The 2020 offseason has looked like no other in the NFL's history, and that's not going to change anytime soon.
Players and coaches around the league have begun to report to their various facilities for training camp, but the league has already announced there will be no preseason games, which remain a staple for both preparation and evaluation in the NFL. Falcons coach Dan Quinn relies on the invaluable information he gleans during his team's four preseason games, especially as it pertains to younger players on the roster, but he's already got a plan in place to get the best evaluation possible.
"We're going to try create some moments that are situation-specific that will be non-scripted to do the very best we can to create a game-like situation," Quinn said Tuesday on a video call with local media. "A scrimmage, so to speak. So, we'll do as many of those leading up to the season as we can. That's the first step to it: To provide moments where it's not scripted – you don't know the play – let's go match up and see how we do. We're going to try to make as many competitive moments as we can, especially for the players that need a lot of evaluations."
While some of the league's top stars – players like Julio Jones and Matt Ryan – receive minimal playing time during the preseason, they are the exceptions to the rule. The majority of NFL rosters rely on those exhibition games to get full-speed reps that allow players and coaches to determine where they stand with both conditioning and development.
This is particularly true with the least experienced players in a team's locker room. Every training camp there is a large number of undrafted free agents – the Falcons have 20 such players this year – who are looking to make a strong impression in hopes of earning a spot on the active roster or practice squad. Wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus was one such player last preseason who impressed the Falcons coaches and stuck around with the team in the fall. In Week 14, Zaccheaus put his talent on display with an electrifying 93-yard touchdown catch.
Due to the lack of preseason games, the next Zaccheaus will have a harder time separating himself from the pack.
"The player that is fighting for a roster spot, when are my moments to prove myself and what I can do? So, put yourself into that spot as well, not just us evaluating but the stress on them," Quinn said.
Falcons coaches have worked with the rookie class virtually throughout the offseason, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses from their days in college and quizzing them on aspects of the playbook and their roles in executing those plays. Training camp will provide the first opportunity to work with players in a physical capacity, however, and there's a lot of on-field instruction to catch up on.
"You're wanting to see those traits," Quinn said. "You've got the knowledge now, you've been through the program. When you're seeing them matchup, there could be some creative matchups take place from the coaching staff to see some highlights and one-on-ones – let's run it to here; let's throw it to there. We'll do a little setup and put some runners on second and third and put the guy at the plate at a practice, so to speak."
The NFL has long been a copycat league, but every team is entering uncharted territory due to the COVID-19 pandemic and developing new ways to prepare for the 2020 season. Things are no different in Atlanta, but there is a certain level of continuity with both the players and the coaching staff that could make things a bit easier.
It's the new faces in the building and the younger players on the roster who figure to be most impacted by the lack of preseason games in 2020. Quinn and his staff had previously planned on doing two inter-squad scrimmages during training camp – a first in his time as head coach – but those have been scrapped due to COVID-19. Still, it appears Quinn plans on relying heavily on intra-squad scrimmages to help his team prepare for an important 2020 season.
"We're moving in this direction in years to come with fewer games, but I'm trying to find out and evaluate how many reps did we give a normal player in preseason," Quinn said. "So those scrimmage days I think are going to be an important part of the evaluation, because that's the very best that we can do at the moment so we're going to create those opportunities and moments to let those players do their thing and get a real chance to evaluate them."
The 2020 Atlanta Falcons Rookie Class arrived at Falcons Headquarters this week to participate in AT&T Training Camp.