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AP photo by Chris Urso / From left, Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen, safety Mike Edwards,quarterback Tom Brady, cornerback Jamel Dean and quarterback Blaine Gabbert work out on June 23 at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Fla.

In seven weeks, the NFL expects to kick off its 101st season with the Kansas City Chiefs, the reigning Super Bowl champions, hosting the Houston Texans.

Emphasis on expects.

Still set on conducting a somewhat normal preseason — though without any exhibition games to break up the monotony of training camp — and then opening the regular season on time, the NFL pushes onward.

Rookies are reporting to team facilities this week, nearly all of them for the first time. Veterans are set to come in next week, and after testing for COVID-19 and a lengthy acclimation period, practices should begin sometimes next month.

Of course, there are more questions than ever for America's most profitable sports league, most notably how to keep people safe in a contact sport during a pandemic.

"Everything that we're doing is centered around the concept of risk mitigation," says Dr. Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer. "We know that we can't eliminate risk, but we're trying to mitigate it as much as possible for everyone. We know that this is going to be a shared responsibility."

Already this year the NFL has had to switch to remote, well, everything: free agency, the draft, offseason workouts, owners' meetings. Now come the biggest and most critical tests as 80-man rosters attempt to stay healthy while preparing to play a game that requires close contact nearly all the time. Roster sizes were reduced from 90 as part of an agreement Tuesday between the league and the players' association, according to people familiar with the change who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because it has not been announced.

"We could have a ton of social distance, more than we have with our football team," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "It's all set up with monitors and everything else. Then the testing, these guys are going to be tested often. It'll be good that way. There's a responsibility for coaches and players to make sure we handle ourselves right when we're away from it. We are still keeping as much social distance as we can. It's a contact sport, but when there's no contact, we're going to keep our distance."

The NFL has been studying the approaches of other sports, seeing the success NASCAR and the PGA Tour have experienced with their traveling shows, and the many problems Major League Baseball has dealt with. But auto racing, golf and baseball don't involve close-quarters action from beginning to end.

Thus, the elimination of exhibition games, which went from four to an owners' proposal of two and then to none. The players' association, which also proposed no preseason contests, approved the league's offer on Tuesday, a person familiar with the decision told the AP. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the offer had not been made public.

Getting rid of the exhibitions is one of many steps that will cost owners millions, but a necessary one.

The business of pro football will take a major hit, with ramifications extending into next year and beyond, affecting salary caps and contract negotiations and, of course, bottom lines in a league that has $15 billion in revenues. Or did.

Still, plenty of NFL business has taken place since mid-March, when the coronavirus led to nationwide shutdowns.

 

TAMPA BAY TOM

In a normal year, Tom Brady's switch from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have overridden every NFL story, from early winter through the spring and summer and into his debut against fellow 40-something quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints in September.

Perhaps the biggest headlines Brady drew recently came when he defied players' union recommendations to cease informal practices with teammates as a coronavirus precaution.

 

MAHOMES MONEY

The Chiefs vowed they would pay star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, locking him up for the long term. Does 10 years for potentially $500 million work? Yes, half a billion dollars.

Not that he is in Mahomes' class, but Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott wound up with the one-year franchise tag salary of $31.4 million, hardly a pittance. The Cowboys could wind up the losers here, though, with quarterback pay now stretching beyond the stratosphere thanks to Mahomes setting the bar so high.

 

NEW FACES

The pandemic could lead to teams that remained relatively intact (Chiefs, Saints, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans) having a major advantage over those experiencing upheaval.

That's particularly true where coaching changes were made: Mike McCarthy in Dallas, Ron Rivera in Washington, Matt Rhule with the Carolina Panthers, Kevin Stefanski with the Cleveland Browns and Joe Judge with the New York Giants. The latter three have never been head coaches in the NFL.

Stars making big adjustments could include Brady and another longtime standout quarterback, Philip Rivers, now in Indianapolis with the colts; running back Todd Gurley with the Atlanta Falcons; receiver DeAndre Hopkins with the Arizona Cardinals; tight end Jason Witten with the Las Vegas Raiders; safety Malcolm Jenkins in New Orleans; defensive end Calais Campbell in Baltimore; and linebacker Robert Quinn with the Chicago Bears.

Then there's the humongous jump from college ball for the likes of top overall selection Joe Burrow, who takes over at quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, defensive stud Chase Young in Washington and the rest of a draft class that has yet to take a formal snap with their teams.

 

SOCIAL JUSTICE

Ever since Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest social injustice, the NFL has been slammed for being blind to the message the 49ers quarterback at the time and many of his fellow players were trying to deliver. In this year of racial reckoning, there has been an awakening across much of the league.

Right now, the NFL is planning to allow players to have decals on the back of their helmets bearing names or initials of victims of systemic racism and police violence. Trying to catch up, the league has gotten involved in earnest with initiatives that its players have sought or inaugurated over the past few years.

And, not to be overlooked, the Washington team will have a new name.

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