Hands on and lots of hand-offs? No longer.
The Denver Broncos’ upcoming rookie minicamp reflects a change in the way many teams handle the draft class introduction into the NFL.
“We’re going to have a rookie orientation, and it’s not going to be all football,” coach Vance Joseph said. “It’s going to be more helping guys get acclimated to the NFL. More meetings, some lifting and some running, but not a full-scale team practice.”
The Broncos are among several teams that have changed the way they handle rookie minicamps in the two years since two prized picks sustained season-ending knee injuries less than a week after all the hugs and handshakes of draft night.
Locker rooms, fan bases and front offices alike were jolted when defensive end Dante Fowler Jr ., the third overall pick in 2015, blew out his left knee on the first day of Jacksonville’s rookie minicamp. Twenty-four hours later, tight end Jeff Heuerman , Denver’s third-round selection, tore his left ACL covering a kickoff.
Both were practicing under standard injury protection waivers and received the same contracts they would have had they not gotten hurt, but their pro careers haven’t been what they or their employers envisioned.
Fowler started just one game last season, when he had four sacks and was plagued by a penchant for silly penalties. Heuerman, who dealt with hamstring and ankle injuries after his knee healed, started just twice last season, when he caught nine passes overall.
When he got hurt Fowler conceded he wasn’t in “football shape,” having trained not so much to chase down quarterbacks but to bench press and run in a straight line and a T-shirt. “You have the combine, pro day, visiting teams, so it’s kind of hard to stay in shape with things like that. I was going to get accustomed to that in minicamp and camp.”
The collective bargaining agreement allows for teams to hold their rookie minicamps either the first or second weekend following the draft. In 2015, only five teams waited a week. This year, 19 of the 32 teams did, including the Jaguars and Broncos.
While some coaches insist injuries are as unavoidable as they are unfortunate, some players might be overdoing it leading up to the draft. After the college season ends, they work out relentlessly for their pro days, team visits and the NFL combine. Prospects go from getting wined, dined and timed to gearing up for the first time in months and doing football movements even if they’re not tackling each other.
“In my opinion, it’s tough for guys to train for the combine for three months and then show up and have a full football practice,” Joseph said. “That’s when guys get hurt. So, we’re going to bring them in, have meetings, lift them and run them, but not have a full-fledged practice. That should help guys kind of get accustomed to what we’re doing, and then that Monday, go right into Phase 2 with our veterans.
“It keeps guys healthy and it allows guys to come in and relax and kind of get accustomed to what we’re doing as far as football.”
Another hazard facing draft classes at rookie minicamp: These soon-to-be millionaires are mixed in with undrafted college free agents and even some veterans hoping to re-ignite their NFL dreams during a weekend audition. The Chiefs, for example, signed six free agents and waived seven other players following their rookie minicamp last weekend.
The delays and tweaks to rookie minicamp are designed to prevent the kinds of setbacks experienced by Fowler and Heuerman, who continue to try to put their wrecked rookie seasons behind them.
Fowler drew more than twice as many flags, many of them the silly 15-yarders, as he did sacks last season. He said missing his rookie season due to injury affected him psychologically and had his emotions amped up while on the field. “When I’m out there, I’m just out for blood and everybody,” Fowler said at one point during the season. “I have to tame that and control that.”
Heuerman is hoping for his first healthy season since starring at Ohio State, but the Broncos addressed their dearth of production at tight end by drafting Michigan’s Jake Butt, a first-round talent who slipped to the fifth round because of a knee injury that will sideline him through the summer.