GREEN BAY — As NFL owners and the NFL Players Association work toward an accord on what training camps will look like — and how many preseason games, if any, each team will play — the members of the Green Bay Packers’ 2020 rookie class will have to continue to bide their time until they can get on the field for their first practices as professionals.
With the COVID-19 pandemic having wiped out the NFL’s usual organized team activity practices and minicamps, forcing all of the offseason program to be held in the virtual realm, the Packers’ nine rookie draft picks and 14 undrafted free agents have yet to take a single snap of on-field work.
The Packers had planned on having their rookies report to Lambeau Field Tuesday in accordance with NFL rules, which allow for rookies and selected players to report a week earlier than the rest of the team. But those plans are on hold for now, a league source said Monday morning, as the Packers’ plans — and most of the league’s other 31 teams’ plans as well — are largely up in the air.
Coach Matt LaFleur had hoped to have them in on July 21, and president/CEO Mark Murphy had written that July 21 was the planned report date in his monthly Packers.com column earlier this month.
Veterans were then scheduled to report on July 28, but with the NFLPA expressing concerns about testing and safety protocols and the number of preseason games not settled, negotiations are ongoing and creating some measure of uncertainty as reporting dates approach.
In a Zoom video conference call with reporters in early June, LaFleur had said that he was hoping to have the rookies get that extra work in before the veterans arrived because of how much they missed during the offseason.
“I do think it puts them at a little bit of a disadvantage,” LaFleur said at the time. “That is one thing (I want to do). Provided training camp starts on time, you’re allowed to bring the rookies in a week early. That’s something we’ll certainly do to try to get them acclimated to introduce them to some of the stuff that we want them to do no the field.”
If LaFleur’s understanding of the NFL rules are correct, the Packers should still be able to bring in their rookies — time permitted — in before the veterans report even if the start of camp is pushed back from that July 28 target date.
Some of the Packers rookies have been in the greater Green Bay area working out on their own since earlier in the spring. Second-round pick AJ Dillon, a running back from Boston College, came to Green Bay in May and has been working out at Synergy Sports Performance.
The Houston Texans’ and Kansas City Chiefs’ rookies reported to their respective facilities Monday for COVID-19 testing. Their veteran players are slated to report early next week as the defending Super Bowl-champion Chiefs and Texans are slated to open up regular-season play Sept. 10. The Packers’ regular-season opener is Sept. 13 at Minnesota.
The NFL Network reported Monday that league owners and the NFLPA had reached an agreement on daily COVID-19 testing for the first two weeks of training camp, after which they would then examine positivity rates and determine if daily testing was required. If the rate drops below 5% for players and Tier 1/Tier 2 individuals, teams would then move to an every-other-day testing model.
Players will need multiple negative tests before they’re allowed to be in the building for physicals or team activities, the NFL Network also reported, saying that the slower approach is a lesson the NFL has taken from other sports leagues that have had early positive tests among their players as they returned to action.
NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told the NFL Network that test results are expected within 24 hours, and that the NFL chose a national laboratory to conduct its testing to make sure it didn’t take resources away from local markets by causing shortages in local testing supplies for hospitals and other medical groups.
As far as on-the-field issues, the NFL Network also reported that the league’s latest proposal to players includes just one preseason game, rather than two, but that players still want no preseason games and a longer acclimation period before starting actual on-field practices.
Under the NFL’s proposal, the NFL Network reported, the one preseason game per team would be played in what is normally the third week of preseason play — meaning the games slated for Aug. 27 through 30. That would give players an extra week of preparation before playing in an actual game, although not the full 21 days of strength and conditioning sessions the players want.
The Packers’ scheduled preseason game for that week is Aug. 29 against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
GREEN BAY PACKERS (14-4)
CAMP SITE: Green Bay, Wisconsin
LAST YEAR: Packers bounced back from two straight losing seasons by sweeping through NFC North and beating Seattle Seahawks in playoffs before falling 37-20 to San Francisco 49ers, their third conference championship game loss in past six years. Packers made major strides in coach Matt LaFleur's debut season thanks in part to free-agent acquisitions of Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who combined for 25½ sacks.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: TE Josiah Deguara, RB A.J. Dillon, WR Devin Funchess, LB Christian Kirksey, QB Jordan Love, LB Kamal Martin, OT Rick Wagner
IMPORTANT LOSSES: WR Geronimo Allison, OT Bryan Bulaga, LB Kyler Fackrell, TE Jimmy Graham, LB Blake Martinez
PANDEMIC CHALLENGES: QB Aaron Rodgers gets less time to work with Funchess, Packers' lone major addition to receiving group. Does Love's lack of rookie minicamp hinder how fast he adjusts to system? NFL protocols in place during pandemic mean Packers will hold entire training camp operations at Lambeau Field rather than sleeping and eating dinner at St. Norbert College, which had hosted team for training camp since 1958.
CAMP NEEDS: Packers must find way to improve run defense that got gashed by San Francisco 49ers in NFC championship game and lost their leading tackler when Martinez signed with New York Giants. They're counting on Kirksey to rebound from two injury-shortened seasons to fill Martinez's old spot. They must work in Wagner at right tackle as they attempt to replace Bulaga, a longtime starter who signed with Los Angeles Chargers. They need to figure out how Dillon fits in backfield that already includes Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
EXPECTATIONS: Packers made huge jump last year because they stayed healthy and won nearly all their close games. They're unlikely to be quite as fortunate this year. They still should contend for NFC North title, but 9-7 or 10-6 seems like much more realistic possibility than repeat of last year's 13-3 regular-season record.