COVID-19

Minor NFL Transactions: 7/24/21

Here are Saturday’s minor moves, with the list being updated throughout the day:

Denver Broncos

Green Bay Packers

  • Placed on reserve/COVID-19 list: LB Ray Wilborn
  • Placed on active/PUP list: RB Patrick Taylor

Jacksonville Jaguars

Kansas City Chiefs

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tennessee Titans

Rick Dennison Off Vikings’ Staff After Refusing COVID-19 Vaccine

6:29pm: Dennison’s agent has chimed in on this situation, indicating his client remains in the picture for the Vikings, via the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling (on Twitter). There still does not seem to be any gray area here. Dennison will need to either be vaccinated or be unable to coach Vikings O-linemen in person this season.

3:31pm: The Vikings released a statement indicating that while Dennison does not have a medical or religious exemption to avoid the vaccine under the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols, he and the team continue to hold discussions, the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Chris Tomasson tweets. These discussions would seemingly be centered around Dennison changing his mind on the vaccine, but it does not appear he is 100% out the door just yet.

2:44pm: Vikings offensive line coach Rick Dennison will not be with the team going forward. The longtime NFL assistant is done with the Vikings due to his refusal to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Courtney Cronin of ESPN.com reports.

While the NFLPA bargained for players to not be required to receive the vaccine, coaches must provide medical or religious grounds in order to refuse it. Otherwise, they cannot work with players onsite. Dennison’s refusal will wrap his two-plus-year tenure with the Vikings, who hired him as their O-line coach in January 2019. Minnesota will promote assistant O-line coach Phil Rauscher to fill the position, Cronin adds.

The Vikings hired Dennison after bringing Gary Kubiak aboard as offensive coordinator, and he was set to work under new OC Klint Kubiak this season. Dennison, 63, was set to serve as a key aid for the younger Kubiak this season. He is believed to be the first coach to part ways with a team due to a vaccination refusal. The Vikings also hired Ben Steele to fill Rauscher’s assistant O-line coach post, per Cronin. Steele spent the past two seasons with the Falcons; he worked as their tight ends coach in 2020.

Dennison had been on Gary Kubiak’s Super Bowl-winning Broncos staff as OC and initially rose to an NFL offensive coordinator role by succeeding Kubiak in that post in Denver in 2006. Dennison later worked under Kubiak as OC in Houston and was the Bills’ OC in 2017. The former Broncos linebacker has been an NFL assistant since Mike Shanahan began his HC tenure in Denver in 1995.

This marks the second time in four years the Vikings have needed to replace their O-line coach in July. Tony Sparano‘s death in July 2018 forced Minnesota to rearrange its staff. Dennison became Sparano’s full-time replacement months later, also working as the team’s run-game coordinator.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Minor NFL Transactions: 7/23/21

We’ll keep track of today’s minor moves here:

Arizona Cardinals

Jacksonville Jaguars

Miami Dolphins

  • Signed: CB Cre’Von LeBlanc
  • Waived: DE Nick Coe, LS Rex Sunahara

New England Patriots

  • Signed: TE David Wells

New York Jets

Seattle Seahawks

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Patriots Co-Offensive Line Coach Off Staff Due To COVID-19 Policy

Following Rick Dennison‘s departure from the Vikings due to a COVID-19 vaccine refusal, the Patriots will also part ways with one of their offensive line coaches.

Co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich is off the Patriots’ staff, Jim McBride of the Boston Globe reports. Popovich is gone due to his refusal to comply with the NFL’s vaccine policy, Mike Reiss of ESPN.com adds (on Twitter). Popovich and Carmen Bricillo worked as co-O-line coaches in New England last season, but McBride adds the latter will helm the position solo this year.

Popovich, 36, has been with the Patriots since 2016. He broke into the NFL on Bill Belichick‘s staff and moved up to assistant running backs coach in 2019. In 2020, the Pats promoted he and Bricillo to fill the void created by famed O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia‘s retirement. Popovich’s NFL career is now in limbo.

In order to work with players, coaches must be vaccinated. The NFL has not required players to be vaccinated, but staffers — in order to qualify for Tier 1 or Tier 2 status — must either do so or provide medical or religious grounds for refusing. Teams are not permitted to cut players because of their refusal to be vaccinated, though they can jettison unvaccinated players for other reasons. However, no such rule is in place for coaches. NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said Friday nearly 100% of NFL staffs are vaccinated, so it will be interesting to see if any additional coaches are moved off staff in the coming days.

NFL To Keep 2020 Roster Rules In Place

The roster flexibility the NFL gave teams amid the COVID-19 pandemic last season will remain in place for the 2021 campaign, according to ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert. The league may go back to its more restrictive standard setup someday, but it will not happen this season.

Teams will have the option of bringing players off injured reserve after three weeks, and there will continue to be no limitations on how many players return from IR per team. Not that long ago, an IR designation meant a player’s season was over. Then, the NFL steadily loosened restrictions on this roster move during the 2010s. Last season, injured players returned to active rosters regularly; they will be in position to do so again this year.

[RELATED: Unvaccinated Players Could Lead To Forfeited Games]

Additionally, practice squads will remain at 16 players. They resided at 10 in 2019, but the pandemic-era change expanded them. Teams also can carry six players with more than two accrued seasons on their respective taxi squads. The 2020 CBA was set to expand practice squads, but they were only slated to be at 12 in 2021. Although this COVID-induced adjustment may not be permanent, more players will have NFL jobs again in 2021.

While teams are not expected to face as many coronavirus-caused roster crunches this season, given the vaccines’ emergence, select players have been placed on reserve/COVID-19 lists to start training camp. As a whole, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com notes that 16 teams have surpassed the 85% vaccination threshold. That number has been steadily ticking up in the weeks leading to camp. All but five teams are at least 70% vaccinated.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL: Unvaccinated Players Could Lead Forfeited Games 

The NFL isn’t forcing players to get vaccinated, but they are finding other ways to encourage it. In a memo to teams, the league explained that teams with outbreaks among unvaccinated players will be required to forfeit if their game cannot be rescheduled inside of the 18-week season (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero). The forfeit would impact playoff seeding for the team. And, in that event, players would be paid for the game.

If a game is cancelled/postponed because a club cannot play due to a Covid spike among or resulting from its non-vaccinated players/staff, then the burden of the cancellation or delay will fall on the club experiencing the Covid infection,” the NFL said in the memo. “We will seek to minimize the burden on the opposing club or clubs. If a club cannot play due to a Covid spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams.”

We do not anticipate adding a ’19th week’ to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season.

Furthermore, the team responsible for the cancellation would be responsible for covering costs. There could also be additional discipline from the league office.

Every team has at least 50% of its players vaccinated, Pelissero hears. Presumably, teams will be working harder than ever to get the number towards 100%.

The new guidelines weren’t received well by everyone. Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins was among those to speak out on social media in a since-deleted tweet.

Never thought I would say this, But being in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the NFL,” Hopkins wrote.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On NFL, COVID-19 Vaccine

As training camps rapidly approach, issues related to the COVID-19 vaccine continue to be omnipresent in the NFL landscape. Ever since the league and NFLPA agreed to protocols for the 2021 season that will make life much easier for vaccinated players, the vaccination rate has steadily been ticking up.

That continues to be the case. 13 teams now have at least 85 percent of their players vaccinated, Tom Pelissero of NFL Network tweets. Things are clearly moving at a brisk pace, since just a couple of days before a source had told Ben Volin of the Boston Globe that it was nine teams (Twitter link). As of Pelissero’s tweet, 73.8 percent of players league-wide had gotten at least one shot.

Two teams remained below 50 percent. Players who aren’t vaccinated will face heavy restrictions for this season, including having to travel separately to road games and not being allowed to do virtually anything while out of town. As Pelissero put it at the time, road games will essentially boil down to “fly by yourself and sit in your room until kickoff” for unvaccinated players.

Meanwhile, while many players have declined to share their status, they might not be able to keep their decisions to themselves much longer. That’s because a source told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com that the league and union are “working out the details” for a system of “identifying vaccinated players during practices and games.”

The source told Florio that it’s a “core concern.” As Florio notes, if that system includes visible identification during games, it won’t be hard for the media and fans to figure out. This one could certainly spark some drama, and we’ll let you know once we hear more.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Seven Teams Exceed 85% Vaccination Threshold

MONDAY: A seventh team has crossed the 85% barrier, Pelissero adds (on Twitter). As for the players who have received at least one vaccine dose, that number has now surpassed 70%.

FRIDAY: With training camps less than three weeks away, an interesting date is approaching regarding vaccinations. Any player who has not received two vaccine doses, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, by Monday will not be considered fully vaccinated by camp. But the number of players who have taken that step continues to increase.

Six teams have hit the 85% vaccination threshold, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets. This includes the Broncos, who have seen nearly 95% of their 90-man roster receive one or two vaccine doses, Mike Klis of 9News tweets.

[RELATED: No Players Opt Out Of 2021 Season]

As a whole, the NFL’s player base has surpassed the 69% vaccination threshold, Pelissero adds. This is up from 65% two weeks ago. Geared around players’ vaccination decisions, this season’s COVID-19 protocols create two sets of rules. Teams who reach high vaccination levels will have advantages.

Players who choose not to be vaccinated — a right the NFLPA collectively bargained, though teams’ Tier 1 and Tier 2 staffers are required to do so — must take virus tests daily once camp starts and will face the prospect of missing multiple games if they test positive. Nearly all Tier 1 and Tier 2 personnel are vaccinated, Pelissero tweets. Coaches fall under this umbrella; a coach must be fully vaccinated to be allowed to work directly with players.

The league’s high-risk close contact policy still applies to unvaccinated players, who, like last season, would need to isolate for five days if they are classified as such. Teams with lower vaccination rates will also need to create social distancing setups for their unvaccinated sects of players; this will pertain to meetings and affect weight-room policies.

The Dolphins, Saints and Steelers joined the Broncos in being around the 85% threshold in late June, and the Jaguars and Panthers had progressed to near that rate at that point. Twenty-nine teams begin training camp July 27.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFL: 68% Of Players Vaccinated

JULY 7: This number has ticked up a bit over the past two weeks. Approximately 68% of players have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Tom Pelissero of NFL.com tweets. Five teams have hit the 85% threshold. Nearly all Tier 1 and Tier 2 staffers are fully vaccinated.

JUNE 25: Approximately 65% of NFL players have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to NFL medical officer Allen Sills (Twitter link via ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter). That’s roughly in line with the rest of the United States, though it’s well above the 48% rate for Americans ages 18-24 and 50% rate for ages 25-39.

When factoring in the youth of NFL players, Sills & Co. are ahead of the game. Still, the league office is hoping to push that number closer to 100%, even though players are not required to get vaccinated.

A few notable players have pushed back against the league’s protocols and expressed hesitancy regarding the vaccine, which has created issues for certain teams. Meanwhile, the NFL is incentivizing players to get their shots. For example, if a vaccinated player somehow tests positive for the virus, they’ll still receive their per-game roster bonuses. However, if an unvaccinated player tests positive and misses time, they’ll run the risk of losing their bonus money.

While players are exempt, Tier 1 and Tier 2 staffers are still required to get vaccinated. And, on a related note, players will once again be allowed to opt out of the season.

No Players Planning To Opt Out Of 2021 Season?

Nearly 70 players opted out of the 2020 season, with some of the high-profile opt-outs’ decisions affecting teams’ plans going into that uncertain campaign. A more stable backdrop exists a year later, and the NFL may have its full workforce available as a result.

No buzz has emerged on a player opting out of the 2021 season, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes. Last week, the NFL and NFLPA came to an agreement that secured another COVID-19 opt-out provision. Only players deemed high risks for developing complications from the coronavirus are eligible for the $350K payout, but with vaccines now in the equation, it is possible no player opts out by Friday’s 3pm CT deadline.

Several key players opted out in 2020. Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung were among the Patriots’ league-high seven opt-outs; the Bears lost nose tackle Eddie Goldman; the Chiefs lost longtime guard starter Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and starting running back Damien Williams; the Vikings lost recent nose tackle signee Michael Pierce; Giants left tackle Nate Solder sat out as well. This group, save for the now-retired Chung, has returned. (Goldman did not show for Bears minicamp, but the team expects him back for training camp.) However, many of the lower-profile players ended up being cut after their respective opt-out decisions. With effective vaccines now available, teams will likely be less understanding of players’ decisions to skip the season.

While a few players have expressed vaccine hesitancy, at least 65% of NFL players have received at least one vaccine dose. The Broncos, Dolphins, Saints and Steelers were close to or had surpassed the 85% mark late last week, according to ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler (on Twitter). The Jaguars and Panthers saw a spike in vaccines after the NFL announced this year’s virus protocols, which provide considerably more freedom for vaccinated players.

A few hours remain for players to notify teams they will skip this season, but opt-outs — decisions that cannot be changed after this afternoon’s deadline — do not look like a major issue for NFL franchises in 2021.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.