Ray Rice's next hurdle is with NFL

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice learned that he will not go to jail after pleading not guilty to a third-degree charge of aggravated assault. He will either be approved for a pretrial intervention program or accept the prosecutor's plea agreement of probation without jail time.

This development doesn't necessarily mean Rice will be suiting up for the Ravens at the start of the season. Rice is expected to be punished by the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy, which could include a suspension.

The policy states: "It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful."

Translation: If you tarnish the shield, you're going to get disciplined for it. Based on the history of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a suspension is considered likely for Rice.

It doesn't matter if you avoid conviction or even being arrested. Just ask Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

In 2010, he was suspended six games (later reduced to four) after prosecutors decided not to charge him in a case involving a 20-year-old college student who accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Georgia nightclub. Roethslisberger became the first player suspended by Goodell under the conduct policy who hasn't been arrested or charged with a crime.

Working in Rice's favor is his reputation. He has never had an off-the-field incident previously and was the face of Baltimore's anti-bullying campaign.

Still, Goodell's prevailing message has been star players are held to a higher standard and should expect to pay when they mess up. In late March, Goodell said the league was monitoring Rice's legal situation but he wouldn't indicate whether Rice faced disciplinary action.

"We'll let the facts dictate that," Goodell said at the NFL owners meetings.

The NFL could wait to make a decision on Rice until after his case is resolved. His application for pretrial intervention is first sent to a coordinator before it is reviewed by the prosecution. Even if he is denied, there is a plea agreement in place in which Rice will be placed on probation without any jail time and undergo anger management counseling.

Ravens officials said Wednesday that Rice's legal issue won't affect their draft plans. They were already planning to add a running back before Rice's incident in February.

What the Ravens need to prepare for is not having Rice for the start of the season, which is a critical stretch for the team. The Ravens begin the season with three games against AFC North teams in the first three weeks of the regular season. Losing Rice for any portion of these games will hurt the team's standing in the division.

It could've been worse for Rice. Conviction of a third-degree crime in New Jersey carries a potential prison sentence of at least three years and up to five years.

That's why Rice probably breathed a sigh of relief after Thursday's court proceedings, but he still needs to worry about what lies ahead with the league.