Making Sense of the NFL Summer Season

Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio shares his thoughts on training camp coverage and analysis. 

Let’s make sense of the NFL’s summer season: minicamp, OTAs, training camp, and the preseason. The unsophisticated argument is whether fans can derive any value from team activities between May and August.

The real questions should be what value should we expect to gain from each activity and when are we reaching? Below are my thoughts on the subject. It’s not meant to be a definitive or all-encompassing list but at the worst, may it serve as a return to a perspective that you intuitively possessed before you let the highlight videos, media buzz, and social media hype skewed it beyond all chance of wisdom.

It’s your fault; don’t blame the media — it’s your job to think critically. Don’t get defensive, it happens to the best of us. Do a better job of remembering how easy it is to get sucked in and you’ll do a better job of owning it and it will be less likely to happen as routinely as before.

Each activity is a phase of the summer season: Think of May through August as a process. A preseason game, a practice, a drill, or a single rep doesn’t offer enough information about the player’s future. Fans and media will see a video from practice and make definitive or conclusions or sound the alarm too early. The desired outcome for this behavior is generating clicks and interaction.

Because sports is meant to be light entertainment and a diversion, it’s acceptable behavior. However, if you’re searching for truth, you have to ignore the daily gossip and drama squads that wish to float a storyline and hope it sticks. If you approach each summer activity as puzzle pieces that interlock, you’ll head into September with a clearer picture — not a complete picture, but enough clarity not to think you see everything when there are still dozens of stray pieces still on the table.

There comes a point where analysts, fans, and fantasy players have to make a guess based on the available information but claiming one play, a drill, a practice or game gave you all that you needed to see is nothing but hubris. You may have guessed right based on what you saw or heard, but it does not make the process reliable.

Here’s what you should expect from each activity:

Minicamp gives new players a chance to work with teammates, receive basic instruction from coaches about the scheme, learn new drills and exercises, and begin learning and executing the playbook. There’s a lot of commentary about the athletic ability of the player in these situations. If the player is a fast learner, he’ll typically perform faster than a player who is not — even if the slower learner is a superior athlete. It means you should pay attention if a player appears athletic this early but you shouldn’t write off players who don’t perform to their athletic abilities.

OTAs mark the time where new players and veterans increasingly do more work together on the field. Practices include periods that focus on situational football. At this point, coaches are beginning to determine which players are absorbing the scheme quickly enough to perform to their athletic potential.

Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds performed well enough in Minicamp and OTAs that Arizona’s staff decided to teach Edmonds the full range of David Johnson’s role in the offense. We don’t know whether Edmonds will perform at a high enough level to thrive in this role until at least the preseason. However, it’s a good sign that he’s learned fast enough to make the staff confident in challenging him to do more.

As teams define roles for new players and give them practice time to execute those responsibilities on the field, there’s remains a tendency to overemphasize athletic ability or basic techniques of the position. There isn’t a full range of hitting and tackling and many parts of practices are drills that allow players to “game” the activity, which inflates how successful a player appears.

A running back could look great in pass protection drills, but those drills don’t require the sophistication of diagnosis he’ll face in a game or ask him to work from challenging ranges of the field to reach the assignment. These drills often fail to put the player against extreme physical mismatches.

Training Camp has become a mini film festival of practice clips and the assessments are often incomplete or inaccurate.  Fans and analysts looked at this tape of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and drew several of hasty conclusions:

Many blamed DeShone Kizer for an inaccurate throw. Few commented that Valdes-Scantling could have stacked the defender after earning clear separation and then changed his pacing so he didn’t outrun the target. Fewer commented on the fact that the receiver could have stuck his foot into the ground as the ball arrived and launch himself towards the ball to attack it rather than fade away.

The strategic and tactical end of the game still earns little analysis at this time. We’re not seeing tons of audibles or analysis about option routes or hot routes as video after video of fades, verticals, and slants flood social media.

When team practice situational football, we’re more likely to learn about quarterbacks making mistakes. Patrick Mahomes threw a few interceptions in a practice and that was a much bigger issue than Aaron Rodgers doing the same thing in Green Bay on the same day.

We forget that quarterbacks are often testing ideas and boundaries during practice so they can get a feel for what they should or shouldn’t try during a game. Tom Brady isn’t the only one who does this in the NFL. 

Preseason: This is where we get a chance to see some tactical work. We also get a taste of how a player performs on stage.

Can he make adjustments with his teammates. Does he diagnose problems and find solutions as quickly as he did during practice and can he adjust when an obstacle is an unanticipated event?

The pressure isn’t nearly as high as it will be in the fall, but the intensity rises. As subjective as the notion of pressure is, football is a performance craft and there are annual stories of players who look great in practices but don’t perform with the same intelligence, creativity, and clarity when the lights come on.

This is in all facets of life. There are great analysts and thinkers at your job who cannot make a presentation without looking like a fraction of the employee that they truly are. There are doctors and police who have a mind for their jobs but lack the poise when emergency situations arise.

Preseason is the first test in determining if the player’s absorption of the scheme remains intact under the pressure of a bigger stage or if a practice player who has struggled consistently has a talent for performing at a higher level when the action is more meaningful.

A player can have non-descript performances during minicamp, OTAs, and training camp but perform at the highest level during preseason games and it will often earn them greater consideration for playing time or, at least a roster spot because the game is a greater display if skills integration than any other summer event.

However, one must be careful about assigning too much value to a preseason performance because the caliber of competition and the type of plays involved can lead to a false sense of confidence in a prospect’s abilities.

When piecing together the range of outcomes of these summer activities, I see minicamp and OTAs a preliminary assessment period that helps the staff determine the role for which each player is competing:

  • A roster or practice squad spot.
  • An immediate backup who will be counted on to produce a significant amount when called upon.
  • An every-week contributor who will be used in certain packages.
  • A starter who will split time with a teammate.
  • A featured starter who will be counted on to win matchups against top competition.

Training camp and the preseason are the activities that solidify these assessments. For instance, Ryan Switzer looked good enough in minicamp that there has been a possibility that he could be in line to see significant playing time this year with a good training camp and preseason.

It means the Raiders slated Switzer as at least an immediate backup who, with a good camp and preseason, could earn an every-week contributing role in the offense. With a great camp and preseason, he might overtake a starter for a fulltime role.

However, as great of a summer many young players have, teams often wait until the regular season before they award them a large role in the starting lineup. They know that the pressure change is palpable and they like to be cautious about giving too much responsibility too early.

Approach each activity as a stage of assessment and try not to apply what you see with definitive conclusions, and you’ll have a greater chance of valuing player development appropriately rather than compounding positive or negative moments.

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