Every NFL team faces nearly the same challenges to building a roster for a season that is slated to start in a month-and-a-half. The most significant, of course, is avoiding an infectious virus that has crippled the nation. An outbreak on any team could potentially delay or suspend operations.
But the league has forged ahead, seemingly confident in its plans and protocols for limiting any spread of the coronavirus. The Eagles have steadily reported for training camp over the last week, and as of Tuesday the entire roster will have made its way to the NovaCare Complex for at least the first of three COVID-19 tests that must be negative before players can begin preparations for the 2020 season.
Doug Pederson, citing federal HIPAA laws, declined Monday to confirm whether any Eagles have yet to test positive, but his needing to answer such a question via video shows how very different the world has become since his opening news conference of training camp a year ago.
The problems of a football coach in constructing his team amid a pandemic don’t amount to much when compared to the travails of those directly affected, but Pederson will need to adapt to the many restrictions that the league and players agreed upon in the name of health and safety.
Offseason workouts were canceled. But the five weeks that normally constitute the evaluation period before cut downs will be significantly limited in the number of opportunities for coaches to see players in pads.
Coaches are permitted only 14 padded practices starting Aug. 17, and there will be no preseason games this year. The next three weeks – normally the hardest of camp – will be an acclimation period involving strength and conditioning, walk-throughs, meetings, and eventually light, on-field workouts.
To account for the reductions, Pederson said that he might have in-squad scrimmages.
“I have to do what I feel is best for the football team from a standpoint of putting the guys in position to succeed on the field,” he said. “Meaning, we have to have answers on a lot of our players, especially the young guys. We haven’t seen these rookies live and in person.”
Pederson won’t have to worry about watching as many players. The Eagles have 82 players on their roster – rather than a maximum of 90 – and have until Aug. 16 to trim to 80. They have the option to keep more but would need to practice in split squads.
The in-season roster number of 53 remains the same, and the Eagles must get to that number by Sept. 5 – eight days before their season opener at Washington.
The next three weeks will look very much like the offseason would have – minus the masks, physical distancing, and contact tracing – had it taken place. Strength and conditioning begins in earnest on Aug. 3 and lasts eight days and will include 60 minutes in the weight room, 60 minutes of aerobic exercise, and hour-long walk-throughs.
Aug. 8 will be a mandatory, league-wide day off for players. The next phase of unpadded practices in helmets and shells starts Aug. 12 and lasts four days before padded practices. Teams will be required to give players one day off per every seven days of work.
Younger players would seem to be the most affected by the abbreviated camp and going from four preseason games to zero. The Eagles are relying on several of them in key roles, most notably Andre Dillard at left tackle. First-round draft pick Jalen Reagor might also be needed to contribute immediately at wide receiver.
But how much can Pederson expect from his rookies with so little grass time?
“Every year, there’s going to be a rookie or two that really steps up and performs and catches our eye,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s a guy on offense or defense. He can be a starter on special teams.”
Pederson said that he was pleased with his rookies during virtual meetings, and even went so far as to call Dillard’s offseason “tremendous.” He has three games of film of Dillard starting at left tackle last season, but when Reagor and his classmates suit up on Sept. 13 — assuming they do — it will be their first time playing live NFL football.
Most of the Eagles’ recent subtractions have been returning bubble-roster players such as defensive end Daeshon Hall and defensive tackle Albert Huggins. The team wants to see its rookies – drafted and undrafted – on the field before making decisions.
But the Eagles also have returning young players, including receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and tackle Jordan Mailata, who need practice repetitions. Backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld has thrown only 92 preseason passes – let alone 25 regular season ones – and would have benefited from more live snaps. The same, naturally, could be said of rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts.
And what about returning veterans playing new positions? Jason Peters, who the Eagles re-signed two weeks ago, is a future Hall of Famer, but he’s never played guard and is slated to start. Jalen Mills has been penciled in as a starting safety, but he hasn’t played there since college.
“We took a look at our roster obviously and felt that where Jason is and the type of player he is, obviously his leadership on the football team, that the transition would be relatively easy,” Pederson said of Peters.
The Eagles, of course, aren’t alone in roster turnover. In fact, they have an advantage in that they’re returning their coach, maintaining their core offensive and defensive schemes, and have their franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, in what should be his prime years.
The same can’t be said of the Eagles’ NFC East rivals, certainly in relation to coaching. The Cowboys (Mike McCarthy), Giants (Joe Judge), and Washington (Ron Rivera) all hired new coaches this offseason, and only Dallas has an established quarterback in Dak Prescott.
“I’m not necessarily thinking it’s going to be a leg up,” Pederson said of the Eagles’ consistency, “but at the same time, it does give us confidence going into camp that we all are on the same page.”
While the NFL’s 2011 training camp wasn’t as restrictive, the lockout that year did cancel the offseason. First-year coaches were expected to struggle beyond normal. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. The 49ers (13-3) and Titans (9-7) finished with winning records, the Cowboys, Broncos, and Raiders with 8-8 marks, and Panthers (6-10), Browns (4-12), and Vikings (3-13) with losing ones.
The Eagles, with Andy Reid in his 13th season, went 8-8.
While each season is its own, there is little to compare to what is already an unprecedented venture for the NFL.