COVID-19

Latest On NFL Offseason, Salary Cap

Although the NFL is expected to use many of the same protocols it did during the COVID-19-altered 2020 offseason, the league will make it easier on non-big-ticket free agents this year. As of now, the NFL is expected to allow free agents to visit teams’ facilities, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reports. With the pandemic hitting just as free agency began last year, the NFL banned free agents from making visits. Physicals for players who agreed to deals were a no-go as well, making contracts trickier to finalize than usual. Multiple players who agreed to deals early — Michael Brockers and Darqueze Dennard, to name two — saw teams back out of agreements. Both visits and physicals are currently allowed, per Florio, who adds free agents must pass a rapid PCR coronavirus test before entering any team’s facility. This would open the door to players with injury questions working out for teams. This sect of free agents being unable to do so last year led to months-long delays, with several UFAs signing just before training camp or after camps began.

Here is the latest on the offseason front:

  • On the draft front, the top evaluation event — the NFL Scouting Combine — did not occur this year. And for the second straight offseason, draft prospects will not be permitted to make visits to team facilities. (Though, a few did so early last offseason.) Prior to 2020, teams could bring in 30 prospects for visits. This year, no limitations exist regarding how many prospects teams can meet with virtually, Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald notes. However, teams are limited to five virtual interviews per prospect.
  • Earlier this year, Roger Goodell confirmed the 2021 offseason would look similar to 2020’s. But even when the NFL can return to its more traditional offseason and in-season setup, the commissioner indicated virtual meetings will continue to play a major role. “Virtual meetings have now become standard in the NFL,” Goodell said this week, via The Associated Press’ Barry Wilner. “We are not going to have as much (in-person) meetings when we get back.”
  • Several high-profile players are being shopped, and more big names figure to become cap casualties soon in an offseason expected to feature a steep salary cap reduction — one that could see it plummet from $198MM to $180MM. But NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith envisions the league’s cap growth returning in 2022, via CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones (on Twitter). This year’s cap has yet to be determined, but with greater attendance likely in 2021 and new TV deals expected soon, there should be no threat of the cap dropping or plateauing come 2022. We will gain a clearer picture of the cap’s future once this year’s figure emerges, but teams may have a greater appetite for restructures that push more money onto future caps. And extensive backloading of free agents’ deals figures to commence.

Mike Tomlin Has COVID-19

Unfortunate news to pass along, as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been diagnosed with COVID-19, sources told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (Twitter link).

Needless to say, Tomlin is now away from the facility as the team gets ready for free agency and draft prep. It sounds like there may have been something of an outbreak on the staff, as Rapoport notes that the team confirmed numerous personnel execs and coaches were sent home after multiple positive tests came up.

One of those positives was Tomlin, who despite having coached Pittsburgh for the past 14 seasons is still on the younger side of NFL coaches at 48. The pandemic wreaked havoc on the league all season, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change in the offseason even without games being played.

With almost everything related to the draft and free agency virtual these days anyway, this hopefully shouldn’t hinder the Steelers’ process too much. All of us here at PFR wish Tomlin a full and speedy recovery.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

COVID-19 Offseason, Roster Changes To Become Permanent?

Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic changed things radically in the NFL. While everyone is hopeful that many things will get back to normal for the 2021 season, like fans in the stands of course, it appears that some of the changes are here to stay.

In an interesting article earlier this week, Lindsay Jones of The Athletic (subscription required) took a look at what we can expect moving forward in terms of offseasons and roster rules. One of the biggest changes in 2020 were practice squad rules, with those units being increased from 10 to 16 players, and vested veterans being allowed to be on them. The other biggest change was the altering of injured reserve rules, which reduced the amount of games a player needed to miss on IR from six to three, and eliminated the cap of two players being allowed to return.

Those matters will be discussed at offseason competition committee meetings, and the two issues mentioned above are both expected to “receive overwhelmingly positive reviews from coaches and general managers,” a source told Jones. It makes a ton of sense, and at this point it would be surprising if the NFL went back to pre-2020 procedures for practice squads and IR.

Jones also notes that 2020 changes like the “reduction of the number of people allowed in the team’s bench area during games and road-game travel protocols” could become permanent as well. As for the offseason, there was a dramatic reduction in training camp practice time this past year, which could be the new norm.

Jones writes that players union head J.C. Tretter is planning on pounding the table for reduced OTAs and minicamps to stay. While changes to the offseason program would need to be collectively bargained, a source told her that there “appears to be enough support from both sides for such a change to be possible.”

Tretter said he’s heard from players who feel like they finished the season in better physical and mental shape because of the limited practice time. “Change is always scary, but we’ve come out on the other side in a much better position. And now, it’s the point of getting down with the league, talking to them about which of these changes we should move forward, because they are better for everybody involved,” the Browns’ center said.

Vikings Give Riley Reiff $1MM Bonus

The Vikings renegotiated Riley Reiff’s contract to furnish him with a $1MM signing bonus, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL.com (on Twitter). The left tackle would have reached a $1MM playtime incentive had he played in the final game of the year, but he had to sit out while on the COVID-19 list. 

Reiff didn’t miss a snap up until his absence and would have comfortably reached the required ~94% snap threshold had he played in Week 17. Next, the Vikings will have to make a decision on Reiff’s future in Minnesota. The tackle has a $5MM roster bonus due on March 19th. If they release him previous to that date, they can save a total of $11.75MM between his roster bonus, workout bonus, and $6.55MM base salary. On the books, they’d be left with just $2.2MM in dead money, the sum of his prorated bonus.

Reiff has started in 58 games across four years with the Vikings. The 32-year-old was a rumored cap casualty last year, but they ultimately chose to stick with his veteran experience rather than thrusting second-round pick Ezra Cleveland into the starting lineup.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Saints Facing COVID-19 Discipline

The Saints are facing discipline from the league office for violating COVID-19 safety policies, according to NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport. This marks the third such violation for Sean Payton & Co., so the punishment is likely to be even larger. 

Between the two previous penalties, the Saints have already been docked $750K plus the forfeiture of a seventh-round pick. First, there was the lack of mask-wearing in Week 2. Then, the Saints were seen celebrating sans face coverings again in Week 9. The latest flag stems from a late-season incident in which running back Alvin Kamara came in contact with a COVID-19 positive person at the team facility. That person was not employed by the Saints, even though non-team personnel have been barred from entering this season.

When Kamara contracted the coronavirus, the timing couldn’t have been worse. In Week 16 against the Vikings, he registered six touchdowns on the ground, matching a 91-year-old record. Forced out of the season finale, Kamara still finished the year with an NFL-high 21 TDs. Meanwhile, several other Saints RBs were forced out of Week 17, putting increased attention on the Saints and their protocols.

Interestingly, Kamara himself was not an innocent party in this. According to Jeff Duncan of The Athletic, Kamara’s refusal to wear a contract-tracing device was a problem all season, so the club had no way to trace his close contacts after he tested positive (Twitter link). The league’s investigation into the latest alleged violation could presumably lead to discipline for Kamara as well as the Saints.

The Saints project to have four, or possibly five, selections in the 2021 draft. Currently, they have only their first-, second-, and fourth-round picks. However, they are slated receive a pair of third-round compensatory picks for hiring Terry Fontenot and losing Teddy Bridgewater. In the coming days, the Saints could wind up losing more from their stockpile, though as Mike Triplett of ESPN.com tweets, they are confident that Kamara did not contract COVID-19 from contact with anyone inside the team facility (though that might not really matter, as the mere presence of non-team personnel is a protocol violation).

Triplett goes on to say that New Orleans has not yet been notified of any further discipline, and that the club would appeal any such discipline if the NFL imposes it (Twitter link).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Chiefs’ Demarcus Robinson Cleared To Practice

Demarcus Robinson is on track to play in the Super Bowl. The wide receiver was cleared to practice on Friday, ending his stint on the Reserve/COVID-19 list (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero). 

[RELATED: Mutual Interest Between Sammy Watkins, Chiefs On New Contract]

Robinson came in close contact with a barber who tested positive for the coronavirus. The timing was unfortunate but, thankfully, Robinson has tested negative every day since then. Barring any changes, he’ll be eligible to take the field in Super Bowl LV.

The Chiefs are still awaiting the final go-ahead for reserve center Daniel Kilgore, who also received a haircut from the same barber. Kilgore got his trim one day after Robinson, so he’ll need an extra day of zero positives before rejoining the team. If Kilgore’s final test comes back negative, he’ll be able to regroup with the Chiefs on Saturday — just in time for the big game.

Robinson, who splits WR3 duties with Mecole Hardman, finished the regular season with 45 grabs for 466 yards and three touchdowns. Kilgore, meanwhile, hasn’t seen as much time on the field, but the Chiefs will be counting on him for depth in the wake of several offensive line injuries.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Roger Goodell Expects Virtual Offseason Setup To Remain

Roger Goodell expects much of the 2020 virtual offseason program to remain for 2021. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the longtime commissioner foresees most of the components of last year’s offseason to be brought back.

We anticipate that a lot of the things that we did last year with respect to training camps, with respect to the offseason will be done again,” Goodell said Thursday, via the Houston Chronicle. “Virtual is going to be part of our life for the long term.

“I think we learned, and the coaches learned to players learned, that it was actually a very positive way to install offenses and to work in the offseason. I don’t know when normal will occur. I don’t know if normal will occur again.”

The pandemic forced the NFL to cancel all in-person activities — from free agency visits to OTAs to minicamps — through training camp, which preceded a canceled preseason. The league and the NFLPA engaged in offseason protocol discussions for weeks, then proceeded to negotiate training camp policies and a pandemic-era salary cap for months. They will do so again this year, with union executive director DeMaurice Smith indicating the sides will likely organize the offseason program in March or April (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero).

As of now, the draft remains scheduled to be an in-person event in Cleveland, but with the combine already being split into limited-attendance regional events, it is certainly not hard to envision the draft going virtual for a second straight year.

While the coronavirus vaccine effort remains in the early stages, the NFL will face an interesting hurdle in the near future. The league cannot unilaterally force players to be vaccinated once they become eligible, Pelissero notes. A vaccine policy would need to also be collectively bargained. Goodell and Smith have said they will not skip the line by having players vaccinated before their tier becomes eligible. This led Smith to predict an all-virtual 2021 offseason (Twitter link).

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Latest On Chiefs’ Demarcus Robinson, Daniel Kilgore

Good news for the Chiefs. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and center Daniel Kilgore have tested negative every day since their close contact situation last week, according to NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero (on Twitter). Barring any changes, Robinson will be able to rejoin the team on Friday. Kilgore, who needs an extra day to clear, is on track to reunite with his teammates on Saturday. 

[RELATED: Mutual Interest Between Sammy Watkins, Chiefs On New Contract]

Both players received haircuts last weekend from a barber who tested positive, putting their Super Bowl status in jeopardy. Losing Robinson would have been especially tough for the Chiefs. This year, he ranked third in receptions behind only Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. In total, he turned in a 45/466/3 stat line, marking the best season of his career to date. He should be set to share No. 3 WR duties with Mecole Hardman, giving the Bucs’ secondary yet another headache to manage.

Kilgore, 33, suited up in seven games for the Chiefs this year and started only four times. But, with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz on the shelf, the offensive line is being reshuffled, so the Chiefs need him more than ever. By the skin of his teeth, Kilgore is expected to get the green light for Sunday.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

No New COVID Cases For Chiefs, Bucs

The latest round of testing revealed no new COVID-19 positives for players on the Chiefs or Buccaneers, as NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets. Barring any hitches, both teams should be set for Super Bowl LV on Sunday.

[RELATED: Chiefs’ Mitchell Schwartz Out For Super Bowl?]

The Chiefs were forced to place two players — center Daniel Kilgore and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson — on the COVID-19/reserve list earlier this week. Fortunately, neither player has tested positive, though they were in close contact with a barber who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Close-contact situations require only a five-day clearance, so both players should be able to suit up if they continue to test negative. Kilgore has mostly been a reserve for Kansas City this season, but he’s a valuable backup, having started 13 games for the Dolphins last year. Also, the Chiefs will likely be without the services of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, so they’ll want Kilgore at the ready. Robinson plays a large role, so the Chiefs don’t want to lose him either. Robinson appeared in all 16 regular season games this year, racking up 45 catches for 466 yards and three touchdowns.