The NFL and the NFLPA have come to terms on a deal that will allow the 2020 season to move forward amid the novel coronavirus but it will come without any preseason games, dramatically altering how summer preparation has looked in years past.
It will be a strange August, but there is optimism that these guidelines will allow the NFL season to cautiously move forward. The deal came together quickly at the end, as the league and players wrapped things up in time to give everyone one last summer weekend before camps begin on time.
The most significant change will be going from four preseason games to zero, a major challenge for teams who must now pick their players and prepare for the season without any game experience. It's an even bigger challenge for players on the roster bubble, though practice squads will be increased to 16 players and each week four players can be protected. The practice squad can also now include six veterans so it's a significant roster expansion that will give teams added flexibility.
Per SI.com's Albert Breer, teams will start off with COVID-19 tests and virtual meetings starting this week, which will be followed, for those with two negative tests, by a strength and conditioning period.
Starting approximately the third week of August, training camp should vaguely resemble what we're used to seeing as teams can begin their 14 padded practices after a few days of helmets and shells. The team will have just four calendar weeks of real practices before they are scheduled to host Miami on September 13th.
Rosters can remain at 90 to start camp but must be split into two groups. Teams must cut down to 80 players by August 16th and then will be able to hold full team practices. Those cuts would have to be done before the pads come on, presenting a unique challenge to the bottom of the roster – they'll have to earn their on-field chance with their off-field work.
The financial aspects of the deal were hammered out in the final days, as always the toughest part to figure out. With a projected $4 billion hit coming if games are played without fans, the NFL and players have reportedly agreed to spread the shortfall over the next four seasons. The salary cap will remain flat in 2020, but have a starting floor of $175 million for 2021. Should the financial hit be softened at some point, the salary cap could head back up toward 2020's cap of $198.2 million.
Players will not be paid game checks and bonuses if the season has to end prematurely, but there will be a chance for them to earn back missed bonuses via the establishment of a fund to ensure all guaranteed money is paid. Players will also be able to opt out of the season, with two categories – one high risk, the other a general opt out.
Bill Belichick and his staff and players will have their work cut out for them. Things will get interesting quickly as players get tested this week. The NFLPA already told the players that 14 rookies have tested positive for COVID-19. How hard will it hit the rest of the league as the results start rolling in? Who will decide to opt out?
With three weeks until actual football practice there is some buffer, but roster dynamics across the NFL could shift quickly in the coming days.
Training camp of 2020 presents unique challenges that NFL teams have never had to face, headlined by a truncated practice schedule and no preseason games as a virus continues to flare. But with an established system and a solid core of veteran leadership, the Patriots should be as ready as anyone to tackle a season under the circumstances.
Stay tuned, football next week.