcons: May 11-13
Like their division rivals, the Saints, Atlanta didn't have a first-rounder, but since their offensive line has holes, they'll expect incoming rookies like Peter Konz and Lamar Holmes to develop quickly.
Panthers: May 11-13
One of the most intriguing names thrown around during the pre-draft hype, Luke Kuechly, starts his journey towards becoming the literal and figurative center of Ron Rivera's defense.
Buccaneers: May 4-6
The Bucs have been praised for having a monster draft, especially early on with the selections of Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David. So which will be the early standout?
Rookie Camp: NFC East
Giants: May 11-13
Each of the Giants' three rookies will have mighty big shoes to fill: David Wilson is looking to replace Brandon Jacobs, Jayron Hosley will aim to fill the void left by Aaron Ross, and Rueben Randle hopes to take on the role in the offense left empty by Mario Manningham.
Eagles: May 12-14
The mostly veteran Eagles group added several defenders in the draft and each will have a role to play, but clearly the most important is going to be defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who will get a crash course in defensive line play from Jim Washburn.
Cowboys: May 4-6
Considering the potent passing attacks in this division, his predecessor Patrick Peterson's fine rookie season in 2011, and the Cowboys losing Terence Newman, the spotlight will be squarely on Morris Claiborne when Dallas' rookie camp commences.
Redskins: May 4-6
Not since the year that the Cowboys brought in both Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh have two rookie quarterbacks on the same team (Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins) brought so much success and so much anticipation to a rookie camp.
Rookie Camp: NFC West
49ers: May 11-13
Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh made something of a surprise move with their first pick and on May 11, rookie A.J. Jenkins will start to prove whether he was worth it.
Cardinals: May 11-13
Even more so than their top pick Michael Floyd or third rounder Jamell Fleming, I'm interested to see Bobby Massie develop, starting with his first rookie camp. Expected to be a late-first or second-round pick, Massie fell all the way to the fourth round. Was it justified or will he prove people wrong?
Seahawks: May 11-13
Albeit for very different reasons, incoming rookies Bruce Irvin and Russell Wilson both have huge chips on their shoulders when they arrive at rookie camp.
Rams: May 11-13
The Rams were very trade-happy during the draft process, but they still landed some excellent prospects and all four of their top choices (Michael Brockers, Brian Quick, Janoris Jenkins, and Isaiah Pead) will learn right away that Jeff Fisher expects them to contribute from the start.
After all, when Fisher took the Titans to the Super Bowl in 1999, his top defender was a rookie named Jevon Kearse.
Rookie Camps: AFC North
Ravens: May 11-13
The Ravens selection of Courtney Upshaw surprised many, largely because he fell so far and because they already have Sergio Kindle, but the rookie who might have a more immediate impact in 2012 is running back Bernard Pierce. Remember, Ricky Williams retired and Ray Rice might sit out.
Steelers: May 4-6
The two high-profile offensive linemen that Pittsburgh drafted (David DeCastro and Mike Adams) should add, if nothing else, great depth to that offensive line, but it's the addition of Alameda Ta'amu, the potential heir apparent to Casey Hampton's 3-4 nose tackle spot, that Mike Tomlin will keep a close eye on.
Bengals: May 11-13
After their excellent draft in 2011, Marvin Lewis' Bengals hope they can get the same type of instantaneous results out of Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Devon Still and Mohamed Sanu.
Browns: May 11-13
A new quarterback (Brandon Weeden) and a new running back (Trent Richardson) will try to improve a weak offense quickly, but first learning Pat Shurmur's scheme will be paramount.
Rookie Camp: AFC South
Texans: May 11-13
Houston was extremely fortunate to see Whitney Mercilus still on the board late in the first round, but they were even more fortunate to see Jared Crick still on the board late in the fourth round. Both must have flaws that caused them to drop and Wade Phillips will set about correcting them once camp opens.
Titans: May 11-12
Even more so than their first two picks, Kendall Wright and Zach Brown, Titans third-rounder Mike Martin needs to stand out during these early rookie sessions.
Tennessee already has two excellent interior lineman in Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug and unless Martin impresses the coaching staff in rookie camp, he'll have an uphill climb just to see snaps in the regular season.
Jaguars: May 4-6
For the second straight year, the Jags traded up into the top 10 of the first round, this time to get Justin Blackmon. Translation: he needs to wow the coaches and press in short order.
Colts: May 4-6
No one has bigger shoes to fill this upcoming season than Andrew Luck, and the comparisons to Peyton Manning official start May 4 when he first pulls that Colts jersey on over shoulder pads.
Rookie Camps: AFC East
Patriots: May 10-12
The good news for Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Travis Wilson, Jake Bequette and the rest of those new rookie defenders? They get to play for Bill Belichick. The bad news? They get to play for Bill Belichick.
Jets: May 4-6
Is Quinton Coples the missing piece to that Jets pass rush? Is Stephen Hill the missing piece to that Jets passing attack? We'll start to find out on May 4.
Bills: May 11-13
Although Cordy Glenn and Stephon Gilmore are the biggest names the Bills landed in the draft, the player who might provide the most instant impact is wide out T.J. Graham. Expect his speed to wow the coaches right out of the gate.
Dolphins: May 4-6
In the aftermath of all the Ryan Tannehill news, Miami's front office made one of the sexier undrafted free agent signings, grabbing local product Jacory Harris, who has a leg up on Tannehill in terms of college quarterbacking experience.
Will that be enough to impress Joe Philbin and earn a roster spot?
Rookie Camps: AFC West
Broncos: May 11-13
Even though Peyton Manning won't be there, all eyes will be on the quarterback at Broncos minicamp: Manning's heir apparent, Brock Osweiler, will be taking most of the snaps.
Chargers: May 11-13
San Diego landed some excellent and relatively high-profile names in the draft, most notably Melvin Ingram, but it was the selection of tight end Lardarius Green that you'll want to keep an eye on. Sooner or later, Antonio Gates' foot issues will cost him more time than just a few games.
Chiefs: May 11-13
Dontari Poe. That's really all that needs to be said about Chiefs rookie camp. He's that big, literally and figuratively.
Raiders: May 11-13
Once again, the Raiders won't be bringing in a first-round pick to their rookie camp, but since Oakland found a true diamond-in-the-rough in Denarius Moore starting at last year's rookie camp, the press will be looking to find another.
OTA and Minicamp: NFC North
Packers: (OTAs) May 21-23, May 30-June 1, June 5-8; Mini-Camps; (minicamp) June 12-14
After their stunning and supremely disappointing exit from the playoffs, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers have to be even hungrier going into the start of this 2012 season, especially since the rest of their division has improved so much.
Lions: (OTAs) May 21-22, May 24, May 29, May 31-June 1, June 4-5, June 7-8; (minicamp) June 12-14
With that offense so potent (despite the woeful state of the running game), the biggest question at this point of the preseason has to be this: with all that front-four talent, can the Lions pass defense improve?
Bears: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Michael Bush was brought in to be a complementary back who can run between the tackles, but it will be interesting to see just how many touches he takes away from the versatile and now somewhat disgruntled Matt Forte.
Vikings: (OTAs) May 29-31, June 5-7, June 11-14; (minicamp) June 19-21
Year 2 for Christian Ponder begins without a veteran quarterback in front of him, but because it also begins without superstar Adrian Peterson behind him, things don't get any easier.
OTA and Minicamp: NFC South
Saints: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 11-14; Mini-Camps: (minicamp) June 5-7
No one, not Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, or any other linebacker on the Saints roster will be able to fill the void left by Jonathan Vilma, so it will be up to the other 10 defenders on the field to step up their game.
Falcons: (OTAs) May 29-31, June 5-7, June 12-15; Mini-Camps: (minicamp) June 19-21
Adding Asante Samuel to play opposite Brent Grimes gives the Falcons one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL, but Curtis Lofton's departure for rival New Orleans does pose a major problem.
Panthers: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 30-June 1, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Although they've already stated that they might play Mike Tolbert at fullback, there still won't be enough carries for both Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. So minicamp and OTAs might be an audition for one of them.
Buccaneers: (OTAs) May 15, May 17-18, May 21-22, May 24, June 4-5, June 7-8; (minicamp) June 12-14
Everyone wants to talk about Vincent Jackson, Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount, Carl Nicks and the rest of the Bucs offense, but the most important issue for Tampa Bay remains Gerald McCoy's health.
OTA and Minicamp: NFC East
Giants: (OTAs) May 23-24, May 30-June 1, June 4-5, June 7-8; (minicamp), June 12-14
There's been some turnover along the Giants roster, especially at the skill positions, but with Eli Manning under center, no one will panic.
Eagles: (OTAs) May 23-24, May 30-June 1, June 4-5, June 7-8; Mini-Camps; (minicamp) June 12-14
Cowboys: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
At times last season's Rob Ryan defense looked lost and unmotivated. Will that change with the additions of Brandon Carr, Brodney Pool and Dan Connor?
Redskins: (OTAs) May 21, May 23-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Mike Shanahan is renowned for making any running back a 1,000-yard rusher. His next pupil figures to be Roy Helu, but with Shanahan, you never know: another back may pop up during camp and ultimately steal Helu's thunder.
OTA and Minicamp: NFC West
49ers: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
It's hard to imagine that any hard feelings between Alex Smith and Jim Harbaugh won't blow over, but there still has to be some concern inside and outside the organization about Smith's long-term viability as a franchise quarterback.
Cardinals: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Arizona's 3-4 defense isn't anywhere near a carbon copy of the Steelers in terms of dominance, championships, or just plain old wins, but it is getting there.
Seahawks: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 30-June 1, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
One of the most underrated and overlooked moves of this entire offseason was the Seahawks re-upping Marshawn Lynch, who quietly has become one of the NFL's most powerful runners.
Rams: (OTAs) May 15-16, May 18, May 22-23, May 25, June 5-8; (minicamp) June 12-14
The top priority in St. Louis for Jeff Fisher should be very simple: somehow assemble an offensive line that doesn't get Sam Bradford killed.
OTA and Minicamp: AFC North
Ravens: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
We'll all just have to wait and see how Ray Rice's contract situation pans out, but even if that major issue isn't resolved, the Ravens do have to turn their attention elsewhere. The loss of Ben Grubbs leaves a major hole on the left side of an offensive line which will feature a 32-year-old Bryant McKinnie and a 36-year-old Matt Birk.
Steelers: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
In addition to James Farrior, Aaron Smith, and Chris Hoke, the Steelers lost one of the centerpieces of their mini-dynasty, Hines Ward.
Since his production sharply declined in 2011, the Pittsburgh offense probably won't struggle very much because of his retirement, but if they can't come to some type of agreement with Mike Wallace, they'll take a huge step back.
Bengals: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
On offense, Cincinnati looks to be in great shape, with stars in the making at quarterback (Andy Dalton) and wide receiver (A.J. Green) as well as an upgrade at running back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Browns: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 30-June 1, June 12-15; (minicamp) June 5-7
The offensive additions via the draft are far more interesting to the public at large, but the Browns defense (especially their front four) has the potential to be one of the most improved in the NFL. In the AFC North, that type of strength in the trenches is critical.
OTA and Minicamp: AFC South
Texans: (OTAs) May 21-22, May 24, May 29-31, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Following by far the greatest season in team history, the Texans now have to deal with something they're unused to: being expected to win the division, playoff games, and even the AFC Championship.
Considering how far they got without Matt Schaub, Mario Williams, or a healthy Andre Johnson, they should handle the pressure well.
Titans: (OTAs) May 30-June 1, June 5-7, June 11-12, June 14-15; (minicamp) June 19-21
Despite their great season and near playoff berth, at least one part of the Titans 2011 season had to be an absolute embarrassment to head coach Mike Munchak: finishing 31st in rushing. Expect the former perennial All-Pro guard to improve drastically upon that.
Jaguars: (OTAs) May 15-17, May 22-24, May 29-June 1; (minicamp) June 12-14
Blaine Gabbert fell behind some of his rookie quarterback contemporaries (Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, even T.J. Yates) last year, but now that the Jags added Laurent Robinson and Justin Blackmon, he should show considerable improvement from Year 1 to Year 2.
He'd better or they'll have to (again) run Maurice Jones-Drew into the ground, thus continuing to push the envelope of his long-term viability.
Colts: (OTAs) May 15-17, May 22-24, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Forget about all the offensive rookie talent coming in for a minute and focus on the defensive side of the ball.
Yes, they still have Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, but Chuck Pagano can stock up all the former Ravens he wants (Brandon McKinney, Cory Redding, Tom Zbikowski) it doesn't Indy mean will have anything that even resembles that terrific Baltimore defense.
OTA and Minicamp: AFC East
Patriots: (OTAs) May 21-22, May 24, May 29-31, June 4-5, June 7-8; (minicamp) June 12-14
Again, the Pats fell short of their ultimate goal, but this team was built for the long haul. They still have several capable running backs, a pair of awesome tight ends, a solid offensive line, and a defense that is getting younger and faster. They're even extremely deep at quarterback with Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett sitting behind Tom Brady.
Jets: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 4, June 6-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
The Tim Tebow Experiment notwithstanding, the Jets have a series of questions find answers to this summer during and after minicamp, most notably "who will rush the passer?" and "who will complement Santonio Holmes?" Sure, their top two rookie selections (Quinton Coples and Stephen Hill) should fill in there, but rookies don't always develop so quickly.
Bills: (OTAs) May 29, May 31-June 1, June 5, June 7-8, June 11-12, June 14-15; (minicamp) June 19-21
Once again the Bills are in transition, switching to Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 scheme, but since they added two excellent pass rushers (Mario Williams, Mark Anderson) to a front-four that already had Marcell Dareus, that defense should instantly improve from its 26th overall ranking.
Dolphins: (OTAs) May 22-24, May 29-31, June 11-14; (minicamp) June 19-21
While Matt Moore tries to fend off the advances of rookie Ryan Tannehill (and looks for someone to throw to now that Brandon Marshall is gone) at least the Dolphins can take comfort in the fact that they have a terrific running game. Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas might be the NFL's best one-two punch in 2012.
OTA and Minicamp: AFC West
Broncos: (OTAs) May 21-23, May 30-June 1, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Lost in all the Peyton Manning/Tim Tebow news is the fact that the Broncos lost some very important defensive players this offseason. In addition to Brian Dawkins retiring, they saw a major contributor, Brodrick Bunkley, leave as a free agent, so minicamp will be critical in solidifying a fill-in.
Chargers: (OTAs) May 29-31, June 5-7, June 11-14; (minicamp) June 12-14
Don't be so quick to assume that Robert Meachem makes for a seamless transition from Vincent Jackson: not only do the two receivers have very different frames and skill sets, but that Saints offense differs a great deal from the Chargers.
During OTAs and minicamp, Meachem must develop a chemistry with Philip Rivers.
Chiefs: (OTAs) May 21-22, May 24, May 29, May 31-June 1, June 4-5, June 7-8; (minicamp) June 12-14
Chiefs fans should have little to no concerns about their defense: even before adding Dontari Poe, that front seven was loaded with young, hungry talent and the loss of Brandon Carr shouldn't be too crippling.
The offense, on the other hand, does have to worry since both of their running backs (Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis) are trying to return from injury-plagued 2011 campaigns.
Raiders: (OTAs) May 14-15, May 17, May 21-22, May 24, June 4-7; (minicamp) June 12-14
Even though they are (yet again) starting from scratch in terms of coaching, last year the Raiders showed they are one of the AFC's rising clubs.
If they can keep Darren McFadden healthy (something they failed to do last year in the preseason) and target another pass rusher early on during OTAs and minicamp, they'll be in the hunt for the AFC West title.
Last Date to Sign Unrestricted Free Agents
Although Mario Williams, Jarret Johnson, Pierre Garçon and a bunch of other players found new homes this spring, not all of the unrestricted free agents have been claimed yet.
But per NFL guidelines, those who have yet to land deals can only sign with new clubs until July 22, so expect a mini-frenzy leading up to that date.
Maybe they're not in their prime or never had a prime, but the following names can still contribute.
10) Cedric Benson, RB
9) Roy Williams, WR
8) Vernon Carey, G
7) Shaun Ellis, DE
6) Braylon Edwards, WR
5) Kareem McKenzie, OT
4) Plaxico Burress, WR
3) Aubrayo Franklin, DT
2) Vince Young, QB
1) Jim Leonhard, S
All 32 teams will open training camp at the end of July.
And while minicamps, rookie camps, and OTAs will help provide some insight into the makeup of rosters and starting lineups, the real battle begins then.
So which training camps will be the most intriguing? Here's a top five:
5) Eagles: Despite having tremendous skill players, the Eagles offense has a major question mark, thanks to Jason Peters' Achilles tear. Todd Herremans and Demetress Bell have to fill the void.
4) Broncos: If Peyton Manning is in fact healthy, then there's not really much intrigue to the Broncos training camp: already a playoff team in 2011, they'll seemingly become a Super Bowl favorite with him at the helm. If he's not healthy, that's another matter.
3) 49ers: Even with all that success in 2011, the 49ers haven't sat on their hands this offseason: Whether it's Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Brandon Jacobs, A.J. Jenkins, or LaMichael James, it should be interesting to see how the new puzzle pieces align with the old ones.
2) Saints: No Sean Payton, no Gregg Williams, no Jonathan Vilma, and an unhappy Drew Brees. Yeah, that should be a sight to see.
1) Jets: As if the Jets weren't enough of a circus, they brought in sports' greatest lightning rod, Tim Tebow. That's one way to steal attention from the Super Bowl champion Giants.
Technically, the offseason ends with the start of training camp, but we all know that practices and intra-squad scrimmages aren't the type of football we crave.
We want to see live games with kickoffs, third-down completions and full-go pass rushes.