How NFL Teams Are Managing the Transition for This Year's Rookie Class

Rams director of player engagement Jacques McClendon explains the steps his team is taking to help rookies transition to the league. Plus, top Coach of the Year candidates, the Quarterback Coaching Summit and a tribute to former SI colleague Don Banks.
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At this point a year ago, Kyler Murray had thrown hundreds of balls to Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, Nick Bosa had the chance to size up Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey in a practice setting, and Maxx Crosby had opened eyes in Oakland to clear a path toward playing a bigger role on defense than a teammate taken 102 picks earlier.

Meanwhile, undrafted free agents like Preston Williams in Miami, Duck Hodges in Pittsburgh, and Deonte Harris in New Orleans had lined themselves up for a run not just at roster spots in the summer, but roles in the fall.

This year, their 2020 counterparts spent the spring staring into laptop screens.

It goes without saying that the class drafted into pro football two months ago will enter training camp—presumably in late July—behind where classes of the last few years were at the same juncture. Joe Burrow’s experience with A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd isn’t what Murray’s was with his guys 12 months ago, and Chase Young hasn’t so much as gotten down in a stance and looked across at an NFL tackle yet. And none of the later-round or undrafted guys have gotten much of a shot to show a coach he should’ve gone higher than he did.

So expectations will have to be tempered and, somehow, teams will have to make up the difference. That’s where guys like Jacques McClendon come in. The Rams’ director of player engagement was charged this offseason, like 31 others in his role across the league, with finding a better way to indoctrinate a crew of 21-, 22- and 23-year-olds into NFL life without the benefit of actually getting to meet any of them in person.

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” McClendon said. “You’re usually in-person, you’re used to building that camaraderie, onboarding them from a culture standpoint, by being in the building, being around the important staff members, coaches, everyone in our football operations that makes this thing go, being able to introduce them to that. Just it being virtual this year, there definitely were some challenges to building that.”

The Rams won’t know for sure whether or not they surmounted those challenges for a while. But to McClendon, seeing how Sean McVay has handled this month gave him a pretty good sign they did their job—the Rams coach broke the players for summer three Mondays ago, letting the rookies go as he did the veterans.

And for those guys, the first big test will come the next time they’re together. Which, in this strange year, will also be the first time they’re together.

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Rams director of player engagement Jacques McClendon (left) and Rams second-round pick Cam Akers (right).

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We’re keeping the train rolling here with the virtual offseason in its last days. In this week’s GamePlan, you’ll find …

• My top contenders for Coach of the Year.

• Results of the QB Coaching Summit this week.

• Why the NFL will need time to ramp players up.

But we’re starting with how McClendon and the Rams handled their rookies, to give you guys a window into the challenges all of this season’s first-year guys are facing.

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I had an interesting back and forth over text with a few personnel directors on Thursday morning, after asking them about their expectations for rookies. And one brought up a really interesting point to drive home the idea that it’ll take a certain kind of rookie to overcome all that’s in front of him.

“That’s why Payton traded all those picks for [third-round TE Adam] Trautman,” he texted. “Let me just get three dudes who I know will make it and maybe contribute. You’re gonna have so many fifth-, sixth-, seventh-rounders not make it, or make it solely on draft selection status. These dudes are going to show up out of shape and having never taken a physical rep or played with their teammates. Huge adjustment.”

Now, when I discussed the Saints draft class with Payton a few weeks back, he said, on first-round center Cesar Ruiz, “I had a very clear vision for the player.”

Translation: He knew exactly what he was getting. Second-round linebacker Zack Baun and Trautman had similar reputations, as guys who loved football, and were mature and ready to be professionals, and had skill sets that would allow them to carve out specific roles in the New Orleans program. And to get those guys, the Saints literally traded every other piece of draft capital away—knowing, as our personnel director said, Day 3 would be a crapshoot.

If you don’t have vision for a player? If he isn’t as mature? Good luck.

“Guys haven’t even been in their facilities yet,” said another scouting director in the thread. “They’ve been doing everything on Zoom. How can we expect them to play a huge role?”

And that brings us back to McClendon and the Rams, and two advantages he thinks he and his department had going into all this as they try to get the guys ready to, yes, actually play roles for a team that’ll need them in the fall.

The first one comes with the fact that the organization had a head start on a lot of other teams, in that the front office had already begun implementing virtual meetings on the business side and in scouting. The initial intention was to help everyone better manage their work/life balance. And once COVID-19 hit, the experience of having done it became huge, giving everyone a foundation in the technology and how to best communicate over it.

The second one came simply in the Rams’ process. Player development people are woven into the pre-draft screening of prospect, so McClendon had good background on who each of the team’s draft picks were as they came off the board in April.

“I know most of these guys before they come in, because [Rams GM Les Snead] is so empowering with me, and lets me be involved with the scouting process,” McClendon said. “And our scouts do such a great job deep-diving on the character of these guys, you know who they are, so you know who you’re dealing with. I think our process and onboarding is unbelievable. We truly know our guys and make sure they’re a fit before they even get in the building.”

It also allowed for McClendon to tailor the program for all of them collectively. In some cases, it meant doing things as a group. In others, it meant working with guys individually.

The schedule. With the group stuff, it was important for McClendon to be cognizant of guys’ attention spans—knowing that there’d be a lot for the rookies to digest from McVay and his staff, and that there’d be a point of diminishing returns if guys wound up staring at screens for too long.

The rookies started with the program the day after Mother’s Day, and McClendon had work for them five days a week. But only two of the five days would incorporate Zoom meetings with the player development people. The other three would have players doing modules, assigned by either the league or the team, on their own time.

“It was definitely tough to onboard them and not wear them out via Zoom, while they’re also being worn down by Zooms with the coaches,” McClendon said. “We had to be very intentional with how many times we touch them from our standpoint because the coaching aspect, making sure they get onboarded with the playbook, to me, is the most important aspect of this time of year.”

The relationships. Some teams brought speakers in to “meet” with their rookie class, and McClendon’s done those sorts of things during the rookie transition program in the past—he’s brought classes to Dodgers games and over to Eric Dickerson’s house for dinner. This year, as he saw it, he wanted to use the time he had with the rookies differently, based on what their needs were in an unusual situation.

And at the top of the needs list was relationship building. So rather than have celebrity guests, McClendon filled the schedule with presentations from different departments of the Rams organization, so the rookies could get to know their co-workers better.

“I brought in our nutritionist, I brought in Artis [Twyman] and his [PR] team, I brought in our strength-and-conditioning team, our athletic training team,” McClendon said. “That was hardest part. Normally, you’d get to know these guys on a personal basis, but now it’s just me, the only person you see on that level other than your coaches within the organization. So my thought process was, ‘Dude, we need to use this process for the necessary modules, but also to get them introduced to the people they’re going to be dealing with every day.’”

The education. The Rams, like most teams, try to be comprehensive in ingratiating their rookies. And one of the most important areas for the team over the years has been in financial literacy—the organization has had a policy not to sign their rookies until they complete that part of their offseason program.

As such, that was tentpole again this year. But in a different way. In conjunction with the team’s partners at UNIFY Financial Credit Union, McClendon organized a one-on-one session for each rookie, thinking that was one place where individualized learning was vital.

“This wasn’t to get business [for UNIFY], it was purely informational,” McClendon said. “And this is stuff you don’t learn in your finance class in college. You don’t learn a lot of personal finance, they don’t quite understand it yet, so we dove deep into that to give them some nuggets and strategies to make them successful once they start getting some checks.”

The second adjustment. On the relationship-building front, McClendon felt like everything that happened in this country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing opened up his rookies to show a little bit more of who they are. And he pointed right to how seventh-round pick Tremayne Anchrum was open about his experience at Clemson.

“I don’t know if you saw the conversation he had with Chris Fowler, giving him perspective on the current environment, where things are,” McClendon said. “To see somebody with so much maturity at that age, there’s no way this guy was a senior in college just a year ago. He did an unbelievable job, he talked in our team meeting, he talked in our organizational meeting. And I’ll save his comments, because I want to protect his privacy. But for me, to see somebody of that age to be able to have that perspective is rare.”

***

And now, the hard part will come. Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Terrell Lewis and the rest of the 30-some rookies that’ll report to Thousand Oaks in a few weeks will arrive flying, to some degree, blind, without the benefit most rookies get, in seeing how they stack up on the field in the spring.

Therein lies maybe the number one thing that McClendon and his staff have had their eyes on with the group—these are heavy times, and all the rookies are entering a new environment that’s lacking the normal ramping-up period.

“The biggest thing for these guys, honestly, is anxiety,” McClendon said. “There’s a lot of anxiety. And we do a great job in the mental health space. Reggie Scott, our senior director of sports performance, oversees that. And that’s really one of the things we wanted to concentrate on with the guys as well. There’s a lot of anxiety—When are we gonna start? How will it start? Just making sure we’re catering to that, and giving them outlets to talk to, giving them breathing exercises, things to read to stay up on their mental health.

“I’m telling you, that’s the biggest component of what’s going on right now, the mental health of our athletes, and how they’re dealing with a very abnormal situation.”

That’s also, for McClendon, where he’s getting the most peace these days. He mentioned twice during our conversation how many rookies—"at least 25 of them”—took the time to hang on at the end of a Zoom or two to thank the player development staffers for their help, and let them know how much they appreciated it. “That was pretty special,” McClendon said.

And so he feels like all those guys have a pretty good shot at handling what’s in front of them, come the end of July. The good news then would be that, if they do get through all of this with a level head, it stands to reason they’ll be better for the experience.

“I think of dealing with adversity, given the hand they’ve been dealt, it’s unlike any rookie year I can think of,” said McClendon, who was a player for the lockout year of 2011. “To me, this is even different than back in 2011. At least then, you could go work out wherever you wanted. … So dealing with adversity, I think it’s going to help them overcome the first two, three, four days [of camp] where there’s probably gonna be some growing pains.

“You’ll look back and say, ‘I can’t believe what I went through in May and June and July, and now I’m here.’ I think they’ll be prepared to take advantage of the moment even better and not micromanage the growing pains. They’ve already dealt with so much adversity, I can’t imagine them as players, what’s going through their heads. They’ve taken it head on, that’s where I’d say they’ll be ahead of the curve.”

At least, that’s the hope. We’ll see the reality soon enough.

***

Mike McCarthy

POWER RANKINGS

And we’ll continue our preseason postseason awards rankings with our top contenders for Coach of the Year (Odds courtesy of Oddsshark.com).

1) Mike McCarthy, Cowboys (+1400): This is a super-tricky list to come up with, because so much of it is based on narratives and perception. It’s not really about who’s the best coach, but who’s got the best story to tell. Case-in-point: Sean Payton and John Harbaugh are at +2200, mostly because they’d have to go 16-0, or close to it, to win the award. So give me McCarthy, a really good coach, who’s got a good veteran staff, and a talented roster that’s very capable of getting to the 12 wins or so it’d take for him to walk away with the hardware.

2) Bill Belichick, Patriots (+1000): Normally, you could file Belichick away in the Payton/Harbaugh category—he’s won the award three times, and went a combined 44-4 in those seasons. But this year, with the departure of Tom Brady, and the veteran exodus on defense, a 10-win season may do the trick. And I’m not going to be the one who says that can’t happen.

3) Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals (+1800): Did you know the last three winners of the award did it with second-year quarterbacks getting to the playoffs? It’s true. And as was the case with John Harbaugh, Matt Nagy and Sean McVay, Kliff Kingsbury will get a lot of credit if Kyler Murray’s piloting a contender into December. I’m not sure that Arizona makes the playoffs. I am sure that if they do, Kingsbury will be squarely in the middle of this race.

4) Bill O’Brien, Texans (+5500): I’ve gotten to the point where I’m a little confused by how O’Brien’s perceived—he has the second longest odds of any coach for this award. Houston’s had a winning record in five of O’Brien’s six seasons, and made the playoffs in four of those years, advancing twice. Does he need to eventually break through and make the conference title round? Sure. And I get the reaction to the trades of DeAndre Hopkins (this year) and Jadeveon Clowney (last year). But I think the Texans are going to be a lot better along the lines of scrimmage this year, and could have a 11- or 12-win team, with Deshaun Watson having a more balanced offense around him. If that happens, based on how O’Brien’s been beaten up, he’ll deserve consideration.

5) Bruce Arians, Buccaneers (+1000): Arians was co-favorite with Belichick. Why isn’t he higher? Because I think if Tampa winds up going 12-4 or 13-3, the award voters will likely assign more credit to Tom Brady than they do Arians. Maybe I’m wrong. But I think that’ll be how this one works.

***

THE BIG QUESTION

What was accomplished at this week’s Quarterback Coaching Summit?

Because of the dearth of minority head coaches in the NFL, and the times we’re in, this week’s summit (which I detailed last week in this column) got more attention than it may ever have. But what, exactly, did those in charge get done?

To find out, I sat in on all of Monday’s proceedings, and a piece of Tuesday’s, and it gave me a better understanding, and context, for the aim of NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent, Fritz Pollard Alliance executive director Rod Graves, and the Black College Football Hall of Fame in putting it together. Here’s what I took …

Learning for young coaches. I thought Titans coach Mike Vrabel was awesome discussing how to build a staff—one big emphasis was being able to say no to friends, and another was having a diverse enough group to reach every player on your roster—and how a culture is tested (i.e., it’s easy to have good culture when you’re winning). Niners DC Robert Saleh was also great, explaining 10 lessons he’s taken from coaching, while detailing his journey (complete with a story of passing out while presenting to staffmates at Central Michigan).

Exposure for coaches known and less known. That there were owners on the call was important in this area, because they’re the one doing the hiring. And the guys who came on got to see Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in a way they may not have before, detailing his philosophy A-to-Z. But they also got to check out rising stars they may be a little less familiar with, like Clemson OC Tony Elliott. Elliott’s presentation was on recruiting, not related as much to the NFL, but his command was obvious.

Job descriptions. I thought it was really interesting how they had Saints quality control coach D.J. Williams (Doug Williams’s son) explain his job, and how it works day-to-day and over the course of a calendar year—and he was just one of a few guys explaining what they do and how it works within a staff dynamic. To me, if you’re a younger coach on the call, that worked to give you a good handle on the different entry points to the NFL game.

Job criteria. Certainly, the interview presentations showed what an owner would look for in a head coach, or a head coach would look for in an assistant. But there were also areas where the owners were more deliberate in explaining it. Steelers owner Art Rooney told the group that the one common trait he saw between Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin—the three coaches the Steelers have had since 1969—is each is a great communicator. Giants owner John Mara, meanwhile, admitted he’s fallen into the hot coordinator trap before, and says he now looks for more of a CEO in a head coach.

And afterwards, I debriefed with Graves, who was happy with how the event went.

“I think the obvious impact is that, you hope, based on the presentations, we reflect back a year from now, and we’ll be able to point to a couple hires, at least, that happen as a result of those presentations,” he said. “So number one is jobs. And then, I thought the league accomplished its goal, to have a great learning experience. I thought the content was very interesting, very helpful for the people on the call. The presenters did an excellent job.

“Number two, it certainly provided exposure for people on the stage—to owners, to head coaches, to the decision-makers. … And third, it was really an opportunity for people in decision-making roles to see the talent out there. This was only a glimpse of it, but I thought it was well-represented, at both the pro and college levels.”

Graves was also happy with how the league organized the event, and made it work over Zoom, approximating, to a reasonable degree, how things would’ve gone in person. On the flip side, he, like a lot of others, was disappointed that 10 of the NFL’s 32 teams weren’t represented in the audience.

“I heard today,” Graves said Wednesday. “Now, to answer your question, I am disappointed all 32 weren’t represented. I didn’t learn of that until today, because I didn’t have the ability to see all of who was on. But this is an important topic for the league, one that’s been well-discussed, in terms of diversity and opportunity. And I think it certainly should’ve manifested in 100% participation from the league’s teams.

“So I do believe it is a disappointment, that all the teams weren’t represented on the call. I find that to be a bit inexcusable, simply because too many options are available for having representation. To say no one was available, it’s inexcusable.”

Now, obviously, when most people are looking for the results of all this, they’ll be looking to next January’s hiring cycle, and which coaches get shots at being in charge. But the sense I’ve gotten in talking to these guys is that it’s just as important to improve diversity in the offensive coordinator and quarterback coaching ranks, because those are traditional fast tracks. As of today, there are just two minorities in each of those positions in the NFL.

And while we won’t know for a while whether change is coming or not, Graves and the rest of the guys felt pretty good that some steps forward were taken this week.

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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The possibility of injuries in camp, and into the season.

And I think it’s crazy we haven’t discussed this more as we’ve dissected when players will report, how many preseason games will get played, and whether or not the season will start on time, over the second weekend in September.

Here’s the crux of it: NFL doctors were presented with data after 2011 that showed a serious uptick in Achilles and hamstring injuries during that lockout-affected season. That happening, you’ll remember, was part of the concern going into training camp that summer, because everything was rushed, and players hadn’t conditioned under the supervision of their teams for six months or so.

This year, on paper, there’s even more reason for concern since players haven’t had the same access to gyms or trainers that they would’ve even back in 2011, and have had to get creative to stay in shape as a result.

This, by the way, is why the NFL’s joint committee on health and safety has recommended a three-week re-acclimation period. It’d start with limits on how many players could be in the building at one time (to limit exposure if one of them have the virus) as guys get tested and take physicals, then a lengthy strength-and-conditioning period before helmets go on.

I mentioned this the other day, and it’s the truth—the schedule is going to be tight if the league’s going to start on time. If camp starts at the normal reporting date of July 28 (for most teams), that means helmets go on, under this plan, on Aug. 18. Realistically, then, the earliest the first preseason weekend could be would be Aug. 27-30, which is, for now, Week 3 on the preseason schedule.

The opener is two weeks after that. Is that enough time to have guys ready to play actual football? If the league stands firm on starting the season on time, and it has thus far against the wishes of a few teams, then we’re probably going to find out.

***

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THE FINAL WORD

I was so happy to see former SI colleague Don Banks named the 2020 McCann Award winner, which brings induction into what’s the sort of “writer’s wing” of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Banks, for those who aren’t aware, tragically, suddenly passed away on Hall of Fame weekend last summer. And it hit a lot of us pretty hard.

What I’ll always remember about Don is how he’d be tough on me when I needed it, and how he was always there to give me advice. Sometimes, in our business, it’s hard to find peers who’ll give you the truth, and he always gave me that. So it was that, when I was thinking about leaving NFL Network for SI four years ago, he had a drink with me at the owners meeting in Florida and said, “Peter [King] will take care of you.”

Don’s word was gold, and three months later, as a result of that advice, I was alongside him at SI.

We’ll have more on Banks in the Monday column. But for now, I just wanted to make sure I mentioned him, and say that I hope Alyssa, Micah and Matt have gotten to see just how much he meant to all of us over the last year, with this award being another great sign of that.

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