The final phase of the NFL offseason is wrapping up around the league with teams running through veteran minicamps. These mandatory three-day sessions provide players and coaches with an opportunity to get on the field one more time before everyone reports back in late July for training camp.
But unlike those summer training camp sessions in full pads, which feature live contact and position battles, these minicamp practice sessions in shorts and helmets are an extension of spring OTAs where teams can review the playbook and focus on technique.
“It helps prepares guys mentally for what a regular-season day is structured as. Also, it wraps up OTAs, and you can see what progress you have made,” Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz told me. “But, ultimately, minicamp is without pads, so there’s only so much that can be taken from these practices.”
The overall structure and schedule of minicamp has changed over the years.
During my career, players would go through a weekend session with two-a-days on Friday and Saturday followed by a Sunday morning practice. That allowed coaches to work through a training camp-style schedule before the players would race to their cars or run to the airport on Sunday afternoon to get out of town for another four to five weeks.
Those weekends would beat up your legs a little bit and test your conditioning. Plus, more practice time meant more game-situation periods.
However, the drill hasn’t really changed. Camps in today’s league are still teaching sessions, and no one is truly competing for a paycheck in shorts. Defensive backs are going to pull up at the point of attack against wide receivers, there is a quick whistle on running plays with defenders “tagging off” on ball-carriers, and the physicality on the line of scrimmage is lacking without shoulder pads.
Yes, coaches can get a feel for players and the roles they could play during the regular season, but forget about projecting who makes the final 53-man roster at this point on the NFL calendar, because everything is going to change come late July and early August.
It is a different game in pads, and some guys who make plays all over the field in an early June practice can completely disappear when that horn blows to open the first session of training camp. They turn into ghosts when it’s time to hit and quickly fade down the depth chart.
In my opinion, minicamp (along with OTAs) is more about alignment, scheme execution and individual technique.
You can make mistakes in minicamp, take chances and test your footwork, leverage and hand placement. It's a time to see what you can get away with and figure out what you need to improve, because no one wins games in early June despite the company-line narratives coaches feed the media.
This is a time to develop as a player, and everyone needs to develop in the offseason. From Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman to second-year guys covering kicks and looking to solidify backup spots in the secondary, everyone needs reps to clean up weaknesses and build on their strengths.
Individual periods are longer in minicamps than in training camp sessions, and that provides players with more time to focus on their core techniques as they apply to the base schemes installed during the spring.
Cardinals outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander is entering his 10th NFL season, but the veteran still sees the value minicamp can provide from both a scheme and technique perspective in the Arizona defensive system.
“I’m asked to play different positions, so [that means] getting a strong grasp on our scheme so I can disguise better [and] understanding other people’s jobs so I know when I can cheat my alignment and make plays,” Alexander said. “And I’m always working on my technique making sure it’s solid as well as trying to improve areas of weakness.”
The rookies have already gotten a taste of the veteran speed they're competing against during OTA sessions, but this is another chance for coaches to see the learning curve on the field. Both physically and mentally, coaches expect the arrow to be pointing up at this point of the offseason, given the classroom work, weight room training and spring practices the rookies have already experienced.
That means a gradual development in the playbook, fewer busts on the field and a conditioning level that meets pro standards.
Unlike those early offseason rookie camps where some first-year players can fail to make it through a session or go down with muscle injuries, these guys should be stronger and more prepared to handle the tempo of an NFL practice while staying off the ground.
The main thing through all this talk about scheme, individual technique and execution on the field, though, is to try to make it out of camp healthy. That’s it. Get in three more days of work, have the playbook installed and then take some time off before everyone is ready to compete when the pads go on.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report.