With NFL teams on the field for OTAs as they begin their prep work for the 2014 season, let’s discuss the hidden value of these offseason practice sessions with a focus on technique, playbook install, conditioning and the rookie transition period.
The Importance of Technique Work
OTAs (Organized Team Activities) are competitive in the NFL during the spring months—to a degree.
Teams will run seven-on-seven, team drills and do some one-on-one work (wide receivers versus defensive backs, for example). But in shorts and helmets (with limited contact), no one is going to win a job in May or early June.
The real competition (with paychecks and starting jobs on the line) starts during training camp and throughout the preseason where reps are graded by coaching staffs.
However, OTAs provide tremendous value from a technique perspective.
Individual periods are extended in the offseason with footwork, mechanics, eye placement, hands, etc. becoming the main focus as veterans work on their craft.
This is the time to improve from the previous season in the film room on those key technique areas during drills.
Unlike the regular-season practices where game prep takes precedence and individual periods are reduced, the OTA workouts give the vets the opportunity to practice and study their technique.
Defensive backs drill the transition movements (plant and drive, hip turn), the offensive and defensive fronts work on hand placement at the point of attack, receivers focus on their hips at the break point and quarterbacks spend time mastering their overall mechanics.
All of these OTA sessions are filmed, and they will be reviewed post-practice (or the following morning) with position coaches.
And I can’t stress enough the importance of the technique work that takes place in the offseason. Along with film study and self-scouting, technique is at the core of every productive player in the league.
By the time players arrive for training camp in late July, they are ready to compete because the base schemes have already been installed during OTAs.
Every team will dedicate meeting time, walk-throughs and specific "install" periods during OTA sessions to teach and implement those schemes through repetition on the field.
For example, Lovie Smith’s defense in Tampa will install and rep Over Cover 1 (man-free), Under 10 (weak-side man rotation), Under "Smash" (zone blitz), Cover 2 versus the flat-7 combination, etc. during OTA practices.
The same can be said for Mike McCarthy’s offense in Green Bay or Dick LeBeau’s defense in Pittsburgh, as the practice sessions in the spring give these coaching staffs the time to implement the playbook.
Players will fill their notebooks during OTA film sessions with adjustments, coaching points and the corrections that need to be made based off of what happens on the practice field.
This allows teams to focus on competitive situations when training camp starts instead of wasting valuable practice time to install and correct the basic schemes, concepts, etc. that were taught during the spring.
As camp progresses, coordinators will add to the playbook and begin to prep for the Week 1 opponent on the regular-season schedule.
However, all 32 teams in the NFL will head into camp prepared from a playbook perspective because of the time spent on the field and in the film room during OTAs.
Strength and Conditioning
NFL teams will continue their offseason strength programs during OTAs with players getting in their required lifting sessions post-practice along with conditioning drills and speed work.
However, the practices add to the functional training these players do in the weight room (Olympic lifting) to strengthen and condition their legs for football movements.
And it’s tough to replicate that sudden change-of-direction, burst-of-speed or lower-body stability during an offseason workout.
These players need to be on the field doing position-specific drills to build up their conditioning levels.
Whether that is defensive backs doing deep-ball drills (backpedal, turn and go get the deep one) or linebackers running sideline to sideline in pursuit drills, every player needs to work on the transition out of his stance to the point of attack over and over again.
Without pads and the constant hitting, these OTA sessions don’t compare to the conditioning required to push through an NFL training camp.
But after the first couple of days of practices this month, players will experience that lower-body soreness and fatigue from getting back on the field.
The Rookie Adjustment Period
As I wrote last week, rookies from the 2014 draft class will experience the speed of the pro game and NFL-style coaching for the first time during OTAs.
And that can be a tough adjustment.
Forget the rookie minicamps that just went down over this past weekend. Those are basically teaching sessions designed to walk these first-year players through basic alignments and the structure/schedule of a pro practice.
That will change when the vets take the field.
The rookies will make (multiple) mistakes and struggle with their technique, and their conditioning level can be exposed after months of training to run the 40-yard dash, short shuttle, three-cone drill, etc.
But it’s still an opportunity for rookies to start transitioning to the NFL as they spend extra time with their position coaches on the field and in the meeting room before they head to camp to compete for a starting job or a roster spot when final cuts are made.
Remember, this is a gradual process for rookies as they make the transition to the NFL. And they will have tough days versus the veterans during OTA practices when matched up against established talent.
However, these OTA sessions allow rookies to get a feel for the pace of practice plus the speed, demands and accountability required to produce as a pro.
That’s a positive.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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