Just like its predecessors, the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by the NFL’s clubs and players last year also differentiates between two levels of workouts. There are those that are mandatory for players to attend such as minicamp and training camp, and there are others structured on a voluntary basis.
Those voluntary sessions are now at the center of a labor dispute. With the NFLPA recommending their members stay away unless all offseason work is moved to a virtual forum, five teams’ players have already decided to do just that. The New England Patriots’ are among them, even though not all of their players did announce that they will boycott those voluntary sessions in a statement released on Wednesday.
While “many” Patriots intend skip the voluntary portion of offseason workouts there are others who are not in the same boat. One player who already announced his intention to report once the first phase is kicked off next week is veteran special teamer Brandon King.
So, with the players themselves not on the same page in regards to boycotting voluntary work let’s try to answer a simple question at the heart of this dispute: Just how important are those workouts anyway?
To figure out we have to look at it from two perspectives, that of the players and that of the clubs.
As noted above, players do not have to participate in most of the offseason workout schedule. In fact, there is only a small portion during the third phase — the so-called mandatory minicamp — that will see all players on the field at the same time. Everything else is strictly voluntary. Despite that, some players do have incentives to participate.
Those can come in financial form. Around 12 percent of players have offseason workout bonuses in their contracts that can only be earned if voluntary sessions are attended either in-person or virtually, depending on the language within the deal. The Patriots have eight players who could earn workout bonuses this year — ranging from $100,000 (King and quarterback Cam Newton) to $15,000 (cornerback Michael Jackson).
The highest such bonus in the league this year belongs to the Green Bay Packers’ Za’Darius Smith, though. The linebacker could lose out on an additional $750,000 in case he skips offseason work.
While those bonuses are the most prominent financial aspect, they are not the only ones.
Players will also earn per-diems of $275 if they participate in club-directed activities during the offseason. While those numbers pale in comparison to some of the workout bonuses handed out, they do add up especially for younger players or those on minimum-level contracts.
Finally, there are injury protections as the league reminded its players just this week:
Injuries sustained by a player while working out at the club facility, or while engaged in a virtual workout authorized by club staff, will be considered football-related injuries, with players entitled to the protection related to a football injury. Injuries sustained while working out away from the club facility, without authorization by club staff, will be considered a non-football injury for which a club will not be responsible for the player’s compensation or other benefits.
Long story short, if you get hurt working out on your own without club supervision or authorization you could lose out on much more than just your per-diems or workout bonuses. Players getting hurt during the offseason but away from team-organized workouts would qualify for the non-football injury list, which would allow the club not to pay their base salary while they are on there (as opposed to the physically unable to perform or injured reserve lists, for example).
On top of all the financial considerations there is also the aspect of improving the chances of making a team’s roster. While such spots are not won or lost during voluntary workouts, participating can help especially less experienced players leave a positive first impression. Not only will the coaches actually see them do work, they can also interact with them if allowed to do so per the CBA.
The second and third phases of workouts, for example, sees coaches on the field working with players. While those sessions are strictly non-contact, they are learning opportunities for players — opportunities that those not participating do not have.
Everything said above applies to the teams as well, only from the other point of view. They can withhold workout bonuses and base salaries if players get injured away from the facilities or doing non club-authorized workouts; they also do not get a chance to watch them go through drills or evaluate their learning process at quite the same level.
From the teams’ perspective, those voluntary sessions therefore have two basic functions: player control and structured preparation.
If players are at the facility and working with the coaches either in the weight room or on the field, the team has a more direct impact and a clearer picture of their progress. That does not mean players will not get the job done if working out away from the facilities — the Patriots’ players stated as such in their statement — but the level of supervision is still a different one.
This supervision might be valuable especially in regards to players who either have just entered the league or are new to the system. Coaches certainly prefer a hands-on approach, particularly with those that are not yet established within the program.
This, in turn, makes the “voluntary” label a relatively hollow one. While players have the right to stay away, many opt not to either because they do not have the means or experience when it comes to doing NFL-level preparatory work on their own or because they feel pressure to attend as to not hurt their chances at making the club (even though a team is technically not allowed to fine or release players on those grounds alone).
So, just how important are those workouts now?
Speaking purely from a legal perspective — the CBA is a legal document — those workouts have no importance whatsoever with the exception of bonuses and per-diems. And plenty of players have proven that they also may not have any impact on actual game-day performance further down the road.
Take Tom Brady. The greatest quarterback of all time routinely skipped voluntary team work over his final years in New England but still performed on as high a level as any player in football. He would not have gotten much out of those sessions anyway: he knew the playbook in and out and per labor rules would not have been permitted to go through competitive passing drills alongside his pass catchers anyway.
Him missing OTAs and other voluntary sessions made essentially no difference, and it allowed him to train on his own and personalize his workouts. As for building chemistry with his supporting cast, mandatory minicamp and training camp provided enough quality opportunities for that.
Other players, meanwhile, could take a different approach. Being in the facility might help them get more comfortable with their surroundings; working under coaching supervision might be preferable for them compared to doing it on their own; having coaches around might help their learning process with the playbook.
Every player might have different motivations, but the matter of fact remains: some value voluntary workout for one reason or another, while others prefer to exercise their bargained right to sit them out. Neither approach is wrong because players will get plenty of chances to work in a team-built environment anyway further down the line.
So, to answer that question above. Voluntary workouts are as important as the individual players decide they are, nothing more and nothing less.