Every year, training camp features a two-pronged mission for NFL coaches and talent evaluators: Prepare the squad in a way that offers the best chance to win in the coming season and fortify the roster with depth that will serve the team both in the short and long term.
As teams transition this week to Phase 2 of this training camp season and begin practicing in earnest, coaches and decision-makers will continue their quest for that first goal.
However, roster construction during this pandemic-impacted period could prove more challenging, particularly when it comes to identifying young future building blocks.
The absence of offseason practices, the abbreviated slate of training camp practices and the elimination of preseason games means significantly fewer opportunities for coaches to evaluate the talent on their rosters, especially those middle- to late-round draft picks and undrafted rookies who typically use this time to earn jobs as backups and key contributors on special teams.
Every year, players come out of nowhere to earn spots thanks to strong preseason performances. Many become glue players who serve a team well for multiple seasons. Some – such as Rod Smith, Priest Holmes, Tony Romo, Wes Welker, Antonio Gates, James Harrison, Terrell Davis – even become household names.
But this year, those hidden gems face the risk going unnoticed by talent evaluators due to insufficient audition opportunities. While those players worry about their futures, many team decision-makers share a similar trepidation about the ability to accurately identify potential under-the-radar difference-makers.
“I am concerned,” Ron Rivera, entering the first season as coach and leader of the reclamation project that is the Washington Football Team, told USA TODAY Sports. “You have to create as gamelike a situation as possible without hitting anybody because one of the toughest things that is going to be judged is special teams. That’s where a lot of those guys that shine as diamonds in the rough really come through. So this will be a really tough challenge for us: how we create as positive a special teams competition as we can.”
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The good thing for Rivera and Washington is that every team finds itself in a similar situation. Yet this predicament will not impact established, veteran-heavy squads as greatly as rebuilding teams like Washington.
The unheralded rookies stand to lose the most from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Their chances of unseating veterans aren’t great this preseason. Many will likely have to settle for spots on the practice squad (expanded from 10 to 16 members this season), if they manage to secure a job at all.
“I think any player drafted after the fourth round is vulnerable,” longtime NFL agent Mike McCartney of Priority Sports told USA TODAY. “They did beef up the practice squad this year. There will be 16 spots, so we believe in a couple cases where guys were undrafted, we chose the right team and let’s let it play out.
“But you can’t save yourself. You have to do extra. You have to really treat these practices like it’s game day. A lot of times, you go through training camp and you’re really trying to survive the practice. But you can’t do that. You have one shot, literally, from mid-August to late August. … But it’s going to be really difficult if you’re drafted fourth round or later to make the roster.”
Pressure on those players will reach its highest point over the next three weeks. The first two weeks of training camp consisted of strength and conditioning drills and walk-throughs, so it remains to be seen exactly how teams will handle the divvying up of practice reps.
The current setup will challenge the creativity of coaching staffs and the initiative and drive of young players.
Under normal circumstances, starters normally receive the largest portion of practice reps, with the remainder of the action divided among the second-, third- and at times fourth-string players.
But because this year they have less time to prepare, many coaches are expected to increase the starters’ workload, thus decreasing those of the backups, to ensure they are adequately prepared.
Some teams will use scout-team reps to help grade young players. Some coaches, like Matt LaFleur in Green Bay, planned to devote a practice segment exclusively to young players.
“The max time on the field is 2.5 hours as we progress through,” the second-year coach explained during Thursday’s news conference. “We’ll try to keep our veteran players we know very well under that two-hour limit, but we’ll stay out there with our younger players and give them an opportunity to get more team reps and give us a chance to evaluate those guys.”
The setup will vary from team to team. However, many first-year players will encounter the same challenge: learning quickly enough to actually play fast enough to compete with veterans.
“They’re in deep water, turbulent water, and it’s going to get rougher,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in Friday’s news conference. “Just in terms of the volume and the level of competition, becoming a professional athlete and the full day and consecutive days that get strung together with very high demands both physically, mentally and rest and recovery and all that. … I think they’re just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction, knowing that they’re not really able to keep up, but they’re doing the best they can, and they’re way, way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. A lot of progress there, but a long way to go.”
Many coaches will try to build as many competitive situations into their practice plans to help evaluate talent. Those 1-on-1 drills and scout team performances will carry more weight than ever. However, multiple coaches and personnel officials predicted that evaluations of running backs, safeties and special teams contributors will prove most challenging because of the physical nature of those positions and the restrictions on tackling in practices.
Players must capitalize on every opportunity. But in many cases, a player’s greatest efforts might not be enough. Coaches with competitive rosters will likely opt for veterans over rookies entering the regular season and hope that time on the practice squad will help produce the development that the young players need to compete in time.
But in many cases, dreams will hit the skids for many rookies this month. Some have experienced that already, with the pandemic preventing their opportunities from fully manifesting.
Quarterback Broc Rutter, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers out of Division III’s North Central College as an undrafted rookie in April, finds himself in that category.
The lack of rookie minicamp or OTAs before July’s roster reduction from 90 to 80 players led to Rutter’s release before he even got to throw his first pass for the team.
“We were quarantining and doing our training camp physicals,” Rutter told USA TODAY Sports. “I got called in, in the morning, told hey, ‘Because we have to reduce these rosters, there’s going to be no reps for a fourth quarterback,’ and that it was really unfortunate. But they told me their plan and (to) stay in shape and keep working out because it’s such a weird year, and you never know what could happen.”
Because of the unpredictability of how the coronavirus could spread throughout a locker room, roster depth and practice squad quality could make or break a team’s season. So although players covet roster spots, many should maintain optimism that practice squad selections will pave the way for promotions.
Patience and diligence represent the most important virtues for young players this season.
“I think the thing I tell those guys more so than anything else is that every rep is important,” Rivera said. “You have to put yourself in that position. Extra work after practice on your own is important because we can see that you’re doing the extra stuff. Show us that you want to be here. That is the thing they have to do.”