Matt Waldman delivers his perspective on evaluating training camp and preseason in the NFL for this installment of the RSP NFL Lens.
Hope reigns in the NFL this time of year. Most of the players are healthy, the media is reporting every detail that might have potential relevance to a team’s in-season performance, and it leads to sky-high optimism from fans.
Let’s not forget the fantasy analysts—they wouldn’t let you if you tried. They’re a mix of media and fan—some weighted more in one direction than others—often touting crumbs of video and/or data that might offer attractive-looking support for their predictions.
I’m guilty as charged, although I’m more of a reformed criminal in this respect than a chronic perpetrator. My goal is to provide balanced perspectives as I find them as well as filter out reports that lack quality information.
One way of doing so will be this post because not everyone who sees me sharing, liking, or commenting on August news from Twitter or referencing information in an article about summer football will understand the deeper perspective I have about training camp practices and the preseason. From now on, if I receive a critique about a lack of context and/or perspective, I will point them to this post.
This is not the definitive guide to how to evaluate August football. I’m sharing what I’ve learned with 15 years of experience as an evaluator with a track record for separating the signal from the noise of practices and exhibition games. Many of these lessons were the result of mistakes—and I’m sure I’ll be learning even more during the next 15 years that will lead me to update this post.
Practice, Preseason, And Regular Season Performance Are Not Equal
This may seem obvious to most of you until the media publishes a daily report or video and the weight of that voice who writes for a specific publication or has a certain number of followers amplifies the positive or negative thoughts associated with their information. Practices have a variety of phases that carry different weight based on the position of the players involved and the events that occur.
Since this site caters mostly to the evaluation of offensive skill talent, we’re going to keep the examples focused on these positions. Practices essentially have three phases: warmups, drills, and scrimmages.
We can break down each phase further:
- Basic body movements.
- Football movements.
- Integration of physical football movements and basic processing of football information.
In addition to stretching, calisthenics, and short sprints to get the body loosened up, many of the items that we consider drills are technically warm-up exercises. This includes footwork drills, change-of-direction drills that simulate certain aspects of route running or cutting, and drills that involve throwing to receivers running routes.
Warm-up drills are known as Every-Day Drills. They use ladders, bags, and cones to encourage players to practice exaggerated movements that will help them acclimate or re-acclimate to specific football movements.
What can you glean from warm-ups? Few teams infuse any contextual football situations into these drills so there’s little practice with processing information. The most obvious things you can learn about the player during warm-ups is his flexibility, mobility, and health. If you watch him daily, you can also see whether he takes a focused and serious approach to the warm-up phase.
With the exercises that simulate specific technical/athletic movements related to the position, an observer can see how fluent the player is with the team’s specific drill types. A vital dose of perspective is necessary when watching them.
Two years ago, there was an outsized reaction to Derrick Henry’s perceived lack of footwork during his rookie year with the Titans. Former NFL running back Chad Spann dispelled a lot of the hasty conclusions drawn from these reports with an explanation at this site of the purpose of these exercises.
If a player makes mistakes with these drills, it should not be an indictment of his skills. It could be health-related, unfamiliarity with the drill type, or a lack of focus and attention.
- Every-Day Drills.
- Skill-Development Drills.
- Game-Situation Drills.
These drills are designed to encourage certain movements, refine those movements into definable skills, and then apply these skills in specific game situations. As Spann notes in his article, most of these drills occur during the offseason because that’s the time where the most attention can be given to teaching technique.
Some of these drills will involve one-on-one work against an opponent. For quarterbacks and receivers, these drills often involve throwing the ball with timing and anticipation against a defender playing man coverage. This also applies to runners in the passing game.
In addition to route-running, game-situation drills for runners include one-on-one pass protection exercises, taking exchanges with quarterbacks, and cutting drills that simulate a defender’s position on a blocker.
What can you glean from drills? This is the phase of practice where we see the greatest overreaction from fans, media, and fantasy analysts. Observers are too prone to react to successful or unsuccessful moments without taking the context of the drill into account.
Watching a receiver run a route in the middle of the field against a defender over the top and making that defender look foolish while breaking open may seem impressive on the surface, but let’s back up for a moment. Middle of the field routes against a single defender playing over the top without any coverage help is a situation where the receiver has the distinct advantage of having two options to break (a two-way-go).
In comparison, a receiver has fewer options on the perimeter when the defender has the help of the sideline or a safety over the top. The same is true with middle-of-the-field routes working into open spaces with 2-4 defenders in the area.
Noteworthy plays usually involve a mix of physical, technical, and conceptual. When one of these three elements is diminished or missing, you are less likely to see a player get pushed to demonstrate elevated skills in the other areas that you might see present in during a scrimmage or game situation.
A two-way-go is geared for the receiver to win. You can see basic physical and technical skills, but you’ll see little with the drill that challenges the player conceptually. Because the receiver has the defender at a distinct disadvantage, you won’t see that defender in a position to push the receiver to maximize his physical or technical prowess on the play.
This is true of most drills. Quarterbacks aren’t throwing under pressure and/or making pre-and-post-snap adjustments with receivers. Runners aren’t creating around penetration into the backfield while also trying to read their primary keys at the line of scrimmage. Receivers wining in a press-coverage drill aren’t usually dealing with a safety coming from across the field to help out or making a route adjustment in response to a defensive look.
If football is a language, drills are in essence an expression of the basics. You’re seeing these players recite A-B-C’s, 1-2-3’s, and reciting stock sentences like “What is your name?”, “Nice to meet you,” and “Where is the bathroom?”
Drills give observers insights into the level of skills players show in isolated situations lacking complexity:
- Do they have a range of releases with their hands and footwork against press coverage?
- Can they execute a punch with correct technique and leverage and then move laterally against a linebacker as a pass protector?
- Do they use the correct position with their hands at the catch point based on the trajectory of the target?
- Can they throw the ball with timing and accuracy when the pocket is clean and the coverage is simple/straightforward?
- Can they execute the correct break techniques with a route?
Essentially, you’re seeing what the player knows how to execute in simple game scenarios. They see more of these scenarios at the lower levels of football. They are still present in the pros and enough plays in these situations can yield productive games.
However, it rarely delivers lasting results. The complex challenges that top opponents pose separate players with the range of skills to win on a physical, technical, and strategic level—and often combining all three in ways that weren’t rehearsed—from professional-caliber athletes with only the baseline physical and technical skills that rarely elevate their production in difficult situations.
In other words, when the response to “Where is the bathroom?” is “Go around the corner, and knock on the door of the white van with no windows and there will be a driver wearing a butcher’s smock with a chainsaw in the passenger’s seat. He’ll let you in. Don’t worry about the mask here’s wearing, he thinks it’s Halloween every day,” and you comprehend the situation well enough to head in the other direction and ask someone else—while keeping an eye out for that person who gave you this answer as well as the van—then you’ve demonstrated a fully integrated understanding of the language you’ve been practicing in a realistic situation.
You understood what to ask, how to ask it, what you heard in response, and how to react accordingly in a situation that your language instructor probably didn’t teach you, but you needed to know in order to remain alive.
Many young players have good or elite skills as an athlete, technician, or strategist but rarely all three. Drills will reveal some of these skills in optimal situations but not realistic scenarios that will demonstrate high-end consistency and problem-solving.
Essentially, drills are showing you the player’s potential more often than reality.
- Fully padded 11-on-11
- 11-on-11 versus other teams.
You won’t see many complex strategic situations in 7-on-7s. You will see receivers and quarterbacks forced to display a clearer understanding of zone and man looks. Option routes and the communication between passer and receiver will occur here. Pressure, pocket management, and realistic timing to get the ball out will be less frequent to nonexistent.
Running backs and tight ends earn more realistic scenarios in 11-on-11 scrimmages. However, there usually isn’t much hitting in these phases of practice unless fully padded.
Even then, the intensity of action isn’t elevated to game-day levels. That intensity gets closer to the real thing when the different teams are conducting joint-practice scrimmages.
The 11-on-11 scrimmages will raise the bar for strategic play and integrated solutions that involve physical, technical, and conceptual skills. Another skill we haven’t discussed is the emotional maturity of the player and how they work under pressure.
While young players may deal with nerves early in camp—even to the point of allowing their emotions to lead to mistakes with every-day drills—the pressure shouldn’t interfere with the basics for very long. The scrimmage phase is the preliminary rehearsal and the players and coaches are an audience. It tests whether young players can use all of their skills and perform under a higher level of pressure that’s involved with their peers and leaders scrutinizing them.
Players who are ready to compete for playing time usually thrive here. Players with inconsistent or mistake-filled performances are left fighting for roster spots.
Often, players lacking the draft capital of an early-round pick deal with a huge gap in practice reps and it requires them to do a lot more with less than their early-round peers. This Hidden Advantage of Being a High NFL Draft Pick can also be an underlying reason why certain players flunk out of one camp only to emerge with another team.
What can you glean from scrimmages? If you’re studying practice tape—something many beat writers don’t do because they have deadlines and they’re writing about what they see standing on the sideline or in the stands with a lot more action going on than anyone can realistically absorb in one sitting—you’ll get a chance to see quarterbacks and receivers make strategic adjustments. Otherwise, the observations will be hit-or-miss based on who is providing the analysis and their specific focus.
You’ll see an elevated use of techniques, athletic play, and strategic adjustments but still infrequently. You’ll see how players respond emotionally to challenges from opponents. Do they rebound from mistakes or compound mistakes?
Although you’ll see young players face veterans—and often win reps—remember that day after day of repetitions create a familiarity that these young players won’t have against weekly opponents during their rookie year. Don’t get too excited about a rookie beating a top veteran unless it happens repeatedly and that veteran delivers specific, detailed compliments that indicate consistent and refined skill.
Don’t ignore the emotional element of the game at play in these performance situations. While more difficult to assess soft skills, if a player practices great in drills and less essential scrimmages (7-on-7 and 11-on-11 without pads) but is mistake-prone consistently in the most realistic game-simulations, that player isn’t demonstrating the confidence and focus of a top professional.
You’ll learn who is earning reps with the first-, second-, and third-teams. It may not be a completely accurate representation of the player’s skills, but it is often an indication of how teams view its players.
Even so, there will be instances where teams are giving young players more first-team reps to see how they respond because they already know what they have with an established player on the depth chart. There are also less-proven players earning opportunities due to injury, holdouts, and suspensions.
Most of all, scrimmages give observers a clue about what to watch during preseason snaps. Will they exhibit the same positives and negatives in front of a crowd and against less familiar opponents or will they raise their games?
Preseason: The Rehearsal Phase of August
There’s a lot to glean from preseason action, but it’s still not a definitive moment for the players involved. These are exhibitions and while the intensity is a notch higher than practices, veteran players will tell you that there’s no comparison between atmosphere among the players and fans in August and September.
However, rookies haven’t learned the difference yet. They may hear this from veterans, but it’s like an adult telling a child that a pot of boiling water is hot and the kid has never experienced painful heat.
What can you learn from the preseason? Less established players will feel pressure during the preseason—especially players in tight competition for on-field roles or roster spots. In addition to showcasing their ability to use a combination of skills to solve problems, they have to prove that the pressure and emotion of playing at this competitive level don’t overwhelm them:
- Do their technique, athletic ability, and strategic knowledge remain consistent from drills to scrimmage to the exhibitions?
- When they make a mistake, do they overcome it or does the emotion from the issue linger and they lose focus and execution?
- Do they find solutions to problems not encountered during practice?
- Do they execute with confidence and immediacy with techniques, strategies, and athletic ability that’s accurate for the situation and performing with a speed that makes their reactions look instinctive?
- Do they raise their intensity of play to fit the moment?
- Are they winning matchups against quality contributors who will be on the field during the regular season?
- Are these players assignment-sound and avoiding careless mistakes that often happened when dealing with information overload?
When players perform well during the preseason phase, they will likely earn a contributing role during the year. Even so, it’s only another incremental step towards success and not a guarantee it will happen.
The Regular Season: Grown Men Playing to Pay the Mortgage
Ben Watson told me during an interview with him that he didn’t truly feel the gravity of the NFL until his first season opener in New England. Whether it was sitting in the locker room minutes before taking the field or being in the huddle, Watson felt the intensity of his teammates and opponents in a way that clearly communicated to him that he was playing with “grown men playing this game to supporting their families.”
Joke all you want about Adrian Peterson’s decisions that have him in debt and playing well into his 30s, but watch his performances since high school and you could characterize the intensity of his play as someone performing with the fear that the electric company is going to turn off his family’s power if he doesn’t get a first down on the next touch. Peterson is an easy example to witness as a fan, but this is true of most players who have a much lower profile than Peterson.
The stakes are higher, which raises the intensity and weight of mistakes and tightens the mood among teammates. Young players often add even more weight to their regular-season moments early in their careers. They are prone to overreacting to mistakes, compounding them, and losing confidence.
I’ve been told of a first-round pick who initially refused to leave the locker room after halftime because of a mistake he made earlier in the game. The team had to call the personal trainer out of the stands into the locker room to convince the player to return to the field for the third quarter.
We’ve seen veterans get beat early in the year and realize that they no longer have the confidence in their skills or the will to continue playing the game. Vontae Davis quit after a half of play as a Buffalo Bill last year. It may seem laughable or humiliating, but football at this level requires a mental and emotional edge and if it’s missing, a player can suffer a lasting injury. Davis made the right call to know his limits—even if the situation was awkward.
Regular season play by far carries the most weight. Young players who earn opportunities and perform well in brief moments will often earn more touches in meaningful situations like third-downs, two-minute offenses, and in the fourth quarter.
If the player displays consistency and productivity in these situations, they will likely earn more touches. If not, their usage could suddenly diminish. Coaches often accelerate opportunities for young players early but if they can’t produce in the biggest moments, coaches will go back to proven players and be slow to give these options another chance if they aren’t players with high draft capital.
Putting It All Together
The best way to evaluate players is to understand these phases of the month and the details to study. As you do, approach each phase of August with incremental levels of optimism and skepticism based on each level of performance.
When I share a video of Hakeem Butler making a catch between defenders and then follow up with a post from beat writer Kent Somers that Butler appears to have “a ways to go,” I’m sharing two perspectives and I’m waiting for more information that fully-padded scrimmages and preseason play will reveal.
When I retweet that Emmanuel Butler is drawing comparisons to Marques Colston and having some of the best moments of practices early on, think about what you should value from drills and scrimmages versus preseason. Butler is obviously showing off technique, athletic ability, and occasional strategic skill. However, he hasn’t been tested to his maximum ability in these three areas and the stakes haven’t been raised to see if he can stay focused and emotionally under control when the pressure is higher.
As an analyst, I may celebrate positive moments that writers and observers are sharing about players on social media but I’m not likely telling you that he’s going to be an emerging force. Don’t blow it out of proportion.
As the stakes get higher, I’ll share more definitive views and predictions. Until then, enjoy the ride. View progress or regression incrementally and maintain perspective about the phases of practice so you’re not over or underreacting to what you see and hear.
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