Get ready for an NFL training camp unlike any other.
The league’s agreement with the players Friday, assuring camps will open on time, also means COVID-19-related alterations will make the run-up to the 2020 regular season different than any the NFL has seen.
The changes start immediately.
While the Seahawks are scheduled to report Tuesday, players won’t actually enter the building until Aug. 1 at the earliest, with four days devoted to testing (players must have two negative tests, scheduled to be taken Tuesday and Friday) and virtual meetings.
Then comes eight days of strength and conditioning before full practices are allowed for the first time on Aug. 12 (in helmets and shells only).
The initial practices will be noncontact affairs, with teams not putting on pads until Aug. 17 at the earliest, creating a 20-day acclimation period before players do any hitting.
There will be no preseason games.
To offset the lack of games, teams can hold up to 14 padded practices (initial proposals called for only eight padded practices), and will have four weeks of full practice time before the season begins the second weekend of September. The Seahawks’ opener is Sept. 13 at Atlanta.
Just how the changes to training camp will impact how rosters are formed and teams perform once the regular season begins will be a much-discussed topic.
To get an expert’s opinion on things to look for as a most-unique training camp begins to unfold, we consulted with Jim Nagy, who was a scout with the Seahawks from 2013-18 before becoming executive director of the Senior Bowl.
Here are four thoughts from Nagy:
Young players will need some time to feel their way around
The 20-day acclimation period won’t just hopefully assure that players are as healthy and fit as possible before putting on pads but will also give rookies and other players new to the team some needed time to learn their surroundings.
Typically, teams would have been in the building holding meetings and practicing for roughly two months during the spring as part of the offseason program.
This year, the offseason program was conducted virtually, and for the Seahawks’ 25 rookies, this week will mark their first time in the VMAC as actual NFL players.
“I think that gets overlooked, just knowing where you are going,’’ Nagy said. “Knowing how to get from where you are living to the facility. Where do I get my check every week. All the things that guys work through in May and June, not only are they going to have to work out the football stuff, but that other stuff, too, is going to have to get worked out.’’
That includes how to fit in with the locker room.
Players did have hours of Zoom meetings in May and June to begin getting acquainted. Still, Nagy says there is a locker-room dynamic and chemistry that typically begins to be established in the spring, which is particularly vital for players new to the team. What will help is some strong leadership from the likes of veterans such as Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner.
Throw it all together and Nagy said, “There is going to be a lot put on this rookie class that most first-year groups don’t have to work through.’’
Nagy said that’s one reason NFL execs he knows say they placed a premium this year on evaluating how quickly they felt rookie players could acclimate to the NFL on and off the field.
“GMs (general managers) were really mindful of, even more than in normal years, stressing intelligence in the evaluation periods just because they knew this offseason wasn’t going to be the same and there wasn’t going to be the usual hands-on reps,’’ Nagy said.
If there’s good news there, it’s that the two-plus weeks before the full team takes the field should allow for decent transition time.
Evaluating how players rise to the occasion could be tricky
How much teams rely on preseason game performance to dictate roster decisions is always a matter of debate. Most players who perform well in preseason games generally have already made a positive impression in meetings and practice. Wilson was drawing plaudits for his command of the offense as early as the team’s rookie minicamp in 2012.
Still, there are always those players who save their best for gameday.
“You always have those guys who show out in practice a little bit, but then you want it to translate to when the lights come on,’’ Nagy said. “Everybody outside of football belittles the preseason, but when that’s your team and you are trying to cut down those are big moments, and you want to see guys take advantage of those opportunities. You are definitely going to lose out on that.’’
That’s where practice structure comes in, Nagy said. More than ever, teams will have to create situations — be it scrimmages or competitive periods — to try to replicate gamelike situations as closely as possible.
“They are going to have to try to find those equivalent periods to get a better gauge of where those young guys are,’’ Nagy said.
“But you also haven’t done any of the installation (of the playbook) on the field yet. You’ve only done the install in the meetings. So you are going to have to balance the install periods with competitive situations. It’s going to take a lot of planning.’’
Roster size may not really matter much
Interestingly, Nagy said he doesn’t think the early cutdown in roster size from 90 to 80 will be a big deal in determining the 53-man roster.
Last year, teams were allowed to carry all 90 guys through the end of the preseason.
This year, teams can cut to 80 as soon as they want and must do so by Aug. 16, the time of the first padded practice. It was a concession made in part to try to further diminish the risk of COVID-19 transmission and ease protocols (teams that keep more than 80 players will have to practice in two groups — reported to be veterans in one group and rookies in another — with only 80 players allowed in the facility at a time).
Nagy said teams will mostly be cutting players they’d likely end up cutting anyway.
“I think if most personnel guys were honest with you, they’ve got a pretty good idea of who the top 60 are going into camp,’’ Nagy said. “That can change — guys come in and they are in better shape, they’ve changed physically maybe. But for the most part, you’ve got a good idea of the top 60-65 going into camp. I don’t think it changes things drastically.’’
Nagy notes that some of those 10 players could be back quickly.
With no offseason program, Nagy says there is a danger in more players than usual suffering “soft-tissue injuries’’ — hamstring strains or muscle pulls, etc. To replace injured players, teams might look first to some of those 10 they had to cut.
The lines will be the most difficult positions to evaluate — which may not be ideal for the Seahawks
Teams can generally get a good feel for skill position players on offense — and back seven players on defense — during noncontact practices. Assessing how well quarterbacks throw (and the decisions they make), how well cornerbacks cover, receivers catch, etc., doesn’t necessarily require full-pads, full-contact practices.
Harder to judge until pads go on are the players in the trenches.
“It’s hard to evaluate the big guys in the offseason without pads,’’ Nagy said. “It just is.’’
That will make the 14 padded practices critical for the linemen, and especially for the Seahawks in assembling an offensive line in which only one position seems to have a sure starter heading into camp — left tackle Duane Brown.
Nagy said he thinks teams can make up in the padded practices the time building chemistry they might usually get in preseason games working together (and as everyone notes, every team is dealing with the same general challenges).
Still, he said for teams like the Seahawks with so many new pieces up front — they could have at least three new starters who are in their first year with the team at center, right tackle and right guard — it’ll be vital to identify the starting five quickly, so it can get the necessary time working together.
“In a practice setting how do you create enough physical situations where the best five shakes out?’’ Nagy said. “That is certainly a challenge.’’
Nagy said he thinks that’s why the Seahawks made the decision to draft a player such as Damien Lewis — who made 15 starts last year with national champ LSU at right guard — while also signing a number of free agents who have significant NFL experience.
“Lewis played 15 games last year, so he’ll be ready to roll,’’ Nagy said. “I think they have all the right pieces. But now it needs to come together.’’