Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson drama hanging over NFL training camps

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Play here. Play somewhere else. Or don’t play at all.

The three possible outcomes are the same for both Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson, though the circumstances under which the two quarterbacks arrived at those crossroads are very different. As all NFL training camps get underway this week, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over two great quarterbacks who want fresh starts and two front offices set against granting those wishes.

How landscape-altering are these resolutions going to be? If Rodgers returns to the Packers, they might win the Super Bowl. If Watson returns to the Texans, they should win enough games to avoid the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft.

Watson’s distrust of the Texans — spurred when they reneged on a promise to give him input into the general manager and coach hirings — prompted a trade demand in January. Rodgers’ distrust of the Packers — growing ever since Green Bay’s surprise selection of quarterback Jordan Love in the 2020 draft — caused him to skip mandatory minicamp for the first time in his career. He has not yet demanded a trade.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison because Watson also faces a civil lawsuit brought by 22 females who allege sexual misconduct. The suit makes Watson’s $156 million contract virtually untradeable until there is more clarity around his liability and potential sanctions.

The NFL typically does not discipline players until the legal system runs its course. One often-used, time-buying scenario would be Roger Goodell putting Watson on the Commissioner’s Exempt List to keep him out of Texans training camp.

Rodgers reportedly turned down a two-year extension that would’ve kept him under the Packers’ control through 2025 and made him the highest-paid player in the NFL, which illustrates the relationship is damaged beyond anything money can repair. Many NFL decision-makers believe he wants to reach free agency as soon as possible, to match the power cultivated by Tom Brady and NBA superstars.

Hoping time heals all wounds, the Packers had no reason to trade Rodgers over the past three months. But now? Deadlines spur action. And the Packers are losing footing in the court of public opinion because of reports of broken-down contract negotiations with star receiver Davante Adams.

Rodgers must show his hand first. Will he report to training camp or hold out? Fines kick in on the sixth day of a holdout, by which time the Packers had better know if they are going to call Rodgers’ bluff and see if he will sit out a season in his late prime, or trade the future Hall of Famer for assets to enhance Love’s chances of succeeding. If draft picks, rather than help in 2021, are the desired return, Rodgers’ trade value will be just as high — or higher — in October as in July.

In a league in which Brady left the Patriots and immediately lifted the Buccaneers from a 13-year-playoff drought to a championship, the Broncos lead the pack of dreamers at getting their hands on a newly motivated Rodgers, who has had four seasons end one step from the Super Bowl.

Watson’s market would’ve been robust, given his age (25) and contract controllability. There once was talk of four first-round draft picks as the can’t-refuse price.

The picture has changed, because even if the suit is settled or dismissed in time for Watson to be on the field this year, he must answer for his alleged behavior. Any team looking to make a trade (the Eagles, Broncos and Dolphins come to mind) would have to weigh the risks for being seen as ignorant to claims he used his power and influence as an NFL quarterback to victimize massage therapists.

Here are nine other NFL storylines for training camp:

Vaccination status

The NFL isn’t forcing players to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s mandated for coaches — and Vikings assistant Rick Dennison’s job is in danger for refusing to be vaccinated. The hoops that non-vaccinated players have to jump through to be around teammates on and off the field are significant. If a game is canceled because of an outbreak and can’t be rescheduled (which is unlikely because it didn’t happen last year during the height of the pandemic) players on both teams will not be paid for the week and a forfeit could be applied to the team that has the outbreak.

Vaccination status could be the forbidden-but-unprovable tiebreaker in roster cuts. It could divide a locker room. Bills receiver Cole Beasley refused the vaccine and threatened to retire if forced to adhere to protocols. Cardinals All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins admitted thoughts of retirement due to the vaccine. Eighty percent of players have received at least one dose — nine teams are over 90 percent vaccinated, five teams are under 70 percent and all are above 50 percent — according to chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills.

Tebow-mania

Was it strange when the Jaguars signed a quarterback who has been out of the NFL since 2012 and asked him to play tight end? Yes. But the uproar created by Tim Tebow’s addition was extreme. What first-time NFL head coach doesn’t have favorites he trusts to build culture in the locker room?

Urban Meyer and teammates will be asked about Tebow’s development (maybe taking some scrutiny off rookie Trevor Lawrence) at every practice. Cameras will focus on him stretching. Fans in Gator Country will buy his jersey. And then, if he makes the cut from 90 to 53 players, maybe it will be worth discussing if he really can block and catch.

Contracts and holdouts

Contract disputes are not limited to quarterbacks. Safeties Marcus Maye (Jets), Jamal Adams (Seahawks) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (Steelers), cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (Patriots) and Xavien Howard (Dolphins), and edge rusher Chandler Jones (Cardinals) are holdout candidates. The franchise-tagged Maye is the only one ineligible for a long-term deal. Maye’s former teammate, Adams, holds the most leverage over his team.

Welcome back

After the one-year ban due to COVID-19 protocols, there will be 13 joint practice sessions from Aug. 7-26. Fans also return, though more frequently in some places than others: The Colts have 19 open practices compared to zero for the Titans. Fans must remain more than 20 feet away from coaches and players at all times.

New-look Patriots

Life after Brady resulted in the Patriots’ first losing season since 2000 and a subsequent $300 million free-agent spending spree. Those new faces, plus stars returning from COVID-19 opt-outs, will be treated to a true quarterback battle. Will former NFL MVP Cam Newton get a second chance to lead the Patriots, after he was ineffective last year coming off of various injuries? Or will 69-year-old coach Bill Belichick be eager to get to the future with first-round pick Mac Jones, who is known to quickly digest playbooks?

Other QB spotlights

Brady is coming off knee surgery, but since he won Super Bowl MVP while reportedly playing through a torn MCL, it seems unlikely to be his kryptonite. How will four traded starting quarterbacks — Sam Darnold (Panthers), Matthew Stafford (Rams), Jared Goff (Lions) and Carson Wentz (Colts) — adapt? Will any of rookies Jones, Justin Fields (Bears) and Trey Lance (49ers) join the top two picks — Lawrence (Jaguars) and Zach Wilson (Jets) — as Week 1 starters? Who will replace retired great Drew Brees with the Saints: Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston?

Trailblazer

Carl Nassib becomes just the second openly gay player in an NFL training camp. The first, Michael Sam, never played in a regular-season game. Nassib, with 20.5 career sacks, is a different case as a near-lock to make the Raiders. So far, teammates and players across the NFL have been supportive of Nassib’s sexual orientation. But as far as sports have come in diversity, Asian-American players still experienced racism in the NBA in 2021. Will Nassib be subject to homophobia in someone’s words or actions once the “locker-room” and “trash-talk” cultures return?

Still available

Once expected to sign somewhere between now and the regular season, future Hall of Fame cornerback Richard Sherman faces four misdemeanor charges after an arrest in Seattle. He vowed to “get the help I need” after his wife reported his suicidal thoughts to 911. Will Sherman return to the NFL? Offensive tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Russell Okung — coming off injuries — are the other top veteran free agents available after pass-rusher Melvin Ingram recently landed with the Steelers.

Cowboys on “Hard Knocks”

For the third time since 2002, “America’s Team” is the focus of HBO’s inside training camp series that has contributed to players getting traded and coaches getting fired. Drama meets more drama! Owner Jerry Jones will get to show off his yacht and his party bus. Running back Ezekiel Elliott and linebacker Micah Parsons are no strangers to controversies. And newly minted $160 million quarterback Dak Prescott’s recovery from a compound ankle fracture will receive exhaustive coverage.

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