ENGLEWOOD, Colorado (AP) — From the antimicrobial mist the Denver Broncos strolled through on their way to the practice fields to the hand-held whistles for masked-up coaches, NFL training camps have a very different look and feel this year.
No fans. No Gatorade buckets. No joint practices.
The league is spending tens of millions of dollars on daily COVID-19 testing, and some of the protocols put in place to navigate the coronavirus crisis have cost some prospects whatever long shot they had at making a roster.
They might have saved a life, however.
Linebacker Cam Smith tested positive for the virus when he reported to the Minnesota Vikings headquarters, and head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman recommended he get an echocardiogram.
Good thing, because the diagnostic follow-up revealed a congenital problem with his heart, which was severely enlarged. Smith is scheduled for open heart surgery on Aug. 24 and will miss the 2020 season.
“I wouldn’t have ever known about this — or as soon as I do now- — without getting tested for COVID and testing positive in that time frame,” Smith said. “It does feel like it’s a blessing in a way that I did test positive.”
The fifth-round pick out of USC last year looks forward to returning in 2021 better than ever “because I’ll be fixed. I’ll be better, and I’ll be in a healthier state than I have been for the past 23 years.”
The already long odds of undrafted players making opening day rosters grew even more astronomical with the remote off season, a reduction of 320 roster spots heading into training camp and the elimination of the entire 65-game preseason slate.
This likely deprives all of us of seeing the emergence of the next Malcom Butler or Chris Harris Jr. because players overlooked in the draft will have a harder time turning heads as teams focus on getting their starters ready for the season and not finding the next unpolished gem at the bottom of the roster.
“We’re going to have to see everything we can in the 14 padded practices that we’re going to have before the opener,” Broncos GM John Elway said. “What it does is it really creates less of an opportunity for those guys to make our football team.
“We’re going to have to find guys with the expanded practice squad, which we have spots for four veterans. We’re going to have to find the right guys to be able to expand the practice squad with,” Elway said. “It definitely hurts the opportunities of those CFAs to get out there and really show us what they have.”
Further reading – AP
Pix — (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)