GamePlan: Training Camp Is the Next Battleground on the Offseason Program

As the NFL and NFLPA go back and forth on how the calendar is structured, we're arriving at another milestone. Plus, Comeback Player of the Year favorites, the importance of QB work in the summer and more.
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Maybe a few years ago, someone like Jamie Collins would’ve felt compelled to be at his team’s offseason program. He’s 31, will turn 32 during the 2021 season, is making $9 million this year coming off a 5–11 campaign and is working with a new coach and GM.

But things across the NFL are changing. And they’re changing fast. So Collins, expecting the birth of his second son in the coming days, isn’t in Detroit right now. Instead, he’s in Charlotte, staying close to his girlfriend, so he can be there when the baby comes and be around for the start of the kid’s life.

Which, by the way, does not mean he isn’t getting his work in.

nfl-training-camp-offseason-program-jamie-collins

He’s on the phone and Zoom calls on a daily basis with his coaches, and even if he hasn’t met his new head coach (Dan Campbell) or defensive coordinator (Aaron Glenn) in person yet, he’s worked to build relationships with those guys and the rest of the staff. He’s also in meetings, if from the other side of a laptop, and he’s watched every practice that the Lions have run during the OTA portion of their offseason program.

“We talk all the time,” Collins said, over the phone on Wednesday afternoon. “That’s the thing, we just have to put a face with a name now. Being virtual, it’s FaceTime, it’s on the phone, we haven’t been face-to-face yet. And that’s why I’m so excited to get there, meet the guys, have a conversation with them.

“I’m eager to put a face with a name and get this thing rolling in Detroit. It’s past due, we’re due for a great season this year.”

Collins’s story isn’t an unusual one in the NFL this spring.

More than ever before, veteran players across the league are testing just how voluntary this portion of the offseason really is. Some, like Collins, have personal reasons for staying away from team facilities. Others feel like, professionally, it’s what’s best for them. And it’s an interesting development through an offseason where players have realized their power maybe more so than ever before.

In Detroit, Campbell, a Bill Parcells disciple, and his staff are working together with players through this new landscape brought about by things learned through the pandemic.

And the next step to it comes with training camp, which has provided another battleground for the players and the league.


In this week’s GamePlan, while we wait for Julio Jones to be traded and the first set of mandatory minicamps to come (that’s next week) …

• A look at our frontrunners for Comeback Player of the Year.

• The importance of having your quarterback at the offseason program.

• Patterns in teams’ willingness (or unwillingness) to trade franchise quarterbacks.

But we’re starting with what’s coming down the pike next in what’s been a very different NFL offseason.


We’ve told the story a few times now, and we’ll tell it again here. Back in the winter, the NFL and NFLPA opened negotiations on COVID-19 protocols for the 2021 offseason program. In time, the vaccine changed the dynamic and helped to loosen the NFL’s rules, and the conversation between the league and union started to shift.

Through their discussions with the general population of players, union leaders found that the guys really liked how they felt physically last year, even with the mental fatigue that the COVID protocols inflicted, thanks to the elimination of on-field spring camps and a slower ramp-up period to training camp. So the goal shifted from getting the COVID protocols right to overall reform in how the NFL offseason works.

The league pushed for a return to a normal offseason program. The union pushed back and asked for it to be all virtual. No agreement was reached, and from there, team-by-team, players and coaches worked out agreements that would lead to players’ showing up and the schedule being far less physically taxing than it has been in the past. A byproduct, as Collins’s case shows, is that the word “voluntary” is being applied literally far more than it has been in a long time. Another is these sort of coach/player partnerships have emerged.

That brings us to the next frontier: training camp.

The NFL and NFLPA are working through details now. One union source says, simply, “We just want something better,” and they presented the league with injury data that showed a 23% decrease in missed time due to injuries, a 30% decrease in concussions, ACL tears and lower-extremity strains falling within the five-year average and a 45% decrease in heat-related illness. And points were up, and penalties were down.

The league did respond in calling some of the numbers misleading, with Giants owner John Mara among those championing a return to the way it was prior to the pandemic.

So what exactly are they arguing over? Really, much of it comes down to how the summer is structured. And that starts with how players are onboarded into the season. Two years ago, through CBA negotiations, players got a five-day ramp-up period (up from three) baked into the training camp schedule. Last year, because of COVID and the lack of an offseason program, that ramp-up got extended to 14 days—with a nine-day acclimation period preceding the five-day ramp-up.

Players liked that, it turns out.

“They loved the ramp-up, they felt better, they felt way more prepared,” Browns center and NFLPA president J.C. Tretter told me a couple of weeks back. “For me, I was hurt coming in, but it’s how I came out of the season, what I felt like. I felt the best I’ve felt in more than five years. I was healthy, I was ready to get right back into training. I didn’t have to rest body parts, I felt mentally fresh. And that was the common anecdote, guys just felt better.

“It’s tough to tell a guy, you shouldn’t feel better. We all know how taxing COVID was. So the fact that guys came out of having to go through all the protocols and everything feeling good shows how much of a change it was. All that work, all that stress, they still felt good.”

Now, based on the calendar alone, it’d be tough to make last year’s model work this year. The training camp reporting date for 29 teams is July 27. If you start acclimation the next day, you’d be out of a two-week ramp-up period on Aug. 11. The first preseason games are scheduled for Aug. 12.

But the union is pushing for, in some way, a more deliberate reentry process that at least resembles the one that last year’s conditions necessitated. Or, again, in the union’s words, “something better.”


I don’t know what the answer will be, to be clear. But I do know this: More thought has gone into what’s best for players than ever before. Guys pay handsomely for a sort of bespoke training in the offseason set to their own needs and often see the benefit of it exceeding what their teams can bring them in April, May and June. As such, it should come as no surprise that they’re asking questions about training camp coming out of a radically different summer last year that almost accidentally led to promising results.

“Yeah, I loved the schedule last year,” said Steelers corner Cam Sutton, now going into his fifth year. “On a normal schedule, without the COVID rules and all that type of stuff, you’d have a lot of going back and forth, where you come in for OTAs and then you get out of the building for summer break, back for training camp. It’s a lot of gray area between the times, your guys go off and do the training and things.

“Working as a team together in the OTA period before heading out for the next break, guys kind of get lost in the mix, not having a consistent balance. … Having it all in one time period, like last year, going straight into training camp, having a whole year ahead of you, just coming all at the same time, guys were able to come together. And from there, you were really able to work together.”

Another thing that helped, for the veterans at least, was going into the season without the wear and tear of the preseason.

“I don’t think that we need four preseason games, we need maybe one or two, just to get the pace,” Sutton continued. “That was a big adjustment. … The guys definitely will tell you that they felt a lot fresher without that wear and tear, constantly getting beat up, between the offseason into the training camp schedule and then the [reduced] amount of hitting that you’re doing in between training camp without preseason going into the season.”

Collins, for his part, came up with an analogy. “It’s like a husband and wife,” he said. “You can be around them every day, but it’d be better if you missed her every once in a while.”

Along those lines, Collins said every part of last year excited him, even with the COVID-19 protocols weighing things down. Getting to see his teammates got him going. Getting to practice got him going. And when the season started, he felt like he was shot out of a cannon, even as a 30-year-old linebacker with seven NFL seasons on his odometer.

“I definitely felt that, personally,” Collins said. “Like I said, I missed it so much. You got preseason games, then the season, that leads you up into the regular season. But when you miss that, and you miss it so much? You just dive right in. There’s no toe-testing. Preseason, there’s toe-testing, and some guys don’t like that, they like to dive right in. With me, I felt pretty damn good because I didn’t have a preseason. There was no preseason, we lost the offseason, everything was virtual.

“I was so eager to get back into football, dive right into the regular season. I had so much energy. I don’t want to joke about it, but I was so excited and amped up …”

So excited that he accidentally bumped a referee in Week 1 and got tossed.

After settling down, though, Collins felt the difference through the season, and feels reinvigorated even now, which is part of why he’s comfortable doing his version of the offseason program from a different part of the country, and starting with Campbell and Glenn in a long-distance relationship.

As much as anything, he learned last year what he really needs to be ready for the grind of an NFL season.

“At this point, I would say a month,” Collins said. “Give me a month of running around, running, cutting, getting my legs back under me. … I don’t think it takes much. After being in the league so long, it comes pretty naturally. Take Tom Brady—I’m pretty sure a guy like that doesn’t need the offseason. He’s been doing it for so long. Being in the league a long time, it just comes naturally. And all you need to do is get about a month up under you, and you’re pretty much acclimated and ready to go.”

So Collins will get that month in August. For now, he’s going to hang back, be around for the birth of his son and get his work in on his own time.

After all, it worked before. And the fact that it did, it’s fair to say, has led to a lot more questions that might take some time to get answered.


dak prescott1

POWER RANKINGS

We’re continuing our 2021 award series today! So far, we have Washington LB Jamin Davis as DROY and Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence as OROY. This week, we have a fun one, because there are lots of good story lines attached to it—Comeback Player of the Year (odds courtesy, again, of sportsbettingdime.com).

1) Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys (+175): There’s a lot to like here. Prescott’s in Year 2 under Mike McCarthy, and Dallas held on to his OC Kellen Moore, despite overtures from Moore’s alma mater in January. He’ll be throwing to Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Zeke Elliott should be motivated. So with a little better injury luck up front, Prescott could really hit the ground running after carrying the team before getting hurt in 2020.

2) Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals (+700): Burrow, like some other guys leading this list, is coming back off a torn ACL. Unlike the others, Burrow plays a position where you can fairly easily manage around the aftereffects of such an injury. I’d bet on Burrow’s playing well, and he’s got some more help around him now, with Ja’Marr Chase and Jackson Carman drafted, and Riley Reiff signed.

3) Nick Bosa, DE, 49ers (+400): He was injured in Week 2 of 2020, giving him nearly a year of runway coming back, was dominant right before he got hurt, and would’ve been Super Bowl MVP had the Niners beaten the Chiefs the February before that. And he’s playing for his second contract. It’ll be tough for anyone to beat the quarterbacks out this year. Bosa’s got a shot to do it.

4) Carson Wentz, QB, Colts (+1000): This brings forward the age-old argument on this award: What is exactly is he coming back from? Not being very good? (He wasn’t last year, of course.) Thing is, though, that’s about a 13–4 roster he’s walking into, and if he plays well he’ll get credit for it. And I think he’s capable of playing well, and in the right place to do it.

5) Derwin James, S, Chargers (+2000): Again, this is a “story line” award, and James’s emerging as the player he looked like he was becoming as a rookie after two injury-racked seasons would be a good one. Now, his staying healthy is never guaranteed with James—injury problems were actually why he slipped in the draft in 2018, too. But if he can do it? There’s a lot of talent here, and he’s at a position a little less prone to lingering effects than, say, an offensive skill player like Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley or Odell Beckham might be.


Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws a pass during the third quarter against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

THE BIG QUESTION

Does it matter if your quarterback isn’t at the offseason program?

The question came up this week because of Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray’s missing time at offseason programs, and Tom Brady’s almost running a parallel program to the Buccaneers-sponsored one. And I think the answer isn’t so much yes or no, as it is it depends. And it depends primarily, to me, on whether you have a plan.

Murray has thrown with teammates in Dallas, Mayfield’s done the same in Austin. Brady’s synced up his work, as it was explained to me by multiple Buccaneers staffers, with what the Tampa staff is doing, which has allowed for the 43-year-old to run the show for the veterans, and Bruce Arians to hold a sort of developmental program concurrently within the NFL’s OTA parameters. I’d bet Brady will be fine. Murray has to earn the benefit of doubt on it, but we know he’s working.

That said, the idea that gains can’t be made this time of year is silly.

Brady himself confirmed it, saying this on the HODINKEE Radio podcast: “Midway through the year, I was still trying to figure out how to call the play. I just read [the plays] off my wristband and tried to visualize what was going to happen. It’s like learning a completely new language. You’ve spoken English for 20 years and someone goes, ‘Hey man, let’s speak some Spanish.’ And you are like, ‘Huh? That makes no sense to my brain.’ ”

That’s just one piece of building toward the season for a quarterback, and it happened even though Brady was holding workouts at a nearby high school, Berkeley Prep, when COVID-19 rules kept him and his teammates out of the team facility during the spring of 2020. Obviously, eventually, the Bucs got where they needed to be. But it’s not bananas to think that without that spring work, it might’ve taken a little longer.

And if it took a little longer, maybe they would’ve been, say, 10–6 and not 11–5, in which case they’d have been the sixth seed, rather than the fifth, and going to Seattle for the wild-card round rather than Washington. And maybe then, rather than using a playoff game against a 7–8–1 division champion to get their footing, the Bucs would’ve been in a dogfight more than 3,000 miles away against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. And you catch my drift.

The NFL has always been a game won on the margins. So little things like what’s happening now can wind up counting in the long run, and I say that with the acknowledgment, as we said in the lead, that different teams and different players need different things at different points in the calendar.


WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The nuance in why some teams are more willing to deal their quarterbacks than others.

And that’s the specific spot each team is in. To show it, I figured we’d look at four quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz and Matthew Stafford), and where the teams that traded them are right now in a number of relevant categories.

Eagles
Coach: First year
Dead money carried in 2021: $49.06 million
First-round picks in 22 23: Four
2019 record: 4–11–1

Lions
Coach: First year
Dead money carried in 2021: $42.53 million
First-round picks in ’22 to ‘23: Four
2019 record: 5–11

Packers
Coach: Third year
Dead money carried in 2021: $4.10 million
First-round picks in ’22 to ‘23: Two
2019 record: 13–3

Seahawks
Coach: 12th year
Dead money carried in 2021: $6.31 million
First-round picks in ’22 to ‘23: One
2019 record: 12–4

So here’s what this tells us: Philly and Detroit are actively going through rebuilds, and in doing so their quarterbacks became chips. The Eagles and Lions weren’t very good last year, had mortgaged contracts, went through coaching changes and consciously decided this was the year bite the bullet on the salary cap and start to use the draft to get the roster younger and more fiscally sustainable.

Conversely, the Packers and Seahawks are in win-now mode. They have coaches they’ve consistently won with. They have rosters with stars in the primes of their career, and comfortably made the playoffs last year. And whereas the spot the Lions and Eagles are in facilitated the discussion of flipping quarterbacks for capital, pulling the plug on Rodgers or Wilson in Green Bay or Seattle would signify changing the organizational course altogether.

Anyway, I’m not saying what I’ve got here is some sort of wild revelation. But I think the more we talk about quarterback movement, and where all of this goes in the future, and how willing teams on both sides of the equation are to do massive deals for quarterbacks, it’s important to remember that every situation is not the same.

And sometimes, simply looking at the spot a team is in can inform you on how willing it might be to detach from a player at the most important position in sports.


THE FINAL WORD

The Jaguars’ announcement of a new practice facility is worth a mention here—because it’s owner Shad Khan’s following through on a promise he made to Urban Meyer back in January. Meyer really had two things he was focused on in the negotiation. First was having multiyear deals to offer assistants, to assemble the best staff he could. Second was upgrading the Jags’ physical infrastructure, so Meyer would have a place people would want to work.

Good on Khan for making that investment, one that only makes which way Meyer’s program goes from here that much more interesting. The owner’s truly all-in.

More NFL Coverage:

Breer: Joe Burrow and the Long Road Back
Orr: Let’s Spice Up the NFL With New Ways to Score
Orr: The 10 Most Interesting Story Lines for the 2021 NFL Offseason