JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — There may never be a more critical six-week respite between the end of NFL minicamps and the start of most training camps in late July than this year.
It could be the difference between a competitive advantage or disadvantage for every NFL team based on one simple choice: unvaccinated players deciding whether or not to get COVID-19 shots.
This issue had remained somewhat below the surface prior to the NFL draft. Since then, it’s shifting closer to front and center as the Jaguars and 31 other teams feel increasing pressure — though nothing forced or overbearing — for players to be fully vaccinated by training camp.
While NFL Network’s Tom Peliserro reports over 90% of the league’s coaches are fully vaccinated, largely because they’re much older and generally don’t want any impediments in going about their daily business, several reports throughout the league indicate players are more reluctant for a variety of reasons.
When Urban Meyer was asked last week whether he anticipated any issues with his coaching staff and the stricter NFL protocols for them, the Jaguars’ coach replied: “I don’t know exactly where we’re at, I’ll find out shortly. But we’ll adapt with whatever we have to.”
Obviously, percentages will vary team to team and there’s no NFL mandate saying players have to be vaccinated. Peliserro reported half of the 32 teams had at least 51 vaccinated players (roster limit is currently 90). For those not vaccinated, it means they have to go through daily testing, wear masks in the facilities and endure more travel restrictions.
“I’d assume current players will get vaccinated more than not,” said former Jaguars’ placekicker Josh Scobee. “Number one, they want to play and earn their paycheck. They won’t want to go through the hassle of not being vaccinated and what comes with that.”
From talking to several ex-Jaguars and NFL sources around the league, that does appear to be the consensus. Some players not vaccinated say they want to get more information, which may be true or just an excuse not to have a needle stuck in their arm. Others dismiss any inquiries by saying it’s a personal decision, which is absolutely correct.
Montez Sweat, a defensive end for the Washington Football Team, is among those in the skeptical camp, telling the media last week: “Obviously, [the coaches] want everybody to be vaccinated to move more freely around the facility, and with traveling and all that type of stuff. But everybody has their own beliefs, and they’re entitled to their own decision.”
Eliminating the fear
With training camps less than six weeks away, NFL coaches are doing their part to alleviate any concerns among non-vaccinated players. WFT head coach Ron Rivera brought in leading immunologist Kissmekia S. Corbett to speak to his players on the benefits of getting COVID-19 shots.
Clinical trials with people of all ethnicities (1 in 3 were people of color) have shown a minimal risk to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than half of America’s 330 million people have already been vaccinated, according to our-vaccine.org.
On Thursday, the Cincinnati Bengals scheduled a vaccination day at Paul Brown Stadium, hoping to convince players it’s the last chance to have a normal training camp. Sources with the Jaguars confirmed that several players got vaccinated after minicamp concluded on Tuesday.
Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday that unvaccinated players "are going to have a harder time this season," and won't be able to go home during the team bye week. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians was pretty blunt last week when asked about the clinic his team hosted to increase vaccinations among players, team personnel and family members.
“If you want to go back to normal, get vaccinated,” Arians said. “It’s still a personal choice, but I don’t see a reason not to be vaccinated.”
The calendar would certainly suggest this week is a prime opportunity for non-vaccinated players to get their COVID-19 shots. With minicamps done and a long rest period ahead, it’s in the players’ best interest to get vaccinated now rather than wait another month.
On the small risk that players would have any complications from the vaccine, they would have plenty of time for recovery without worrying about missing practices or meetings. For those who insist on not being vaccinated, they must endure the annoyance of daily protocols and wearing masks at the facilities upon returning for training camp.
“Who wants to wear a mask in the facility all the time?” one NFL team staff member told the Times-Union. “I couldn’t wait to get the shot. I felt relieved.”
One coach who got vaccinated three months ago put it this way: “Part of the reason I did get it was I didn’t want to get COVID and I did believe in it. The other part is I just didn’t want to go through all the protocols and wearing a mask.”
No doubt, those factors are probably why vaccinated NFL players got the shot and why non-vaccinated ones may soon do the same. There’s just too much downside to not getting it.
Impact of Rahm, Paul situations
For instance, does a non-vaccinated player want the daily ritual of being tested and wearing a mask while teammates walk freely about the building without restriction? More importantly, who wants to be that player getting a positive test result, say, during the week of a critical matchup against a division rival?
Imagine the angst at TIAA Bank Field if the Jaguars are 6-6 in early December and an unvaccinated impact player — take your pick — finds out he tests positive and can’t make the trip to Nashville for a showdown against the Tennessee Titans.
Think that can’t happen? Tell that to golfer Jon Rahm, who had to withdraw from a Memorial Tournament two weeks ago with a six-shot lead entering the final round. He didn’t get vaccinated, and though Rahm was asymptomatic, he had a positive test result come back just before he finished playing. He lost out on a likely $1.7 million payday.
NBA player Chris Paul, a big reason why the Phoenix Suns have advanced to the Western Conference finals, was reportedly just put under the league's COVID-19 health and safety protocols. It’s not known how much of the Suns’ next series against the winner of the Utah Jazz-Los Angeles Clippers series he may have to miss.
Given those two untimely health scares, you would think NFL players might be more inclined to get vaccinated. But for however many players who are still reluctant to get the shots, or have no intention of doing so, it could become a bigger dilemma once they start playing real games and a positive test pops up for a high-profile player.
“The only things we’ve done is try to provide the most impactful data to make the soundest decision you can,” said one NFL personnel executive. “I think incentives [to get vaccinated] will come into play, but it may not overcome the variables of skepticism or fear. There’s probably more incentive for a coach or staff member to get vaccinated.
“I wouldn’t know right now the [vaccination] percentage of our team. I always go, ‘we’ll adjust and adapt.’ I’m well aware we’re not going to get 100 percent [vaccinated]. Whatever less than 100 it is, then whatever we need to do to adapt, we’ll go from there. The best plans evolve.”
Still, NFL coaches don’t like surprises. They especially wouldn’t like the idea of losing an important unvaccinated player during the season because of a positive COVID-19 test, not when there’s a preventative measure available from Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson that appears to be working just fine.
“I told players when I was a kid that polio was an item, something to be afraid of, so I got vaccinated,” said the NFL team staff member. “If you’re a player and you don’t get [the shots], for me, it’s hard to say why you wouldn’t do it.”
Some Jaguars and maybe hundreds of other unvaccinated players across the league must decide for themselves whether to get the COVID-19 protection that’s becoming more common with each passing day.
The bigger risk would seem to be the fear of being the next Jon Rahm or Chris Paul. Then again, we’re not standing in their shoes. It's their call.
2022 NFL mock draft: Way-too-early projections
7. Atlanta (66/1) — Christian Harris, LB, Alabama
Harris had 79 tackles — one behind Dylan Moses for the team lead — 4.5 sacks and an interception as a sophomore. Top needs: RB, Edge, LB
8. N.Y. Giants (66/1) — Drake Jackson, Edge, USC
Jackson can play in space or rush the passer off the edge. In 2019, he was the first true freshman to start a season opener for the Trojans on the defensive line since Everson Griffen in 2007 (and just the second since Tim Ryan in 1986). Top needs: OL, Edge, S
10. Philadelphia (50/1) — Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Elam took a step back after an impressive freshman campaign in 2019. He'll be hard to pass on as a 6-foot-2 corner with elite ball skills if he can fine-tune his technique and become a more reliable tackler. Top needs: CB, LB, OL
11. N.Y. Giants from Chicago (50/1) — Zion Nelson, OT, Miami
The 6-foot-5, 315 pound Nelson has developed into one of the premier pass blockers in college football. Top needs: OL, Edge, S
12. Carolina (50/1) — Evan Neal, OL, Alabama
The massive Neal — he's 6-foot-7, 360 pounds — played right guard as a freshman for the Crimson Tide before moving to right tackle in 2020. He'll replace first-round pick Alex Leatherwood at left tackle next season. Top needs: OL, LB, S
14. Arizona (40/1) — Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
Cross is a powerful blocker who can do damage at the second level in the run game with premium athleticism and his target-lock awareness. Top-10 is a possibility if he develops as a pass protector. Top needs: OT, Edge, TE
15. Minnesota (40/1) — Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama
Jobe would have been a day two pick had he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, but he decided to return to Tuscaloosa for a little bit more seasoning. Top needs: CB, S, WR
16. New England (30/1) — Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
The Mission Hills product shunned millions of dollars to come back for his senior season in Columbus and will likely be a top-three prospect at the position in 2022. Top needs: WR, CB, OL
19. Tennessee (25/1) — Cade Mays, OL, Tennessee
Mays has the talent and size (6-6, 325) to play all five positions on the offensive line. He's likely the most refined blocker in college football. Top needs: WR, LB, OL
20. Dallas (25/1) — Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan
Hutchinson suffered season-ending ankle surgery in 2020, but he was disruptive as a sophomore in 2019. He produced 4.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, six pass deflections and two forced fumbles. Top needs: Edge, OL, S
21. Cleveland (25/1) — Xavier Thomas, Edge, Clemson
This projection is based on Thomas' special talent, but he has to stay healthy and develop consistency. Top needs: Edge, WR, DT
23. N.Y. Jets from Seattle (22/1) — Rasheed Walker, OT, Penn State
Walker would have heard his name called had he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, but his current developmental trajectory puts him as one of the first offensive lineman off the board in 2022. Top needs: CB, TE, S
24. Indianapolis (20/1) — Jon Metchie, WR, Alabama
Metchie could be the fifth Alabama wide receiver selected in the first round in three years. He had 916 yards on 55 receptions and six touchdowns in an offense dominated by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. He'll be Bryce Young's clear-cut number one target in the fall. Top needs: OT, WR, CB
25. New Orleans (18/1) — Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia
Davis would've likely been the first defensive tackle selected this year had he left school — Christian Barmore was selected by the Patriots in the second round with the 38th overall pick. Top needs: WR, DT, QB
27. Baltimore (12/1) — Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Linderbaum was recruited as a defensive lineman, but switched to the offensive line during bowl prep of his freshman season and has never looked back. He heads into the fall as the top center in college football. Top needs: OT, DL, C
28. Buffalo (12/1) — Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State
Every starting cornerback for the Buckeyes since 2013 have been drafted — seven in the first round. Banks has the physical traits and skillset to keep the party going. Top needs: CB, LB, WR
30. Tampa Bay (10/1) — George Karlaftis, Edge, Purdue
The pandemic limited Karlaftis to only three games last fall (he still had two sacks), but he was an AP Freshman All-American in 2019 after producing 7.5 sacks with 17 tackles for loss as a true freshman. Top needs: DL, WR, CB
31. Green Bay (9/1) — Perrion Winfrey, DT, Oklahoma
Winfrey's quickness makes him a disruptive force on the interior. He'll be the anchor of a potentially dominant Sooners defense this season. Top needs: LB, WR, DL