While it is still a bit fuzzy around the edges, especially regarding financial matters, the basic shape of NFL training camps and the preseason has become fairly clear. It is going to be a year unlike any before, starting with the fact that the preseason didn’t just get cut back, it is apparently getting whacked entirely.
It is worth noting that the NFL and NFLPA were, at the time of this writing, still haggling over how the financial aspects and things like opting-out would work. But the main points of how camps will actually function are seemingly set. From reports, the league and the union seem to be accepting the following.
What would training camp be like under the NFL’s latest ramp-up proposal?— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) July 21, 2020
— Testing & physicals for 5-6 days
— Strength & conditioning plus walk-throughs thru Day 12.
— Off Day 13
— Ramp up with helmets through Day 18
— Off Day 19
— On the 20th day, the pads go on.
Different is a bit of an understatement there. A quick look at a calendar shows that there would be only about four weeks once pads go on for teams to actually practice for the season. Add in the absence of any live action work against other teams, and there is going to be a significant lack of preparation.
For teams like the Dallas Cowboys who enter the season under a new head coach, things are even more challenging than for most franchises. Normally Mike McCarthy would have had the offseason program, OTAs, and minicamp to start installing things and establishing his philosophy and culture. That’s all gone. Now he has that hurried camp schedule to try and have this team ready to play.
Defensively, this is a huge hurdle. Mike Nolan was hired to make some serious changes on defense, and now he and line coach Jim Tomsula are going to have to make some hard decisions about just how much new they can introduce. Complicating matters are the multiple new players expected to have big roles on defense. Players returning to the Cowboys from last season at least have the experience of working together, but the new guys are going to be scrambling to get coordination and teamwork refined. The line especially will have a lot to factor in, with Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Aldon Smith all expected to play big roles. This may drive the defense to a more basic approach to start the season, with the first month or so a continuation of the install process that is normally completed before the first game.
The compressed and limited camp schedule makes McCarthy’s decision to retain Kellen Moore look prescient, however. Moore will be rolling out a lineup that will probably have ten players with starting experience in Dallas, leaving only CeeDee Lamb to be incorporated into the mix. Given that the basic shape of his offense is expected to remain, that is a big help. He will still be able to adapt his play-calling to hopefully make this a more productive offense, but most of the players should have much less to learn than their counterparts on the other side of the line.
Special teams needs to improve dramatically this season, and that puts a lot of pressure on John Fassel. The loss of the preseason games may be worse for him than for the other coordinators since that is where a lot of the teams players are identified. Now the Cowboys may have to devote more of their limited practice time to ST reps, which of course leaves less for the offense and defense. Hopefully the Cowboys might come up with a way to split things up and run simultaneous drills, but given that almost all the practices are expected to be inside Ford Field due to the August weather in Texas, that is not necessarily practical.
The coaches have challenges aplenty. The players do, too, but they are different, and for some, this is actually a bit of an advantage as far as making that regular season roster.
First, you can write the starting offensive line in ink. It is going to be Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins if all are healthy. Forget any idea of Tyler Biadasz or Connor McGovern winning starting jobs. There just isn’t time to incorporate new players into the most interdependent unit on the team. While Looney’s starting experience was in 2018, he still has that experience with the rest of the line, and that should make a world of difference.
One often underappreciated player who should be even more valuable this year is Tyrone Crawford. With so many new faces on the defensive line, his role as a stabilizing and versatile player will just grow.
It will also be interesting to see what the Cowboys do with Lamb. He was believed to be the starting slot receiver for this season, but he took most of his snaps split out wide in college. It might make more sense to have Amari Cooper take a lot of slot snaps, at least early on, to help Lamb’s learning curve. However, while he only lined up in the slot 26% of the time last season at Oklahoma, he gained 46% of his yards on those plays - and averaged an impressive 24.2 yards per catch from there. So even if he isn’t getting a lot of snaps there early, it would probably be a good idea to get those up as the season goes along. (H/T to Dave Halprin and OCC for those stats.)
There are other veteran players that will benefit from the team having to lean more on them than newbies. While Trevon Diggs will be on the roster, this creates a great opportunity for Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown to solidify their roles because of that same element of experience.
But this is a rough year to be a UDFA. The opportunities to prove yourself have been slashed dramatically both by losing the preseason games exposure and the team having to focus more on getting the starters and primary backups ready for the season. One example of someone whose chances took a huge hit is Sewo Olonilua, who was believed to have a real shot at supplanting Jamize Olawale at fullback. That seems almost impossible under these conditions. Right now, the undrafted rookies have to be hoping for the rumored increase in the size of the practice squad, because hanging around there to get another shot next year looks like their best hope.
One wild card that could change that aspect is opting-out. The rules governing that are still being hammered out, but DeMarcus Lawrence has indicated it is something he has at least considered. Hopefully the NFL will manage to keep players and staff alike safe from COVID and few if any players across the league will find it necessary to sit out the season as a precaution. It still could come into play, however.
The good news is that the NFL is still working toward a full regular season and playoffs. Even if the product on the field is ragged and sloppy for the first month or so, it would still be extremely welcome. Just don’t be surprised if things go a bit roughly for the Cowboys - or anyone else.