The 2020 NFL season portends one for veteran players to dominate.
The lack of an offseason workout program due to the COVID-19 pandemic has left rookies and young players with an uphill battle in the fight for playing time during training camp.
With a Zoom offseason making up most of the learning process, players haven't had time to learn on the field, and won't have a preseason to impress coaches. Without those opportunities, coaches and general managers are likely to rely on known veteran commodities at a greater rate than other years.
When positive COVID-19 tests leave teams scrambling to fill spots, they're more likely to go with a veteran who has proven he can play some in the league rather than a rookie who might not catch on quickly. It all adds up to difficulty for a lot of rookies, especially those not drafted highly.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted the tough situation rookies are in this season.
"They're in deep water and turbulent water, and it's going to get rougher, just in terms of the volume and the level of competition and becoming a professional athlete and the full day and consecutive days that get strung together with very high demands both physically and mentally and rest and recovery and all that," Belichick said Friday in a video conference. "I think all the guys are adjusting to it. They're all working hard at it. It's a really hard-working group. They haven't been any problem. They're just trying to do the best they can. But they're swimming. They're in deep water, and their eyes get opened every day as we move up in the process."
Belichick praised his rookies' work thus far as the team prepares for its first full-speed day of team drills.
"We're still a long way from anything close to real football, but we're doing more now than we were before," he said. "Each day is an acclimation day, an adjustment day for them, and I think they're just trying to keep their head above water and try to swim or paddle in the right direction knowing that they're not able to keep up, but they're doing the best they can, and they're way ahead of where they were a week ago, two weeks ago, a month ago, two months ago. A lot of progress there, but a long, long way to go. They're really all in the same boat. It's a hard-working, conscientious, diligent group that just ... they have a lot that they have to absorb. We're gonna get a much better evaluation of where they are in the next week or 10 days when things start happening on the football field and we start playing some football."
First-year players usually have rookie minicamp, team minicamp, and OTAs to get their feet wet before training camp. This year due to the pandemic they've been left simply to video meetings to go over the playbook and concepts and get virtual coaching.
Entering his 21st year as the Patriots' coach, Belichick compared this offseason to what he learned from the 2011 lockout, which kept players out of the building until late July. In that circumstance, there were no virtual learning sessions. Belichick noted a plethora of soft-tissue injuries from that season, which is one reason players pushed for a longer ramp-up period this year.
"So the meeting time and the opportunity to communicate information, ask questions and answer questions has been much greater," Belichick said, comparing 2011 to 2020. "The opportunity to be on the field and work on techniques was challenging. In 2011 ... we saw a lot of soft tissue injuries, we saw a lot of injuries early in training camp, so we're very aware of that experience.
"But with this ramp-up period, I think the players are probably, collectively, I think we have a lot of veteran players who have been through this and are ready to go, but there are other players who are newer either to our team or to the league that have had a ramp-up period that's been beneficial to them that they need it rather than thrown right into the fire. I think that that part of it has been good. So there are some similarities and there are differences, but in the end I think this is a good plan. I think it's working. We've made progress to this point. We've had to deal with a number of changes and adjustments, but it's probably going to be that way quite a while so I think we're used to it."
The quicker young players get used to it, the better chance they'll have of making an impact on the 2020 season.