It sure hasn’t taken very long for the training camp injuries to start racking up in the NFL.
On Monday, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Gerald McCoy ruptured his right quadriceps tendon, and San Francisco 49ers receiver Jalen Hurd was feared to have torn his ACL. Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green, meanwhile, tweaked his hamstring, while teammate Trae Waynes tore his pec.
In some ways, injuries like that were inevitable. Teams always deal with injuries once players don pads, as they’ve started to do in recent days. But the news still sent ripples throughout the NFL landscape, and not just because all four players are projected to be significant contributors to their teams this season.
Teams will be nervously monitoring the workload of their players over the next several weeks, especially in light of the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the on-field OTA workouts that are critical to ramping players into football shape.
That means depth will be more important than ever this season. Welcome to 2020, the Year of the “Next Man Up.”
Some executives and coaches in the league are concerned about the 2020 training camp experience essentially being a repeat of 2011, when statistics show that players returned from a lockout and promptly saw a spike in soft-tissue injuries like Achilles and hamstring tears.
“That was attributed to missing OTAs and not having all that time and missing practice time,” one executive recently told Yahoo Sports.
And it’s a sentiment that multiple head coaches, including New England’s Bill Belichick, have repeated in recent weeks.
“I think in 2011, we had, along with a lot of other teams — and that was a good year for us, I mean we won the AFC championship that year — but we saw a lot of soft tissue injuries,” Belichick said. “We saw a lot of injuries early in training camp.”
Yet, Belichick also says there’s reason to believe injuries aren’t guaranteed to hit a critical mass this preseason, largely because of important differences between this year and 2011. The first is the fact players have more ramp-up time this time around.
“In 2011, when training camp started, we just went right into it,” Belichick said. “The first day of training camp was the first day of training camp. We’ve had almost three weeks of being in some phase of ramping up, and that’s again quite different from 2011.”
Baltimore Ravens head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders added that players should be more prepared for the grind of getting into football condition this time around.
“I think during that time, even with gyms, there was a longer time where guys didn’t run, they didn’t lift, they didn’t have somebody with them to prepare — and I think that the soft tissue injuries come from your body not being ready for those activities,” Saunders said.
Still, Belichick expects this offseason’s improved ramp-up period to benefit rookies and newcomers, because unlike 2011, teams have had the ability to teach players virtually.
“The meeting time and the opportunity to communicate information and ask questions and answer questions, all that, has been much greater,” Belichick said. “I think we have a lot of veteran players that have been through this and were ready to go, but there are other players that are newer, either to our team or to the league, that have had a ramp-up period that’s been beneficial to them that they needed, rather than just throw them right into the fire.”
Regardless, players of all ages and positions are going to get hurt this training camp, and perhaps at a higher clip, just like they did in 2011.
This season, the team that’s left standing — if the league manages to finish the season, of course — will be the one that has not only planned the best for every scenario, but also has the most depth. If a season is played in full, expect more players to cycle through the league than ever before. Having experienced, veteran backups who can step in and give quality snaps at a moment’s notice will be crucial.
And if the injuries sustained during the first few days of padded practices at training camp are any indication, some teams will have that depth tested — sooner, likely, rather than later.
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