Will the COVID-19 shortened off-season benefit some teams like the Falcons?

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, these are unprecedented times in sports. As far as the NFL goes, this is the first shortened offseason since the infamous 2011 NFL player lockout that resulted in an 18-week hiatus without free agency and training camp. Players were restricted from seeing team doctors, entering or working out at team facilities, and communicating with coaches. Although these are two separate instances with different triggers and correlating consequences, there are similarities in the way teams are reacting.

First, we will analyze essential dates from the 2019 off-season to clarify what has come and gone without action. On April 1st, clubs that hired a new head coach begin offseason workout programs. This includes Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns, Mike McCarthy of the Dallas Cowboys, and Ron Rivera of the Washington Redskins this year. Two weeks later, all other clubs begin off-season workout programs — so a two-week advantage was erased for new coaches to familiarize themselves with personnel. All teams elect either a May 3rd-6th or May 10th-13th schedule for their one three-day post-draft rookie minicamp.

Sometime in mid-July, clubs are usually permitted to open preseason training camp for rookies and first-year players. All others report about a week after that, specifics must be aligned within CBA guidelines. Therefore, as of today, the most affected organizations are those with first-year head coaches and heavy rookie-based rosters. The aforementioned teams are at a disadvantage due to rookie head coaches, but franchises like Minnesota (15), Jacksonville (12), and Miami (11) are burdened with heavier rookie-based rosters, whereas Atlanta (6) has one of the thinnest rookie classes in the league. Without the ability to meet with those players, teams will have to allocate more resources to get these players up to speed (more rookies=more resources allotted). 

NFL teams have been able to connect virtually with personnel and will inevitably begin CDC approved meetings and workouts within the team’s training facilities. This could be challenging for those organizations with more extensive roster turnover, or valuable for teams that maintained continuity from the previous season. Teams that are returning a larger percentage of their starters and coaching staff will possess a cohesion that is undeniably important in a team-oriented game like football.

In this ESPN article, they rank the continuity of a team based on total snaps returning. Although a useful metric when considering the overall loss of snaps, certain positions are more easily adaptable due to the learning curve of the position.

Atlanta was ranked 20th, behind division rivals New Orleans (7th) and Tampa Bay (9th). New Orleans is set to benefit considerably from the shortened offseason, returning all three coordinators, Drew Brees, and almost all critical starters outside of newly acquired safety Malcolm Jenkins. Where they lack experience is at inside linebacker — Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso are not new but both missed considerable time last season due to injury. Tampa Bay is in a similar position, returning all three coordinators and most key areas outside of Tom Brady and the offense. According to the ESPN article, the Bucs are returning only 70% of their offensive snaps, ranking 26th in the league. This offense is littered with talent but will have to work the kinks out in the early weeks of the 2020 season, which Atlanta will not benefit from as their first matchup with the Bucs is not until late December. Defensively, Tampa Bay is returning most of their prolific starters (86%, 2nd in the league), aside from Beau Allen and Carl Nassib.

As far as AFC West matchups, reigning Super Bowl champions, Kansas City ranked 2nd among the percentage of snaps returning. With few question marks, guard is among the positions that must be sorted out in the preseason. Like Tampa Bay, the Las Vegas Raiders are returning almost all of one side of the ball. Defensively, they bring back just 60% of their snaps good for 28th in the league. Their front office diversified several positions like wide receiver and linebacker. The quarterback-wide receiver connection is not built overnight and could prove problematic for a Jon Gruden offense. Denver is ranked 13th overall and is returning more defensive snaps than offensive. But offensively, there is a new coordinator as well as a substantial investment at receiver and question marks at center, all positions that take time to build trust. Los Angeles has the single biggest question mark, and that is at the team’s most vital position, quarterback. The team must form a new identity without long-time starter Phillip Rivers.

Moving to the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers are returning the highest percentage of snaps ranked 11th at 78%. The only crucial piece replaced was at right tackle, where Rick Wagner is expected to start in place of Bryan Bulaga. Chicago ranked 17th but is replacing their offensive coordinator and three potential starters on each side of the ball. Minnesota is mostly returning offensive pieces, but Mike Zimmer will have his hands full on defense as they replace Xavier Rhodes, Mackensie Alexander, and Trae Waynes, benefiting the Falcons cohesive offense. All other opponents (Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, and Carolina) are returning fewer snaps than Atlanta.

The Falcons’ 20th ranked percentage of returning snaps may be misleading, though. “New” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has already proven to be an upgrade as the team dramatically improved on that side of the ball once he took over. Offensively, the team is bringing back nine of their 11 projected starters. Hayden Hurst will replace Austin Hooper but is expected to make a seamless transition. The defense is where the doubts lie. Keanu Neal missed pretty much the entire season but is already familiar with the schemes and routines. A.J. Terrell will be tested early and often as a rookie, and while replacing Vic Beasley’s snap count may seem extreme, Dante Fowler should do so with an improvement in production. The offensive continuity will help the defense early as there is already chemistry on that side of the ball.

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