The Vikings, and I assume some other NFL teams, have been conducting online meetings with players and coaches for at least a couple weeks now, although reports about what’s been going on with them have been scarce lately. Some players have been working out together as well, and coaches are encouraging players to video tape themselves doing whatever technique asked of them so coaches can, in turn, critique their performance and hopefully help the player improve.
But none of that adequately replaces what is taught and done in real OTAs and minicamp, and so player development has doubtlessly been slowed as a result.
In the midst of this, there is a new report from Adam Schefter that players may not report until training camp, which typically begins at the end of July. Undoubtedly that would be a setback for player development in general, and rookies in particular.
It’s not clear at this point if the NFL and NFLPA would allow some sort of extended training camp, beginning earlier in July, or if in the coming weeks belated OTA/mini-camp sessions would still be held at team facilities, but even if they are, it may be more difficult for rookies to get up to speed with veterans in camp competitions.
That could have an impact on the whole slate of 15 draft picks the Vikings selected this year, along with all the UDFAs too.
From a coaching perspective, often times coaches like to see the progress players make from the beginning of OTAs, into mini-camp, and finally training camp. Not only does that give them a sense of where each player is at in their development, particularly rookies, it also gives them a sense of their development trajectory, which often impacts, at the margin, who makes the roster and who doesn’t.
For example, Player A may begin OTAs ahead of Player B in their development, but by the end of training camp Player B has eclipsed Player A, who developed more slowly. As a result, Player B made the team and Player A did not. In a more compact off-season schedule, which may include only training camp, it may be more difficult for coaches to see a player’s development trajectory, and also makes it more difficult to choose, at the margin, who makes the team and who doesn’t.
Prioritizing Reps and Playing Time
The other aspect of an off-season that may include only training camp in terms of real practice, is prioritizing reps. In a compact off-season, coaches may prioritize giving the starters all the reps they need to be ready for week one, at the expense of backups and others looking to prove themselves. It’s a difficult choice, but clearly the priority has to be on getting players who will actually be playing week one ready to go, rather than developing others that won’t be.
Working split fields, with starters playing on one field and backups on another at the same time - something the Vikings and other teams have done the last season or two in order to maximize player reps over limited practice time - has never been more important. But that also puts extra stress on coaches, who would necessarily be more spread out and unable to observe and coach every player.
It also means coaches are going to have to make some early choices on who’s running with the 1s, 2s, and 3s.
For the Vikings, that means players like Holton Hill, Mike Hughes, and Kris Boyd may have an advantage over players like Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler, and Harrison Hand when it comes to reps and ultimately who starts week one.
Similarly, rookies like Ezra Cleveland, James Lynch and Troy Dye, who could compete for starting positions, may find that opportunity lost for now as coaches focus more on getting veterans ready for starting roles.
Even top draft pick Justin Jefferson could be impacted in his playing time, as the Vikings may choose to go with Adam Thielen and Bisi Johnson early on in 2 WR sets, while Jefferson may be more slowly worked into the starting lineup in 3 WR sets.
What About Free Agents ?
All the Coronavirus precautions also cut free agency short, as teams wanted their own doctors to evaluate possible free agent acquisitions before making any deals. There are several fairly good free agents still out there, but everything seems to remain in a holding pattern until the precautions are lifted.
But that also impacts how quickly free agent acquisitions can be integrated, as they too will be subject to a short training schedule. For the Vikings, free agent acquisition Michael Pierce will be the starting nose tackle, replacing the departed Linval Joseph, but he’ll have less time to get acclimated with his fellow defensive linemen.
The other aspect of the compact training schedule, as it relates to free agency, is that often teams evaluate who they have on their roster, and only when they find one or more players not making the grade do they opt to acquire a free agent to fill the gap. But this year, should that situation happen (probably not as big a concern for the Vikings as some other teams), any free agent acquisition could have only a week or two with his new team before taking the field week one.
Lastly, the shortened off-season could make it more likely that former Vikings such as Everson Griffen and Josh Kline have more limited appeal, and with more limited compensation offers, which could make it more likely they end up with the Vikings on more team friendly deals - if the Vikings are interested in re-acquiring them.
The shortened off-season puts added pressure on coaching staffs to get their players ready for week one. That favors teams with continuity in scheme, coaches, and players. The Vikings have a large degree of continuity in that regard, even though there is more turnover this year than the basically zero turnover they had last season.
Which organizations are able to handle this situation the best may show up in who does the best in September. Those who are able to get their players up to speed and work out the kinks faster may be rewarded with an early advantage in the win-loss column. Those still struggling with mistakes could find themselves in a deep hole, and perhaps even out of the running by the time they get to their bye-week.
Does the shortened off-season put the Vikings at an advantage or disadvantage relative to their first four opponents - Packers, Colts, Titans, and Texans?
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