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NFL 2014 preseason: Look for rule changes, high-profile rookies and new coaches

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - It's time to climb out of the pool, put down that frosty drink, discard the shades and fire up the high-definition TV.

The NFL is back.

Some training camps open this weekend, and the first preseason game is Aug. 3, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If it seems like the Texans just ended the draft by taking Mr. Irrelevant (defensive back Lonnie Ballentine of Memphis), well, it was only two months ago.

Players, coaches and front office staffs got some down time, albeit less than in past years, and with the Bills and Giants headed to the Hall of Fame game, their break was even shorter.

"You've got to be very smart this time of year with how you're conducting yourself, what you're doing," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "You can never lose sight of the prize."

Certainly, a Vince Lombardi Trophy is hard to see through the haze of summertime heat and humidity. Even opening day is still a long way off, but the preseason will be here soon.

Here are some things to watch for during the NFL preseason:

KEEPING COOL: While the 2011 collective bargaining agreement has placed limitations on the length and frequency of practices, Mother Nature doesn't care. From Berea, Ohio to Bourbonnais, Illinois, and from Renton, Washington to Richmond, Virginia, there is no hiding from the heat.

NFL teams have become more cognizant of that, and incidents of heat-related illnesses at training camps are rare. Thankfully, there has been nothing approaching the tragedy of Korey Stringer, who died of heat stroke in 2001.

"When athletes do intense exercise in the heat, the risk of exertional heat stroke is ever-present," says Dr. Douglas J. Casa, CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. " The NFL has taken some important strides to make players stay safe."

RULES CHANGES: A few alterations will be noticeable, and fans will have to look hard for the others.

Extra-point kicks in the first two exhibition games (three for the Bills and Giants) will come from the 15-yard line. Commissioner Roger Goodell has suggested that conversions need more excitement. But even from that distance, fewer than 10 per cent of kicks fail.

The goalposts NFL kickers are trying to put the ball through will be extended another 5 feet in height, making it easier to judge what's good and what misses.

When there's a loose ball in the field of play, the recovery now can undergo video review. Also, when the referee uses review, there will be consultation with the league's officiating department in New York. The ref still has final say.

The clock won't stop momentarily after a sack outside of two minutes remaining in a half. And, to Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's chagrin, no more dunking over the crossbar to celebrate a touchdown.

ALREADY FAMOUS ROOKIES: With LeBron James' return, Johnny Football might not be the top star in Cleveland, but Manziel will still get plenty of attention for what he does on and off the field this summer.

Jadeveon Clowney, when he recovers from hernia surgery, will dominate the headlines in Houston. So much is expected of the top overall pick that if he doesn't look like a star in the preseason, the critics will be chirping.

Whether or not Michael Sam makes the Rams final roster, becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL, will remain a hot topic.

THE INJURY BUG: Long before the first whistle sounds in training camp, three premier linebackers are gone for 2014. Dallas lost Sean Lee to a torn ACL suffered during 11 on 11, non-contact drills. Buffalo's Kiko Alonso wrecked his knee while working out back home in Oregon. Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon tore his Achilles' tendon while under the supervision of team trainers.

The one clear goal in training camp is to escape it without any major injuries.

"I think there is a fine line between making sure the team is ready to play the season, both from a contact standpoint and also from a health standpoint, so we'll keep a good gauge on that," said Texans coach Bill O'Brien.

NEW BOSSES: O'Brien is one of seven new head coaches in the league. His task might be the most difficult, taking a team that lost its final 14 games in 2013 and straightening it out. He's also got a potential holdout by his top veteran, receiver Andre Johnson.

Then again, all of the new coaches have mighty challenges, or else their new teams would not have made changes.

Jay Gruden is in Washington needing to find a way to keep QB Robert Griffin III healthy. Mike Zimmer can't be sure who he can rely on in Minnesota other than star running back Adrian Peterson.

Mike Pettine has the Johnny Football festival in Cleveland; Lovie Smith has a drastically altered roster in Tampa; and Jim Caldwell inherits a team in need of discipline in Detroit.

Ken Whisenhunt, who helped turn Arizona into a Super Bowl team, landed in Tennessee and might have the best shot at fast improvement if he can get the offence to click. That's his specialty.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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