It's getting harder and harder for players to make an impact during the NFL offseason.
With the new collective bargaining agreement, one of the wins players got during the negotiations was a reduced offseason schedule, giving them more time off and fewer reps by which to potentially get injured. In essence, they were giving up a small piece of the rapidly growing pie in order to make life easier for themselves.
Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg took a look at all of the changes, but the gist of the matter is that players have more free time and a whole lot less contact in the offseason.
The downside, of course, is that all but the most established, long-term veterans of a team typically use those offseason reps to make an impact. Coaches, too—especially new ones—use the workouts to help figure out the last couple of spots on the roster as well as bring new players up to speed on any wrinkles in the scheme.
With less time to work with, it's important to note exactly what it is coaches are looking for.
Workouts Are Voluntary...Well, "Voluntary": Show Up, Even If You Don't Have To
The first thing NFL teams want to see at offseason workouts is their players at the offseason workouts.
Look, these practices are called "voluntary," and I wholeheartedly agree with players who take advantage of that word and decide to be elsewhere. If Ndamukong Suh wants to work out on his own, as reported by Tim Twentyman on Twitter, go right ahead—that's his prerogative.
Cardinals' Darnell Dockett once stayed away from AZ in off-season. Now he's telling teammates to get here. http://t.co/2PM5F69CZ2— Kent Somers (@kentsomers) April 24, 2014
A team being mad, disgruntled or otherwise punishing someone—overtly or covertly—for missing a voluntary workout is not only stupid, it's a complete waste of time. If the teams wanted players to be compelled to show up for these workouts, they could've offered to pay them more in the process.
They didn't, so be quiet.
Yet teams do, as Tom Coughlin did when Hakeem Nicks missed practices last season, and so do plenty of fans and media, as Suh found out this offseason. It's one thing to huff and puff about how clubs and their fans should look at the situation, but that doesn't change how some old-school football men think.
Rivera said 95 percent participation in offseason workouts so far. #Panthers— David Newton (@DNewtonespn) April 29, 2014
So if our discussion is what players need to do, then guys don't have to show up. However, if we're talking about what teams are looking for, they want 100 percent attendance unless a player has a really good reason.
As with every rule, there are a few exceptions.
First, if a player is in a contract dispute, teams usually assume he isn't going to show up. Vernon Davis is currently in that situation, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Though, as Maiocco writes, the stakes are a little higher for Davis:
However, the workouts are not voluntary for Davis, who is sacrificing his annual $200,000 workout bonus with his absence, said a source familiar with Davis' deal.
The 49ers’ mandatory minicamp is scheduled for June 17-19. Any player who chooses not to attend the minicamp is subject to a fine up to $60,000, according to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.
The other big exception is for a veteran who has a long history of showing up in fine shape with their own training program. Suh fits into that category; so does Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (though he's also working through some grievances with team changes).
Players on Their Rookie Deal Need a Role on Special Teams...and on Offense or Defense
OK, the players show up. Then what?
Last week, in my column about Johnny Manziel, I pointed out how the new CBA also limits the amount of time teams can spend on "projects," as well as the financial rewards of leaning upon rookies and guys on their rookie deals rather than more expensive veterans.
Those values trickle down to the draft processes. Though clubs still value physical freaks and certainly aren't eschewing projects entirely, the days of drafting a guy and not expecting a payoff in the first couple of years of his career are mostly over.
Special teams are certainly one avenue toward making an impact, and there's value there. It's one thing to hope a speedster pans out at running back, receiver or cornerback. It's another thing entirely to put him at returner or gunner and give that speed an outlet.
The New York Jets are working with a new special teams coordinator this year, and Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger reported that Thomas McGaughey is potentially mixing former special teams aces with young players to "fix" the Jets' special teams:
The Jets gave McGaughey plenty of speed to work with this offseason.
They signed wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who can return kicks. They re-signed backup cornerback Ellis Lankster, a special teams ace. They also re-signed backup inside linebacker Nick Bellore, another valuable special teams contributor.
And they drafted a couple undersized, fast players who could help McGaughey: wide receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George. Cornerbacks Dexter McDougle and Brandon Dixon could also see action on special teams.
Still, young players—especially those drafted in the earlier rounds—are going to need to do more than just run down punts and kicks.
With a guy like Manziel, for instance, the important thing is getting comfortable for what is to come later this summer. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told Jim Corbett of USA Today, "If he keeps working like he has been, Johnny should be feeling comfortable by the time we get to training camp."
But that's not the case for every position. Special teams aces at linebacker or defensive back should start working into sub-package roles. Speedsters at running back or receiver should make the case that they can do damage with the ball in their hands on offense.
Taylor Price of 49ers.com held out that kind of hope for linebacker Nick Moody:
San Francisco’s 3-4 defense is predicated on solid play from its linebacking corps. With NaVorro Bowman on the mend, the team will need a young inside linebacker to step up to replace the All-Pro performer. Michael Wilhoite is the likely candidate to fill in for Bowman, but don’t forget about Moody. The special teams contributor is fairly new to playing linebacker. He starred in college as a safety and will have another offseason to develop his instincts.
In an NFL where success can be defined by a team's ability to rotate players in and out while maintaining numerous packages to keep everyone fresh, the deep roster spots once taken up by special teams-only contributors are going to guys needed for offense and defense.
Who's Bigger, Smaller, Faster, Healthier or Otherwise Ready for a Big Year?
'Tis the season...
From the draft until the beginning of the season—heck, maybe even through the first quarter of the year—optimism runs rampant (almost completely unabated) through most fanbases. Logically, it makes sense. Every fan can conceivably come up with ways their team has improved over the past couple of months.
Free-agency money spent? Check! Draft picks selected? Double-check!
Break out the champagne, boys, we're going undefeated!
See, while your team may have gotten better, other teams—even those in the division—probably got better too, maybe even more so. Also, sorry friends, but there's the very real chance that your team didn't actually get better.
It happens, a lot. Sorry. Hug a Browns fan.
If the NFL were as optimistically static in its linear progression each and every offseason like some talking heads proclaim about their team's additions and subtractions, Vegas wouldn't make nearly as much money on bettors as it does.
My picks would probably go better, as well.
It's in this time of unabated optimism that we hear about every player who has miraculously reached his ideal self over the offseason.
Nick Fairley of the Detroit Lions has slimmed down after struggling with excess weight for some time, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Shea McClellin, lineman-turned-linebacker for the Chicago Bears, is in the same boat, notes the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs.
Aaron Rodgers has reportedly lost 11 pounds and is now more flexible due to implementing yoga in his offseason workouts. #Packers— Ralph Mancini (@ReverendRalph) May 30, 2014
Ben Volin of The Boston Globe writes that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is progressing well in his injury rehab, as he seems to always be doing (unless he's not—then we all freak out). Like many guys (i.e., just about every injured player), Washington defensive lineman Barry Cofield says he is going to be ready for training camp, per Mark Maske of The Washington Post.
Trite though it may be for fans and media to latch on to every single one of those stories, coaches and personnel men are certainly looking for players to use the offseason to improve what needs to be improved, rather than wait for the preseason when time is better spent repping plays and watching tape.
Losing weight is almost a given during the NFL season, but adding muscle and rehabbing injuries is nearly impossible. Now is the time. Strike while the iron is hot.
Show up, find your place and look good doing it—NFL coaches aren't seeking much more than that.