Players are going to get banged up with ankle, knee, shoulder and various muscle injuries in NFL training camps—injuries that prevent them from competing in practice.
But when guys miss time in a pro camp, they basically turn into ghosts standing on the sideline in a jersey and a visor as the rest of the team runs through drills while the film is rolling.
Today, let’s talk about the impact of training camp injuries, with a focus on the evaluation process, position battles and the guys just trying to make it through the first cuts in August.
The Evaluation Process Stops with an Injury
During training camp, the coaching staff grades every practice before the film is reviewed in positions meetings, with corrections being made on technique, scheme and the overall execution of the daily script.
Position coaches will take their time to work through nine-on-seven, seven-on-seven, one-on-one, blitz period and full 11-on-11 team drills as the players take notes before getting back on the field the following day.
However, when players are injured—and standing on the sideline during drills—they aren’t being evaluated by the coaching staff during those film-review sessions.
Instead, they sit in those meeting rooms and go through the entire tape of practice without even hearing their name called.
It’s lonely, and eventually, those players start to worry if they are stuck on the shelf for an extended period of time. That’s when they begin to think about the depth chart and the roster cuts just around the corner while someone else steals their reps during practice.
And they won’t get those reps back.
A couple of days on the injury report aren’t going to derail a player’s opportunity in the NFL. But when they are standing off to the side and working with the trainers for a week (or two), it’s easy to vanish from the minds of the coaches.
They become forgotten men—ghosts—while the rest of the team continues the evaluation process as the preseason depth chart starts to take shape.
The Loss of Practice/Game Reps in a Position Battle
Every rep and every practice counts in a position battle. While one poor practice isn’t going to decide who starts the regular-season opener, players can’t afford to miss serious time in camp with an injury if they want to compete and showcase their abilities.
Back in the 2005 preseason, I went through a position battle at strong safety with the Redskins. But in the third preseason game versus the Steelers, I took a knee to the gut from Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis on a simple pass thrown to the flat.
Instead of utilizing the opportunity with the first-team defense in that game, I took an ambulance ride from FedExField to a hospital in Arlington, Virginia, for a two-night stay thanks to some bleeding and a bruised diaphragm.
That position battle? It was over the minute I checked into the hospital.
I missed the next two weeks of practice and started the season on the second line of the depth chart with a role on special teams. It can happen that quickly when you are stuck in the training room. That’s why players have to show the ability to answer the bell (daily) when they are in a position battle.
Stay on the field (and compete), or watch the guy next to you get even more reps as he locks up that job—for good.
'Bubble' Players Can’t Miss the Time or the Opportunity
Established, veteran players are afforded the luxury of missing some time in camp and walking right back on the field to their starting jobs—because they’ve earned it.
However, for the late-round rookies, the undrafted free agents or the journeyman vets just trying to squeeze out another year of paychecks from the NFL, those practice reps are vital to winning a roster spot.
And these “bubble” players can’t get hurt. It’s that simple.
With the structure of today’s NFL training camps, the overall amount of reps for second- and third-team players is already limited due to the elimination of two-a-day sessions. Because of that, these roster hopefuls need to take advantage of every possible opportunity to show how they fit from a scheme and skill-set perspective.
Maybe it's only 10 reps with the third unit in practice, but there is still an opportunity there to make a couple of splash plays, win some one-on-one matchups or display the type of physicality that draws the attention of the coaching staff.
That leads to more reps in practice and eventually more minutes in the preseason games, when the grades start to decide who keeps a locker on cut-down days.
But when those unproven players who are buried on the depth chart in camp miss practice time, they are quickly pushed to the side and lose any real opportunity of making the club.
Talent sells in the NFL. We all know that. But a player’s “availability” might carry more weight during training camp.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.