ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – 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 offseason, 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.”
One player who reportedly blew his shot at making the roster after going undrafted was Oklahoma State cornerback Kemah Siverand. He was waived by the Seahawks “after he was caught on video trying to sneak a female visitor into the team hotel, per sources,” NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero tweeted on Thursday. “Clear message on the responsibility everyone has in the NFL’s COVID-19 world: Put the team at risk, suffer the consequences.”
Pelissero added that the woman was dressed in Seahawks gear “in an attempt to disguise her as a player.”
“Well, my first response to that is, I hope that she wasn’t the actual size of an NFL football player,” cracked Titans coach Mike Vrabel. “That’s the first thing that I would say. But we have to use great judgment. We know what the rules are ...”
A big part of the Broncos’ first team meeting was coach Vic Fangio’s admonition for players not to endanger the team’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts by hitting the nightclubs on their days off.
“We have to appeal to their intelligence, their pride, their responsibility that, hey, this is different,” Fangio said. “You do not have the freedom that you’re normally used to having. When you’re not here, when you’re outside of our building and our fields, you can’t go to the bars, the restaurants. You can’t be around people you don’t know. You can’t be in gatherings of too many people ...
“They’re young men and they have urges,” Fangio acknowledged. “We’re just going to have to appeal to their conscience to not do that.”
Another appeal? Cold, hard cash.
“Guys want to get paid and the way you get paid is by being available to play football,” said Jets guard Greg Van Roten. “So, if there’s guys that go out and aren’t accountable to themselves or the team, they’re going to hurt the league in general.”
Jets QB Sam Darnold said, “if some friends are in the city and I want to go out to the city, I’m just going to have to say no. It’s just going to be the way of the world. There’s a new norm now.”
Darnold's teammate Avery Williamson doubts full compliance is realistic.
“There’s a lot of guys in this league, and a lot of guys do a lot of stupid stuff,” Williamson said. “I feel it’s going to be tough for guys to do the right thing the whole year.”
The NFL is spending some $75 million on COVID-19 testing, and that’s one reason Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay agrees with the decisions by the Pac-12 and Big Ten to scrap football this fall to the chagrin of many players and coaches.
“Honestly, it’s scary. And for those kids, they don’t have the protocols that we have,” Lindsay said. “They don’t have the money to get tested every day and to have this: People come in here and clean it every day. And you have a bunch of kids that aren’t just going to sit there and listen and stay at home. They’re going to be all around, especially if they’ve got to go to class.
“So, honestly I saw it coming. And until they can come up with (a therapy or vaccine) I don’t think those kids should play because it is real. I’ve seen people close to me that had it that have been in the hospital for seven, eight, nine days and it’s scary,” Lindsay said. “And I understand where these kids are coming from, but at the end of the day it’s about being healthy, it’s about doing the right thing.”
Lindsay grew up in Denver and is a big Colorado sports fan. He’s watched superstars Von Miller of the Broncos, Nikola Jokic of the Nuggets and Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies all deal with COVID-19 infections and he's seen outbreaks shut down offseason football programs at Colorado State and Northern Colorado.
The Big 12 and SEC are among the conferences still planning to play football this fall, and Lindsay isn’t sure it’s worth the risk because college programs don't have the money to test like the NFL does nor can they bubble up like the NBA and NHL have done.
“You’re just telling the kid to go out and play just for our satisfaction. That’s not cool.”
With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Teresa M. Walker, Dave Campbell and Dennis Waszak Jr.
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