Around the NFL  

 

What matters and what doesn't during OTA season

Print

Teddy Bridgewater dropped back to pass in slow motion, with a heavy brace over his left knee, delivering passes to the beat of a faux-inspirational dance track. The Vikings' surprise release of a hype video showing Bridgewater throwing at Tuesday's practice was, like so much of the news during OTA season, full of hope and short on clarity.

It is undoubtedly great to see Bridgewater back on the field after the quarterback's devastating injury last August. NFL Network's Randy Moss reported that Bridgewater had a positive medical checkup Wednesday, which will result in him increasing his lateral movement. Receiver Jarius Wright told reporters that Bridgwater was throwing passes harder than before after working on his arm strength. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, however, was careful to point out that Bridgewater hasn't been cleared to truly practice yet, and there remains no timetable for his return. Like most spring storylines, the Bridgewater video was a nice preview of the real news to come in training camp, a post-it note reminder to check back later.

This is the time of year for optimism, and plenty of the sunny news that arrives is worth keeping tabs on. It's also worth knowing which tropes to ignore and which stories should be read with a critical eye.

Below is my handy guide of what matters and what doesn't in the next four weeks of OTAs and minicamps:

WHAT MATTERS

Players returning from serious injury: Bridgewater was hardly the only big name with an eye-opening return to the field this week. J.J. Watt was a full participant at Texans OTAs, confirming the positive progress reports about his recovery from back surgery. On the heels of Rob Gronkowski's newly upgraded contract and display of acting chops, he was making one-handed catches again at Patriots practice following a season that also ended with back surgery. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota threw passes in 7-on-7 drills in his early return from a broken leg, something Mariota and coach Mike Mularkey weren't counting on a few months ago.

Jets receiver Eric Decker (hip and shoulder surgery) was on the field in a non-contact jersey to open OTAs, a great sign following a March report that he could miss training camp entirely. Chargers receiver Keenan Allen, coming off a torn ACL, is already participating in team drills, making an assortment of catches and "all the cuts" according to coach Anthony Lynn.

These developments don't indicate that each player is fully back or that the road ahead is simple. But their practice availability speaks louder than any words, especially during a time in the offseason when teams aren't required to give injury updates. OTA season is great for providing verifiable proof that players are on the mend.

Selective message sending: 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan knew a question was coming about his talented inside linebacker group, and he had an answer ready.

"In my opinion, there's going to be a very good player who is not out there all the time," Shanahan said to open OTAs, via the San Francisco Chronicle.

NaVorro Bowman -- coming back from a torn Achilles suffered early last season -- has been a team leader for the 49ers since he arrived five head coaches ago. Shanahan's decision to publicly group Bowman in with rookie first-round pick Reuben Foster and highly paid free-agent pickup Malcolm Smith sets a tone for Bowman and other players from the previous regimes, alerting them that their jobs aren't necessarily safe.

"I won't be on the sideline," Bowman said. "I'm going to tell you that now."

Significant injury revelations and updates: This is the time of year to find out about surgeries previously done under the cover of offseason darkness. Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt reportedly underwent hand surgery, and safety Sean Davis reportedly had shoulder surgery, with neither procedure being revealed until this week. One of the Colts' only quality returning starters, safety Clayton Geathers, is recovering from neck surgery that could jeopardize the start to his season. The Broncos are targeting training camp for running back Jamaal Charles -- whose 2016 campaign was marred by an uneven recovery from a torn ACL -- to return, which highlights that his signing is very much a roll of the dice.

It took open practices for anyone to know that Cardinals linebacker Deone Bucannon is recovering from ankle surgery, allowing first-round pick Haason Reddick to take over with the first team.

"Classic Wally Pipp," coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. "[Haason] is getting every single rep. He looks damn good."

Message sent.

WHAT DOESN'T

Veterans skipping work: Feel free to think less of the next sportscaster or writer who says a player is "holding out" of voluntary offseason practices in shorts. It would be like "holding out" of bowling night with your co-workers, if you had previously negotiated your right to do so. (Feel free to think less of me after making that analogy.)

It doesn't matter that Odell Beckham Jr. has missed a few days of OTAs while signing a record-setting deal with Nike that essentially makes the Giants his secondary employer. It doesn't matter that Trent Williams and Jordan Reed are working out away from the Redskins.

It doesn't even matter that Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is staying away from OTAs as he pursues a new contract. There is no more pointless storyline each offseason than the daily contract negotiation update in May, followed by the most anticlimactic ending in sports media. Spoiler alert: The contract will get signed and everyone will move on.

The running game: The Packers have practically eliminated the running game from OTA practices because it's so hard to simulate without pads or tackling.

"The practice environment with the helmets and the shorts and the rules in place, the run-game production is minimal as far as the quality of work," coach Mike McCarthy said this week.

Despite this, you'll see plenty of overzealous OTA analysis describing which running backs or offensive linemen are "flashing" or "rising" in practices that barely resemble the sport we watch on Sundays.

Position battles: Bill Belichick has said it countless times over the years: OTAs and minicamps are for teaching, and training camp is for evaluation. No one is making the team or losing a job for good based on practice in shorts. This part of the offseason is more about installing a scheme and getting back into form.

Despite that, I keep reading this week how certain players were struggling in OTAs, raising concern about their job status. Fifteen years ago, OTAs were lightly covered in the next day's newspapers, if they were covered at all. Now there are competing articles about "Ten things I learned on Day 1 of OTAs" because the internet needs to be fed.

There's a lot of attention paid to the order in which snaps are taken as a barometer for who is in line to start. It leads to a lot of rash conclusions, like when digital eyebrows were raised after Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg spent the first day of OTAs on a separate field while Josh McCown and Bryce Petty split first-team reps. It turns out that the three quarterbacks will all rotate snaps, which is typical this time of year.

Each coach treats his depth chart differently, and it's mostly a waste of mental energy to read into any of it too closely.

The daily hunt for headlines: Overbearing fandom can be exhausting. Yes, the revelation of previously undisclosed surgeries or significant injuries can matter, as mentioned above. But save some of your energy and don't sweat Myles Garrett or Ezekiel Elliott missing a few practices in May. Occasionally, a lingering injury stretches from days to weeks to months. But it's hard to know which nagging maladies matter until that happens, because coaches are rarely straight with the media on the subject, especially this time of year.

"We're not really going to get much into that, as far as who's in and who's out," Bears coach John Fox said Tuesday about receiver Kevin White's practice status via the Chicago Tribune. "It's just realizing that we're not lining up to play just yet."

Fox didn't even mention to reporters that White seemingly practiced the previous day, safeguarding information from a May walk-through like he was protecting nuclear launch codes.

Perhaps Fox is just annoyed at all the attention. The NFL has succeeded in turning football into a year-round sport, but there isn't always enough meaningful news to feed the beast. Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson put it well on Tuesday when talking to reporters.

"Y'all are so thirsty," Richardson repeated twice with a laugh, shaking his head, before giving the room the soundbite they wanted.

Don't let your thirst for NFL news turn OTA information into more than it is.

Print