NFL Training Camp Buzz Roundup: Opt-out Deadline Passes but Won't Be the End
Thursday marked the deadline for NFL players to opt out of the 2020 season as a result of circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, all 32 teams continued to work in the "acclimation period" of training camps, which entails weight-room activities, strength and conditioning in small groups, limited on-field conditioning and walkthroughs.
So while nothing is exactly normal yet, several pro football headlines were made Thursday. Here's a breakdown.
The Opt-out Deadline Has Passed, but We're Not out of the Woods Yet
Several players waited until the eleventh hour to opt out Thursday, the most popular of whom—Rashaan Melvin—was expected to play a key role in the Jacksonville Jaguars secondary in 2020.
The gutted Jags cornerback depth chart could have used Melvin's experience as it embarks on the post-Jalen Ramsey/A.J. Bouye era while likely having to wait for rookie first-round pick CJ Henderson to get his footing.
Melvin's decision will place extra pressure on Henderson as well as returning corners Tre Herndon and D.J. Hayden, both of whom performed relatively well last year but don't have pristine track records.
The Jags have gone through significant change in the last calendar year. This is another blow.
Other Thursday opt-outs include Cleveland Browns reserve guard Malcolm Pridgeon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice-squad journeyman offensive tackle Brad Seaton and Kansas City Chiefs reserve offensive lineman Lucas Niang. Niang might have been a candidate to replace Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out earlier this summer.
Ultimately, 65 players opted out in recent weeks. In addition to Melvin and Duvernay-Tardif, the following players headline that list:
- Linebacker Dont'a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon and five other members of the New England Patriots
- New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley
- Chicago Bears nose tackle Eddie Goldman
- Buffalo Bills defenders Star Lotulelei and E.J. Gaines
- Denver Broncos right tackle Ja'Wuan James
- Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Andrew Billings
- Chiefs running back Damien Williams
- Miami Dolphins receivers Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson
- New York Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder
- Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Michael Pierce
Kudos to those guys and everybody else who decided to err on the side of caution this year. Onward and upward.
That being said, we might not be entirely done with opt-outs. The NFLPA tweeted Thursday that "players may opt out after the deadline if a close family member gets seriously sick with COVID or if they themselves are newly diagnosed with a high-risk condition."
Considering that the virus itself has yet to be contained in a number of states, those scenarios can't be ruled out. Here's hoping nobody else develops the need to opt out as the season progresses.
Mike Tomlin Likes What He Sees in Ben Roethlisberger's Arm
On Thursday, Roethlisberger's head coach offered an endorsement.
"I didn't see anything that was alarming in any way," Tomlin said of Roethlisberger's recent throwing sessions on a Zoom call with the media Thursday morning, according to ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "His velocity is excellent. Maybe his spiral could be a little tighter. I've seen it tighter, but nothing to alarm you in any way."
Big Ben missed the vast majority of the 2019 campaign after undergoing surgery to repair three torn flexor tendons attached to that elbow. He's 38, not exactly a fitness model, and he was struggling before the injury. Suffice to say, he's facing an uphill climb. But early in-house reports are promising, and it's encouraging that Tomlin indicated it wasn't all bluster with the subtle criticism of Roethlisberger's spiral.
"We're going to continue to proceed appropriately with him in an effort to have him ready to go when we step into a stadium," Tomlin added, per Pryor.
That's supposed to happen in 39 days when the Steelers are scheduled to take on the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.
NFLPA Says 56 Players Have Tested Positive for COVID-19
With camps about two weeks old and the start of the NFL season exactly five weeks out, the National Football League Players Association reported that as of Wednesday 56 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since camps got underway in late July.
That's approximately two percent of the league, which isn't bad considering these players were spread throughout the country without bubbles prior to undergoing tests at the start of camp.
It's impossible to compare these numbers to the general population because testing is mandatory regardless of whether players have symptoms or have potentially been exposed, but those circumstances would lead you to expect higher positive rates among NFL players than the rest of the country. Fifty-six total cases entering a semi-bubble is promising, and dynamics moving forward indicate the league could be on track to reduce that number significantly between now and the start of the regular season.
That said, without a full NHL- or NBA-style bubble, there will continue to be a concern that NFL players will be too exposed over the course of the season. Major League Baseball has run into problems that the NFL is hoping to avoid, and the jury remains out on whether the league has taken enough measures to accomplish that.
Seahawks Reportedly Interested in Clay Matthews, Everson Griffen
It seems increasingly unlikely that the Seattle Seahawks will bring back star edge-defender Jadeveon Clowney, but that doesn't mean they're satisfied with the status quo on the edge. While noting that they "appear to have moved on from" Clowney, NFL Network's Michael Silver reported Thursday that the team is interested in veteran pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Everson Griffen.
In addition to Clowney, a Seattle defense that tied for an NFC-low 28 total sacks and ranked in the bottom five in pressure rate last year also lost Quinton Jefferson, Mychal Kendricks, Ezekiel Ansah and Nazair Jones this offseason. Newcomers Bruce Irvin, Benson Mayowa, Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor are unlikely to be game-changers in 2020, and the jury is still very much out on 2019 first-round pick L.J. Collier and 2016 second-rounder Jarran Reed up front.
In other words, they could really use an accomplished rusher.
Matthews and Griffen would certainly come cheaper than Clowney, mainly because they're 34 and 32, respectively. Despite that, the former registered eight sacks in 13 games last year, while the latter also put up that number in 15 games with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Seahawks have just under $10 million in salary-cap space, according to Spotrac.
Leighton Vander Esch Says He's Healthy
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch lost much of the momentum he gained as a rookie Pro Bowler in 2018 when a neck injury cost him seven games in 2019. It was a serious injury stemming from spinal stenosis, but the 24-year-old says he's back on track ahead of Year 3.
"I'm back better than I was with my strength before I got hurt," Vander Esch said on a video call with the media Thursday, per Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I feel amazing. Just excited. So pumped to be out there."
Vander Esch will be wearing a neck roll as he moves from the weak side to middle linebacker in new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's system. If he can stay healthy, he's a prime fantasy target in leagues that draft defensive players.
Devonta Freeman Focused on "Picking the Right Spot"
Devonta Freeman hasn't been himself the last few years, but the two-time 1,000-yard rusher is still only 28 years old and quietly put up more than 400 receiving yards along with four receiving touchdowns with the Atlanta Falcons in 2019.
Somebody should eventually take a flier on the veteran running back, but Freeman doesn't appear to be panicking. On Thursday, he told SiriusXM NFL Radio (via Pro Football Talk) that he's "trying to pick the right situation" to satisfy his desire to win.
But Freeman also spoke about "picking the right spot where I can be really, really highly utilized and get a real good opportunity," adding that "the business part with the contracts, of course that's always up there as well."
So it's clear he sees himself as a chooser rather than a beggar, which isn't wild considering his track record and the fact that injuries will inevitably hit the league in the weeks to come.
When that happens, Freeman might have options.