While the eventual format of its 2020 season remains very much in question due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the NFL’s 32 franchises are preparing for the new year in their usual fashion. This includes the New England Patriots, who have kicked off their rookie developmental program earlier this week: over a six-week span, the team is allowed to closely work with its first-year players in order to get them ready for life in pro football.
The developmental period allows teams like the Patriots an extra hour per day and up to five days each week to work with the youngsters. The benefit for the rookies extends beyond the fact that the program will allow them to get up to speed, something that is especially important during the current crisis, though: the players participating in the voluntary program are also paid an additional $135 for each day that they are a part of it.
“We’ll pretty much follow the format that we’ve done with the veteran players,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said about his team’s virtual offseason workouts shortly after the conclusion of the draft last month. “We’ll have a rookie minicamp, if you will, take that time to try to orient the players the best that we can to some of the things that they’re going to be dealing with and also to try to start the process of new terminology, nomenclature, terms, so forth.”
Belichick also pointed out that the team would eventually add the rookie developmental period to its itinerary, a move that finally happened this week in accordance to NFL rules. In total, 25 players are eligible to participate in the program: New England selected 10 players during the 2020 draft, and added 15 more during the subsequent free agency window — meaning that almost one third of the current roster consists of players in their first year.
The rookie period is the Patriots’ latest attempt to structure an offseason both adhering to the social distancing rules implemented in the wake of the national health emergency, and also staying as close to the normal preparation as possible. The league’s teams have already been allowed to hold the first phase of strength and conditioning work on a virtual basis, for example, with New England among the few to actually hold workout sessions.
“That will eventually merge into a full scale like OTA-type meeting schedule that we would normally have, without the on-the-fieldwork, but try to use that time to bring the team together in terms of putting our plays in and so forth, also trying to help them structure their training so they can best prepare for the season,” Belichick said. “Whatever guidance and direction we get on that, when we get it, we’ll modify things as necessary.”
For New England’s head coach, the offseason process does remain the same, however, even though the situation as a whole remains fluid: teams have been advised to prepare for the reopening process, with the league announcing its plans on May 15. The next phase of workouts is then expected to begin three days later, and eventually include up to six weeks’ worth of additional workouts that need to wrap up by June 26.
“At this point I’d say we’re planning kind of a normal spring in terms of covering material and giving them information, testing them to make sure that they are comprehending it, can give it back to us,” said Belichick about the ongoing process. “But we’ll just have to modify that as we go. Whether it’s training camp in the early part of the season, so forth — however that ends up happening, we’re ready to adjust along the way.”
“These Webex meetings have gone very well, in a way surprising, better than I would have expected,” he added in late April after the first week of virtual work with the players. “Haven’t really been any problems. Players are engaged. They’re learning a lot of material and putting a lot of time and work in it. They’re following the guidelines that we’ve given them in terms of their training program, on-the-field training program, weight lifting and so forth.”
“There are obviously varying degrees of facilities, equipment and so forth, but one way or another I think they’re finding a way to work around it, and we are too,” Belichick continued. “Hopefully we can string a few good weeks together and be the best prepared we can to get ready for training camp. Certainly not what we’re used to doing, but everybody is dealing with the same situations. We’ll try to make the most of whatever opportunities there are.”