As states begin to reopen, the NFL and players association are discussing ways to safely bring teams back together and eventually stage games — and, while we doubt there will be minicamps in June, it seems like training camps might be able to begin on time in July.
With teams limited to virtual meetings (see the Seahawks’ tight ends) this offseason, coaches are missing out on key on-field prep time. The lack of physical work is putting everyone behind their usual timelines, and those adding new elements (e.g, coaches, quarterbacks and receivers) will find themselves even further behind once camps begin.
So, teams that have few major changes should have a jump on the rest — which could help in the first few weeks of the season.
As the Eagles’ Brandon Graham said of the NFC East, which features new coaches for all but Graham’s team: “It’s all about having an advantage, and I feel like we’ve got an advantage right now. We’ve got the same coach.”
That disadvantage is why Tom Brady and his new Tampa Bay teammates have been braving the pandemic to work together. And why rehabbing Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019, has been working with his receivers as well.
Russell Wilson usually works with his guys in June, and it seems possible that he will try to get new guys Greg Olsen and Phillip Dorsett and the rest of his skill players together before camp. California, his offseason home and workout state, is planning to let sports resume in early June.
Wilson said he has been using virtual meetings to best effect. “In terms of the rookies, I’m in a group message with all of the draft picks, so we’re having a good time getting those guys ready,” he told 710 ESPN. Five of Seattle’s eight drafted rookies are offensive players. “We’ve spent a lot of time (together) — hours upon hours. I spend about two hours with them every day. We’ve been putting the work in, so they’re way ahead, so it’s been good.”
But those virtual meetings and QB-driven workouts cannot make up for time lost trying to meld new team elements on the field. If training camps and preseason are truncated in any way, it will create even more problems.
“That’s gonna be a very big issue,” Pete Carroll said last month. “Our guys need six weeks of work to really get rolling. That’s what the league has always allowed us — a couple weeks and then four (preseason) games.
“There’s a certain level of competition and stress you need to be under to get your body to adapt and be ready for the level of play that the league demands. I don’t know how that’s going to go. But I do think it takes you five to six weeks anyway — and that’s coming off weeks and weeks of an entire offseason.”
Without the offseason work, it figures to take longer. The Seahawks, notoriously slow starters (2-8 in road openers, 5-10 in September road games), will have three new starters on their offensive line, which is likely to take weeks into the season to jell. Their line always has trouble early in seasons anyway, so missing padless minicamps probably won’t be any more of a disadvantage for them. But the passing game is a different story.
If Wilson is able to get in some time with Olsen, Dorsett and other skill guys ahead of camp, it will help significantly. Brian Schottenheimer has talked about moving D.K. Metcalf around more, and that is something they are behind on due to lack of minicamps.
We compared all of Seattle’s opponents, assessing prep difficulty based on changes involving coaches, projected rookie starters and offensive elements (quarterbacks, offensive linemen, receivers/tight ends). Seattle landed in the middle of the pack; five of 12 foes figure to have at least as tough a time getting ready as the Hawks. Three have new coaches and five are swapping out at least one coordinator. Three have new QBs. Washington is pulling the trifecta — coach, coordinators and QB.
Here’s a look at how difficult the prep figures to be for the Hawks and their first five opponents (difficulty rating is tallied from changes in coaching staff and projected starters — a point each for QB, WR/TE, OL and rookies):
Difficulty rating (1-10): 6.
Coaching changes: Passing/running coordinators from current staff.
Projected new starters: 7 (5 vets, 2 rookies, 3 OL, 1 TE)
What’s new: The Seahawks will be behind in the offensive line jelling, fitting in Dorsett & Olsen, expanding Metcalf’s role and blending their defense with new pass rushers, first-round linebacker Jordyn Brooks and new corner Quinton Dunbar (if he’s free).
At Atlanta (Week 1)
Difficulty rating: 5.
Coaching changes: DC Raheem Morris.
Projected new starters: 6 (4 vets, 2 rookies, 1 TE, 1 OL)
What’s new: The Falcons have two new starters on offense — RB Todd Gurley and TE Hayden Hurst — so they really just need to get Hurst up to speed (and hope Gurley stays healthy). Morris, a veteran coach, takes over Dan Quinn’s defense, which will have four key new players — DE Dante Fowler, OLB Charles Harris, CB A.J. Terrell, DL Marlon Davidson. The latter two are rookies who should both end up starting at some point. The Falcons also get back SS Keanu Neal, who suffered an Achilles injury in the first month last season. With QB Matt Ryan presumably healthy this time, the Falcons will be tough to beat in the opener in Georgia (especially with Wilson just 1-4 in season openers on the road).
New England (Week 2)
Difficulty rating: 4.
Coaching changes: Longtime OL coach Dante Scarnecchia retired.
Projected new starters: 5 (3 vets, 2 rookies, 1 QB, 1 TE)
What’s new: Now we will see how Bill Belichick does without Brady, for the first time since the QB Wally Pipped Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Belichick and Josh Daniels appear set to go with 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham, with Brian Hoyer back for yet another stint. The big challenge will be getting Stidham on the same page as veterans James White and Julian Edelman, getting 2019 first-rounder N’Keal Harry more involved and working in rookie TEs Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. On defense, Belichick is replacing veteran LB Kyle Van Noy, LB Jamie Collins and DT Danny Shelton with LB Brandon Copeland, DT Beau Allen and rookie LBs Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. Second-round S Kyle Dugger also figures in the secondary mix. The Patriots are, for the first time in two decades, going through a transition. Wilson and company are 3-0 at home in Week 2, so this one doesn’t look great for the Patriots crossing the country.
Dallas (Week 3)
Difficulty rating: 6.
Coaching changes: HC Mike McCarthy, DC Mike Nolan.
Projected new starters: 6 (4 vets, 2 rookies, 1 WR, 1 OL)
What’s new: Other than first-round WR CeeDee Lamb and retiring Travis Frederick’s replacement, the offense will not change much. And McCarthy retained Kellen Moore as OC, so Dak Prescott & Co. won’t have to adapt to a new offensive system. That’s big in a pandemic year. The larger changes come on defense, where longtime NFL assistant Nolan will be mixing in DT Gerald McCoy, DT Dontari Poe, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, second-round CB Trevon Diggs and unsuspended DE Aldon Smith (if he can still play). It helps that the linebacker corps is a veteran trio. But the Cowboys might have to score a bunch of points early while Nolan sorts out the secondary and finds the right line rotation around star DE Demarcus Lawrence. Seattle has averaged 30 points in Week 3 since 2013, going 5-1 in home games, so Dallas faces an uphill battle here.
At Miami (Week 4)
Difficulty rating: 10.
Coordinator changes: OC Chan Gailey, DC Josh Boyer.
Projected new starters: 10 (7 vets, 3 rookies, 1 QB, 4 OL)
What’s new: Coach Brian Flores fired his OC, Chad O’Shay, after one year because the offense, which O’Shay brought from New England, apparently was too complicated. Flores brought in veteran coach Gailey to run a simpler scheme for a unit that will have at least six new starters, including four linemen and, eventually, first-round QB Tua Tagovailoa. Will Tua be under center when the Dolphins host the Seahawks? Or will it still be The Beard (Ryan Fitzpatrick)? Flores and Boyer also have a bunch of new veteran defenders — DEs Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson, LB Kyle Van Noy and CB Byron Jones. Madden actually simulated a Miami win here, but that is pretty hard to imagine — especially since Wilson and company have won six straight games, four on the road, in Week 4.
Minnesota (Week 5)
Difficulty rating: 7.
Coaching changes: OC Gary Kubiak.
Projected new starters: 6 (3 vets, 3 rookies, 1 WR, 2 OL)
What’s new: Mike Zimmer’s stalwart defense is undergoing major change, with both corners and half the line gone from the No. 5 unit in points allowed. They will go with two first-round picks, the rookie Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes, at the corners, and DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (seven sacks in 2019) is expected to step into the starting lineup for the departed Everson Griffen. On offense, the Vikings got rid of malcontent WR Stefon Diggs (traded to Buffalo) and replaced him with first-rounder Justin Jefferson, who should step in opposite Adam Thielen immediately. The Vikings also might shuffle their linemen around, if second-round pick Ezra Cleveland is ready. With Kubiak now running the offense, Kirk Cousins & Co. likely will ride Dalvin Cook as far as he can carry them. Will the young guys on the outside be ready to handle the Seahawks’ vets by Week 5? (This is the first time in four years the Hawks have not played the Rams in Week 5, and it’s their third straight year playing at home in Week 5 after five straight road games to start Wilson’s career.)
Seattle’s NFC West foes are not undergoing quite as many changes as Seattle, although the Rams swapped out both coordinators and lost a bunch of veterans. The Seahawks’ first five have the toughest prep needs, based on coaching and roster changes. Here’s a look at the rest of the West:
Difficulty rating: 4.
First five difficulty rating: 31.
Coaching changes: None.
Projected new starters: 4 (2 vets, 2 rookies, 2 OL)
What’s new: Their offseason was defined by three big roster swaps — drafting 325-pound Kinlaw and WR Brandon Aiyuk to replace DeForest Buckner and Emmanuel Sanders and trading for OT Trent Williams to replace retiring Joe Staley. They also traded RB Matt Breida and added WR Travis Benjamin and OG Tom Compton. So they are less experienced at DT and WR, but bigger up front (John Lynch said that was directly to counter Seattle’s big guards). The additions shouldn’t take much time to adjust, assuming Williams can still play after a year off, Aiyuk and the veteran Benjamin can get up to speed quickly and they don’t miss Buckner. The Niners are still the favorites in the West.
Difficulty rating: 5.
First five difficulty rating: 29.
Coaching changes: None.
Projected new starters: 6 (4 vets, 2 rookies, 1 WR, 2 OL).
What’s new: DeAndre Hopkins, hijacked from Houston, will not have much time to jell with second-year QB Kyler Murray. But the ageless Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk should make the transition easier. Right tackle is another spot that might include a new starter (rookie Josh Jones). The defense was terrible last year, so Arizona added DL Jordan Phillips, LB Devon Kennard, LB De’Vondre Campbell and first-round SS/LB Isaiah Simmons. The lack of time could hurt as those guys learn to communicate well on the field.
Difficulty rating: 3.
First five difficulty rating: 26.
Coaching changes: OC Kevin O’Connell, DC Brandon Staley.
Projected new starters: 3 (2 vets, 1 rookie)
What’s new: The Rams took a tumble from 13 wins and a Super Bowl appearance in 2018 to 9-7 last season. So Sean McVay replaced his top three assistants and lost/got rid of a bunch of veteran mainstays (Gurley, WR Brandin Cooks, S Eric Weddle, Dante Fowler, Clay Matthews). The Rams did re-sign 38-year-old LT Andrew Whitworth and DT Michael Brockers (after his deal with Baltimore fell through), and they added DT A’Shawn Robinson, LB Leonard Floyd and injury-prone rookie Terrell Lewis to try to help a defense that lost four starters (including 19.5 sacks between Fowler and Matthews) and has a new coordinator in 37-year-old Brandon Staley, a Vic Fangio pupil. Can the unit improve with all of that change and little time to integrate the new guys under a new DC? The offense will look to rebound after dropping from 32.9 ppg in 2018 to 24.6. They still have a lot of weapons — WRs Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds and TEs Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett — and added rookie RB Cam Akers and rookie WR Van Jefferson. But their offensive line remains one of the league’s worst, with no upgrades. Will that unit limit scoring chances again?