However, as much as I value those spring OTAs and minicamps in shorts and helmets from the perspective of player and team development, they don’t compare to the environment created during training camp when it’s time to put the pads on.
Today, let’s break down how the game changes in full gear and discuss why the evaluation process takes a step forward as the real competition finally begins in the NFL.
Conditioning Levels Will Be Tested
There is nothing that truly prepares players for the contact or physicality of an NFL training camp session in pads.
Players train hard throughout the offseason with functional football movements to condition and strengthen their bodies for full-speed competition in camp.
However, until you put that headgear on and repeatedly drop your pad level in the heat during one-on-ones, nine-on-seven, blitz period, 11-on-11 team, etc., your body isn’t quite ready just yet for the multiple collisions at the point of attack in practice.
That puts an enormous amount of stress on your conditioning level, lower body strength, flexibility and recovery time throughout the course of a two- to three-hour practice session under the heat and humidity of the summer sun.
The first day in pads? Hey, everyone is fresh, bodies feel great and players explode out of breaks to lower their helmet and deliver a blow in a variety of competitive drills.
But once the soreness sets in after about the third day in full gear, these players will be tested from a conditioning perspective.
That’s when guys talk about “camp legs” and have to push through the next week until their bodies adapt to the high-speed collisions and consistent hitting up front at the line of scrimmage.
Yes, the hitting in today’s NFL training camps is scaled back under the new CBA compared to the old-school camps many former players went through with four weeks of padded two-a-days.
However, these players will still be running for the cold tubs after each padded session until they reach the proper conditioning level.
Say Goodbye to the "Minicamp All-Americans"
During the spring practice sessions in shorts and helmets, wide receivers will run across the middle of the field with no fear, defensive backs will “tag off” on running backs breaking through to the second level, and the competition up front lacks the physicality of a true pro football environment.
But that changes when the pads go on, and there is really nowhere to hide.
Those three-step slants into the teeth of Cover 2 that look perfect in May? Forget about it.
The same can be said for a safety that runs around a block or slides past an offensive guard pulling to the play side in the Power O scheme to slap the running back on the hips.
That’s spring football stuff. And it doesn’t work during camp.
I saw it every offseason in my NFL career with guys “making plays” all over the field during a minicamp session only to vanish and become a ghost when it was time to win at the point of attack and produce in full gear as the film starts rolling in camp.
The game is different in pads. It’s faster. It’s violent. It’s nasty.
And you will find out quickly who can carry over those techniques from the spring sessions, manage the adjustments of the playbook and compete when they are asked to play a physical style.
Players can’t hide in a nine-on-seven inside-run drill (the most physical drill in an NFL camp) or cheat in a one-on-one pass rush when they have to use their hands, play with the proper footwork and explode on contact to win.
The depth chart can change quickly during training camp, and that’s a direct reflection on how players grade out in full-gear sessions.
And I can’t wait to start hearing the pads pop a little bit this summer.
Veteran players in the NFL understand how to practice like a pro, and that doesn’t change when the pads go on.
While rookies will fall on the ground too much (resulting in a coach yelling “Stay up!”) or run into the quarterback when the pocket collapses (an easy way to get cut), vets lean on technique to showcase their physical abilities in pads.
(When I was playing in Green Bay, rookie defensive linemen were told if they hit Brett Favre in practice, they would be given an apple and a road map. Goodbye...)
Safeties and linebackers don’t take ball-carriers to the ground by diving at their legs at the second level of the defense, the offensive line doesn’t “cut block” on the backside of a run play, and you can’t launch your head gear at a wide receiver after he makes a catch up the seam.
However, that doesn’t mean these practice sessions lack physical play.
You will still see defensive backs breaking on the ball (while driving through a receiver) to make a play, big-boy collisions in the run game and linebackers coming to balance, rolling their hips, wrapping their arms and driving their legs on contact.
Until players get to “live goal line” (the best part of fall camp for both sides of the ball), they will practice in a way that keeps their own players healthy while competing at a high level.
This also forces guys to lean on technique when they can’t cut block, chop down a running back or take a poor angle to the ball.
The tempo of practice is electric, and it shows when veteran players compete using pro-style technique.
True Player Evaluation
My favorite part of attending training camp sessions (I’m heading to Chicago and Green Bay camps next week) is the evaluation process.
In the spring, it’s tough to get a good feel for the offensive or defensive linemen. Quarterbacks can thread the ball into tight windows (with little to no risk). Special teams are run at a controlled pace.
But with pads on, coaches can begin to grade out the interior of the offensive and defensive line, quarterbacks have to be quicker with their decision-making process, and the special teams depth chart begins to take shape (before the preseason games) with highly competitive drills that produce physical collisions.
I love that about camp. I really do.
This is the time of the year when jobs are actually won or lost, and players begin to develop roles both big and small on teams across the league based on what they do in pads.
If you have a chance to make it to a pro camp this summer, I highly recommend it because of the speed and physical nature these guys play with on a daily basis.
It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
As I said above, camps are scaled back in today’s game (no more two-a-days with Joe Gibbs in Washington that beat you down).
But the competition, the passion and the energy is still there as NFL clubs find out who can make it through camp and secure a spot on the roster.
And the only way to do that is by making some noise with your helmet and shoulder pads.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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