We have spent some time this offseason discussing how the limitations on practice time and the potential for illness caused by COVID-19 could impact the New York Giants during the upcoming NFL season.
Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks recently listed several ways teams all across the NFL could be impacted. While we have covered much of this ground both here and on our podcasts, I thought it would be useful to look at Brooks’ perspective and offer some commentary on it.
1) Veterans will have significant advantages in roster battles.
The lack of a standard preseason will prompt some coaches to rely on familiar faces when the regular season kicks off. Veterans will jump to the front of the line due to their knowledge and experience. Journeymen, in particular, should be able to parlay their expertise into contributing roles. In critical moments, coaches prefer trustworthy players with the capacity to execute their assignments under pressure. Veterans not only have the experience to make plays in those situations, but coaches are well aware of their players’ resumes — and this matters when making decisions on the roster, depth chart and rotation.
Valentine’s View: Bottom line is coaches think about the game they have to play that week. They don’t focus on next week, next month, next year. They focus on right now. Because their jobs generally depend on that. Coaches want, at bare minimum, to be able to trust that a player knows what he is doing or is supposed to do when he steps on the field.
Guys who have been in the league for a while can generally be trusted to understand what they need to do, especially in a year where there is such limited practice time.
I’m reminded of what veteran NFL offensive line coach Paul Alexander told me the other day. We were talking specifically about the center position when he said this:
“Don’t put the guy in there with the greatest promise who’s not real smart because then you have a potential disaster situation.”
It applies to other positions, as well. Coaches will lean toward playing guys they can trust, even if age or athletic limitations might limit what that player can do physically.
2) Teams will need to be patient with their draftees.
For the majority of teams, draftees are essentially guaranteed roster spots, with most expected to contribute in Year 1. Whether they make their mark as special teams standouts, rotational players or immediate starters, draftees are penciled into the lineup due to the team’s investment (draft capital and financial commitment) in their potential. Thus, these guys are odds-on favorites to earn roster spots in normal circumstances. And the pandemic will make it hard for decision-makers to move on from draftees without an entire offseason to evaluate their development and long-term potential.
“Draft picks get every opportunity to make the team,” a former NFL general manager said. “If you’ve invested a draft pick and money in them, you want to give them a chance to develop into the player that you envisioned. Sometimes, it takes a little longer for them to find their way, but you have to trust what you’ve seen on the tape and how you evaluated them throughout the process.
“You can’t give up on them too soon.”
Valentine’s View: Reality is draft picks always have an advantage. At least as long as the general manager and coach who drafted them are in those positions. Teams want a return on their investments, and they have more (in both money and reputation) invested in draft picks than undrafted players or waiver claims. Thus, those guys get more chances.
Talk to undrafted guys — and I have talked to dozens over the years — and they will all tell you going undrafted doesn’t matter as long as they get an opportunity. Reality is it does matter, because they don’t get the same opportunity drafted players or veterans with hefty contracts do.
3) UDFAs could face long odds of making active rosters.
Despite the 24/7/365 attention paid to the draft nowadays, the NFL has quietly become somewhat of a working-class league comprised of scores of players who were never drafted. Last year, according to Over The Cap, 31 percent of the players on opening day rosters were former undrafted free agents who earned their spots through exceptional performances during training camp and preseason games. Think about that. Nearly a third of the active players in Week 1 last season were unheralded guys who worked their way onto rosters by overcoming the odds.
But without an extensive offseason program and full preseason to impress and earn the trust of coaches, it will be much harder for UDFAs to make the cut. There simply isn’t enough time or reps to supplant established veterans for the final roster spots. Remember: Many camp battles are ultimately decided by the special teams coach because of the importance of the kicking game, but it is harder to determine if young guys are ready to contribute in that phase without game action. Coaches are more likely to rely on their experienced players in the kicking game during the early part of the season, due to the expertise and urgency required to excel at this facet of the game.
Valentine’s View: As Brooks indicated, while not having preseason games might be the prudent thing to do for health reasons, it is these undrafted players who are going to get hurt by that. They didn’t get an opportunity to impress coaches in the spring, when reps for bottom of the roster players are more plentiful. They will get few, if any, practice reps in training camp. They aren’t going to get chances to make plays in preseason games.
4) Rookie head coaches might get off to slow starts.
It is hard enough for new coaches to establish a new culture in normal circumstances, but it is almost impossible for a rookie coach to hit the ground running without preseason games. Sure, the coach can craft detailed practice plans and well-structured scrimmages. But there’s nothing like coaching in a game. Which is why the three men who’s never been a head coach for an NFL game — the Panthers’ Matt Rhule, Browns’ Kevin Stefanski and Giants’ Joe Judge — are facing quite a challenge.
From leading a 53-man roster and a group of coaches to managing timeouts and making gutsy decisions in critical situations, the head coach faces a level of stress and pressure that’s unlike anything that he faces in a practice or simulated game. Without preseason games to go through the mechanics of leading a team in that challenging environment, the rookie coaches will have to undergo on-the-job training while attempting to win games that actually count.
The situation is compounded by the lack of an extensive offseason featuring fruitful classroom instruction and on-field workouts. Although the virtual classes of this offseason included traditional playbook installations and philosophical discussions, the inability for players to take the information from the classroom to the field during the summer will make it harder for new coaches to introduce complex schemes in the fall. Players might nod their heads in agreement when asked questions, but coaches won’t know if they actually understand the information until they’re asked to execute under pressure.
Valentine’s View: Judge has denied every time he has been asked that he and the Giants are at a disavantage because of the lack of preparation time. Well, guess what? They’re at a disadvantage. It’s why so much about Judge and the Giants will be hard to get a true read on this season.