It's clear now that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is going to permeate every aspect of the NFL's planned return to action this fall.
Whether it be social-distancing measures at team facilities or new approaches to preparing players for the season in the absence of preseason games, every team will be undergoing a training camp unlike any they've ever experiences.
While it's easy to understand the ways COVID-19 will impact physical aspects of NFL life, there are some hidden effects that might not be as easy to identify. One such behind-the-scenes effect is how teams approach their roster decisions throughout camp and heading into the season.
"There are a lot of moving parts this year," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "There are going to be daily discussions, for sure, regarding the roster. I know you guys will follow that as well, but a lot of thought is going to go into that."
Injuries are always an unfortunate part of life during training camp. Teams expect them and even prepare for them, but there's no way to fully prevent them. However, teams do generally have a sense of which positions are most likely to have attrition and they may bolster their ranks on the 90-man roster at those certain spots.
If an injury happens at a spot where extra depth is needed, a team is often able to make a transaction that same day or in the near future to add a player to its roster at the required position. Given the testing requirements put into place this year by the NFL, that immediacy will no longer be available. Players will need to be tested for a duration of time before being allowed to join the rest of the team, which will slow down an organization's ability to resupply.
"One thing I think you have to think about outside, that's a position – wide receivers, corners – the amount of running that's going to take place in training camp, soft-tissue injuries are something that are legitimate to talk about," Quinn explained. "It's a difficult process to add players onto a roster. In the past, when you've covered a team, 'Hey, the injury bug hit tight end,' or 'hit this group and they're out,' it's a good while to get that position back up. In the past, 'Hey, we're going to release another player to add to that (group).' That really won't be the case this year because it could take five, six or seven days to get the next player in at that position."
The added threat of COVID-19, in addition to the always-present threat of injury, is forcing teams to consider their roster allocation in a new light. Should they strive for added depth across the board or continue to focus their attention on the positions that still carry the greatest risk of long-term injury?
That's a question that will carry on into the regular season as well, but a change to the practice squad should help make things easier for teams. As Quinn explained, a team may keep six additional veteran players on its practice squad, expanding the number of practice squad spots to 16 for the 2020 season. Teams will also be allowed to promote a player from the practice squad to fill a spot on the active roster and send them back down to the practice squad without that player having to clear waivers first as has previously been the case.
"That's a big deal because you'll have to make sure if there are people on the practice squad, which ones are developmental – meaning they are needing time to develop – and which ones would be ready to play right away," Quinn said. "I think that's an added part of the roster development this year."
Under Quinn, the Falcons have prioritized developing younger players on the practice squad. Players like wide receiver Christian Blake and defensive tackle Jacob Tuioti-Mariner started out on the practice squad before earning roles on Sundays. That approach might change this year, however, if, as Quinn said, the Falcons prioritize players who could be short-term substitutes if a player must be isolated.
Those decisions won't have to be made for some time, but they are yet more examples of how COVID-19 is affecting the NFL. Like all teams, the Falcons are engaged in deep discussions to find the best path forward.
The 2020 Atlanta Falcons Rookie Class arrived at Falcons Headquarters this week to participate in AT&T Training Camp.