An Insider's Guide to NFL OTAs
During this time, most, if not all, established veterans who are off doing their own offseason workout regimens fly in from all over the country to reunite with old faces and shake hands with new ones.
For those newcomers who impressed during rookie minicamps, things can change drastically once the veterans show up to participate in OTAs.
At this point in the offseason teams are 90 players strong, and competition to make the 53-man roster can really heat up. The work put in during these limited team activities could be the difference between a blossoming NFL career and a brief cameo in an NFL practice jersey.
As a former NFL player with the Raiders, Jets, Falcons and Ravens, I’ve survived my fair share of NFL OTAs and have learned a thing or two about the process.
Here is an inside look at what really goes down at organized team activities, what to expect and what it’s all worth at the end of the day.
What Are OTAs?
Essentially OTAs are the only time in an NFL offseason, aside from minicamps, when players and coaches can work together as a complete team on the football field with helmets.
Each team is given a limited number of days and practice hours to get its work done in order to comply with the rules of the CBA.
Though OTAs are officially listed as “voluntary,” few players have the luxury or clout to hold an organization to such technicalities. Every guy interested in a job would be wise to be there on time and ready to give it his all.
These brief on-field learning opportunities span over the course of only a couple days and typically have near perfect attendance from players. The only exceptions tend to be disgruntled players dealing with contract disputes or other business matters—oh, and Brett Favre, who apparently had little use for an offseason beyond recovering.
From the player’s perspective, OTAs are the watered-down equivalent of spring football in college. The only things not watered down are the talent around you and the high-pressured stakes involved.
Rules and Changes
During OTAs the maximum time allowed on the field is two hours per day, and the total time allotted to a day’s work in any capacity cannot exceed six hours.
Full padded practices are strictly prohibited. Helmets are allowed, but shoulder pads and practice pants are forbidden.
Under the old CBA, which I played under, players were expected to wear soft shells, also known as skeletons or spiders, which provided cushion for the shoulders and prevented injury from accidental contact from a random helmet. But in today’s “safety first” NFL, soft shells are a thing of the past.
In all honesty, it’s difficult to accurately interpret the rules regarding contact during OTAs, especially when trying to execute football moves under the constraints of fuzzy legal verbiage.
For example, both blocking and pass-rushing are not allowed during OTAs, yet 11-on-11 is acceptable. How can a team perform team drills without permissible blocking and tackling?
Last year Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy voiced his confusion with the rules regarding contact during OTAs and felt they lacked clarity.
What are the consequences of violating these rules?
As written by Mike Wilkening of Pro Football Talk:
According to the CBA, a team and its head coach “are jointly responsible for any conduct in violation” of offseason workout rules, and fines can be levied by Commissioner Roger Goodell if necessary. For a first upheld violation, head coach can be fined up to $100,000, with a club fined as much as $250,000. However, the commissioner can wave fines or impose smaller penalties depending upon the nature of the violation.
In the event of a workout rules breach, a team will lose its “next scheduled week of OTAs,” per the CBA. A second workout violation in the same league year will cost a club a fourth-round pick in the next draft as well as another week of OTAs.
Last year these consequences proved to be more than just idle words, as the Seahawks discovered first-hand what happens when you venture too close to an already blurry threshold.
By contrast, when I played in the league, OTAs were extremely physical and basically treated like a regular padded practice. The only difference is players tried to avoid using their shoulders as a contact point and would wisely differ to their hands. This type of physicality without shoulder pads proved extremely beneficial in regards to improving hand technique.
Unfortunately, it seems the proper playing tempo needed to get a good feel for the game is significantly compromised, ironically in the name of safety.
All rules stated regarding OTAs were sourced through the CBA unless otherwise noted on this slide.
A Typical Day
A typical day of OTAs begins early with morning meetings that start around 7:30 a.m. These meetings are with position coaches and involve playbook installation and possibly film review from practices from the day before.
With limited time both on the field and in the classroom, coaches must stick to the core plays and formations that make up the meat and potatoes of their scheme. The idea is to have a complete understanding of the system basics before adding more to the plate.
After meetings, players hit the field for a two-hour practice in helmets that commences with stretching.
Positional drills usually follow the team stretch period and warm-ups. These drills allow players to work specifically with their positional coaches and highlight specific fundamentals of the job.
When the whistle blows at the end of positional work, the offense and defense can finally come together for the remaining second half of practice. These team-oriented periods can vary from team to team and may be tweaked based on limitations from the new CBA.
Most organizations are expected to run some version of 7-on-7 for the skill positions—this is essentially receivers going against the linebackers and secondary. Teams also implement a 9-on-7 drill intended to improve run fits for the defense and blocking angles and assignments for the offense.
Traditionally, every practice concludes with a full team 11-on-11. This is an opportunity for all of the lessons of the day to come together as a complete offense takes on a complete defense where run or pass can come on any given rep.
The tempo during these drills is critical considering the league is taking all rules violations seriously. With that in mind, avoiding things such as blocking and pass-rushing are nearly impossible and unrealistic to expect.
After team drills, practice concludes with a brief summary speech from the head coach, and guys head to the showers before post-practice meetings.
At some point in the day, guys are expected to get a lift in. This may have the rookies lifting early in the morning before meetings while veterans are given a choice between a post-practice lift and an early morning session.
Meetings after practice tend to be light-hearted and full of laughs considering the biggest challenges of the day are mostly behind them. Film review from the day’s practice make up the bulk of these meetings in the afternoon before guys are finally sent home to rest, study and start anew the next day.
The Rookie Experience
For the young guys entering their first NFL offseason, “rookie shock” is inevitable during OTAs. This is their first chance to stand toe-to-toe with the veterans and see first-hand what type of talent is required to survive in this league.
The older guys on the team bring finely tuned skills and an overall football experience that’s generally a lot for younger guys to keep up with.
Once the action begins on the field for these young pups, the game moves fast as they continue to learn the system and make those necessary reads second nature. System overload is common for the rookie experience, which shows itself on the field in various mental errors and uncertainty in their decision-making.
Though the veterans are present, rookies still don't get a true feel for the NFL intensity and scope, but they can definitely get a reputable sampling of the speed, size and sheer mass of these professionals—even if they aren’t allowed to hit you yet. I’ll never forget how impressed I was with the size alone of these guys during the first real practice with veterans. It truly is a daunting experience.
What do teams and players hope to accomplish from OTAs?
The top priority for every organization is always to remain healthy. No coach wants to deal with the loss of a key player during the offseason. This makes the injury to Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram extremely frustrating for everyone involved in that organization; he will miss the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL.
Beyond staying healthy, veterans try to use this opportunity to refresh their fundamentals of the game while improving conditioning. It’s also important for these older guys to spend time with teammates and build a rapport with the men who will eventually go to battle by their side.
For coaches, every opportunity to get on the field and teach is considered a valuable one. The foundation for a championship season is laid in these moments. Coaches prepare for months in anticipation of these few days of football action. Their excitement to return to coaching is always evident with their enthusiasm and energy on the first day of OTAs.
When football is the only thing a player has on his schedule, free time becomes a familiar luxury for the first time in many of these players’ lives. Even OTAs are a walk in the park compared to an NFL training camp, but during the months of May and June, it’s always nice to put the rigors of an organized team activity behind you and get back to the days when work ends at 2 p.m.
Before long the season will begin, and the work days soon become endless, while free time once found in abundance is such a rarity that its only function will be for rest and recovery.