Opinion: NFL rookies face rocky transition with unclear offseason, but don’t lower expectations just yet

Like usual, rookie minicamps are on the NFL calendar for the first two weekends after the draft.

Of course, there’s nothing usual about this offseason amid the novel coronavirus pandemic – and hardly anything typical about the “virtual” rookie minicamps.

No, coaches won’t get a chance to unveil the new draft class on the practice field and discover just how well that new shutdown cornerback can keep up with the new speedy deep threat.

Yet in a league with a salary cap that influences significant year-to-year roster turnover, there's still the challenge of preparing the rookies to have quick impact whenever the NFL reopens for competition.

“We’re not drafting them to redshirt them,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We’re drafting them to play as freshmen. You want them to play, and we’re going to do everything we can to get them on the field – even though we won’t be hand-in-hand, so to speak, we’ll be socially distanced – but we can still teach our offense, our defense and our special teams this way.”

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It is unclear how many teams will conduct the rookie minicamps this weekend and how many will opt for the next weekend. Each team is permitted to hold one three-day minicamp for rookies, with a maximum of five hours per day of virtual workouts or classroom instruction.

Harbaugh, whose rookies will begin the process on May 8, noted that in addition to helping players work on conditioning that could reduce chances for future muscle injuries, the goal is to extensively utilize online tutorials to acclimate rookies to the playbook.

“We’re teachers. We want to coach,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve been developing all these applications remotely … and interactive-type teaching tools and games and things like that. We’re going get those guys plugged into that stuff right away, just like we are with the veterans.”

With stay-at-home mandates set to be lifted on a state-by-state basis and the NFL, for competitive balance, resolved to not fully open up any team’s headquarters until all of its 32 teams can comply, it seems increasingly likely that this year’s rookie crop won’t hit the field until training camp — whenever that is.

The scenario is reminiscent of 2011, when the NFL’s offseason was lost to the lockout stemming from the labor dispute between owners and players.

This isn’t 2011, though, when many players gathered for their own group workouts while negotiations progressed toward a labor pact. Yet it’s possible that players could similarly organize “informal” group workouts during the next few months, given that some states are already easing social-distancing restrictions.

What’s to stop, say, new Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady from inviting a half-dozen or so of his receivers and running backs to Montana — if not Florida — for a few workouts?

A memo that the NFL’s management council sent in mid-April to key executives, GMs and head coaches, which was obtained by USA TODAY Sports and outlined rules for virtual offseason workouts and programs established with the NFL Players Association, did not address informal workouts.

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At the moment, though, the closed NFL facilities and uncertainty attached to the timeline for eased stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions surely fuel questions about the impact this offseason.

“Look, the 2011 season went off smooth and without a hitch and there was no offseason,” New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton told USA TODAY Sports. “We had our draft and there was a lockout. By the time we got started in training camp, we were up and running. The key is, when all 32 teams are doing the same thing, you’re going to have competitive balance and you’re going to have a good product.”

Payton told his players recently that they won’t be required to engage in any offseason program, virtual or otherwise, regardless of what’s allowed by the league. He essentially told players to take care of themselves and families during the pandemic and to show up in great shape for training camp.

Still, it’s fair to wonder how rookies across the league will get acclimated and catch up.

Given these conditions, should we temper the expectations for a quick impact from the rookie class of 2020? Maybe not.

Consider the 2011 rookie crop. Several notable players started their careers with a bang. Von Miller had 11 ½ sacks as a rookie. DeMarco Murray had a career-best 5.5 yards per carry, aided by fellow a rookie in offensive tackle Tyron Smith. Andy Dalton, throwing to classmate A.J. Green, led the Bengals to the playoffs. Cam Newton – the No. 1 pick overall who worked out during the lockout with star wideout Steve Smith – threw for an NFL-rookie record 432 yards in his debut.

And Richard Sherman, a fifth-round pick, quickly served notice that he possessed Hall of Fame-caliber skill.

Sherman, too, has some words of wisdom for the newest crop of NFL rookies.

“Get straight to it,” Sherman texted to USA TODAY Sports. “My advice would be to come in confident and with open ears. You have to learn from your vets and try to absorb as much as you can. It’s just football, so don’t make it bigger than what it is. Learning to be a pro and how to every day is learned from the vets in the room. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.”

Whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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