NFL teams across the league have begun taking precautions in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and across the globe. The virus had already caused disruptions in multiple sports, including the cancellation of conference college basketball tournaments. The NBA also suspended its season indefinitely after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the virus, and the NHL and MLS have followed suit.
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton became the first person affiliated with the league to be diagnosed with the virus. On March 19, he announced that he had been diagnosed with the virus.
How much it will directly affect the NFL’s offseason schedule is an ongoing question. For now, most of the major events will go on as planned. NFL players passed a new CBA after voting ended on March 14. The NFL’s free agency period went on as planned. The NFL Draft begins on April 23 from Las Vegas.
However, the NFL’s annual meeting, which was scheduled for March 29-April 1 in Palm Beach, Florida, was cancelled. Additionally there are some changes that have been made with most of them relating to the pre-draft process. The league has also encouraged team staff members to work from home, further announcing changes relating to team facilities on March 24.
Let’s run through how teams and various league events have been affected by Covid-19.
Free agency is still on
Though there was some discussion about potentially delaying the start of the new league year and free agency, that didn’t happen. The NFL sent a memo to teams informing them that the regular negotiation window and league year dates would be adhered to, and they were.
The deadline for teams to franchise tag players was Monday, March 16, at 11:59:59 a.m. ET, which was extended due to the ongoing CBA negotiations. Transactions could become official at the start of the new league year, at 4 p.m. ET on March 18.
With the knowledge that most of the negotiations between free agents and their 2020 destinations could take place remotely via phone or video chats, a ton of players got signed, though physicals were an issue the league needed to address:
We do understand the NFL can conduct free agency via the phones? You'd still need to do the physical, which can be done when the contract is officially signed in person. The framework of most deals are done even before the player arrives at the facility.— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) March 12, 2020
A few hours into the NFL’s legal tampering period on March 16, the league released guidelines for free agency. Notably, they did not allowing teams or players to travel for workouts or physicals and closed team facilities through the end of March. Instead, physicals had to be completed at a neutral site, preferably in the player’s home city.
Joint statement from the NFL and NFLPA pic.twitter.com/JjzNqGQi9M— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) March 17, 2020
That went on for several days, but the policy regarding physicals again changed on March 23, when the league announced that all NFL-related physicals had been indefinitely discontinued. Signings and trades still require a physical, but that physical can simply be conducted in the future.
The league previously amended rules regarding when a team can announce an official transaction, which used to require a completed physical. Now teams are allowed to announce deals when the terms have been agreed on and the written contract has been sent a player and his agent.
The ban on NFL-related physicals extends to all free agent and trade deals, NFL Combine rechecks, and non-Combine player evaluations “until the health crisis has passed.”
Some pro days have been affected
Every year, pro days have been held at universities in early March ahead of the draft in April.
On March 11, some NFL teams were already taking travel precautions ahead of the NFL’s free agency and the draft. NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that the Pittsburgh Steelers were limiting commercial flights for coaches and scouts, and a couple other teams were responding to Covid-19. Another report from Yahoo Sports added that the Eagles had also pulled their coaches off the road from the pro-day circuit temporarily.
Some schools announced cancellations for their pro days, including Illinois, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, and USC. Alabama has postponed its pro day to April 9. Penn State postponed its pro day as well. Clemson still held its on March 12.
However, schools that moved their pro days to next month might not be able to hold them either. The NCAA is prohibiting recruiting for all sports on and off campus until mid-April:
This would put a wrench in the plans of those schools trying to reschedule their March pro days for early April. https://t.co/lZDTOh9csv— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 13, 2020
In addition the NFL has also canceled its regional and HBCU combine dates:
A statement regarding the HBCU and Regional Combine Invitational: pic.twitter.com/viEGIjKDMs— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) March 12, 2020
As a potential solution, prospects could hold virtual pro days, as several Michigan players did on March 13.
Pre-draft visits have also been cancelled
NFL teams are permitted to schedule 30 pre-draft visits every year, which allow them to meet with prospects and have them undergo medical evaluations. The league has suspended those:
I’ve been notified that the @NFL has cancelled all draftee facility visits.— Erik Burkhardt (@ErikBurkhardt) March 12, 2020
•Jordyn Brooks (LB- Tx Tech)- had 15 scheduled.
•Brandon Jones (DB- Texas)- had 8 scheduled.
•Devin Duvernay (WR- Texas)- had 6 + 7 private workouts.
The NFL sent a memo to clubs saying "we have decided to prohibit all in-person pre-Draft visits involving draft-eligible players effective at the end of this business day, until further notice." More fallout from COVID-19.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 13, 2020
One NFL agent encouraged players to avoid traveling for team visits before the league announced their cancellations. Teams can still conduct one-hour interviews with draft prospects via phone or video call, though they are limited to three per week.
NFL scouting and team evaluations are on hold, too
Most teams have officially announced they are suspending travel for their scouts and coaches including:
- Atlanta Falcons
- Arizona Cardinals
- Baltimore Ravens
- Buffalo Bills
- Cleveland Browns
- Carolina Panthers
- Chicago Bears
- Detroit Lions
- Green Bay Packers
- Indianapolis Colts
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Las Vegas Raiders
- Los Angeles Rams
- Miami Dolphins
- Minnesota Vikings
- New England Patriots
- New York Giants
- New York Jets
- Philadelphia Eagles
- San Francisco 49ers
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Teams have also reportedly considered shutting down their workout facilities for the time being. Teams like the Eagles and Falcons announced theirs will be closed. Several other teams made such announcements at the same time they announced scouting changes. Some teams, like the Bears, have also canceled their April draft parties.
The annual league meeting has been cancelled
Every March, NFL owners and coaches gather to discuss the season that was, and the year ahead. Various conversations take place regarding rule changes and tweaks that can improve the game overall. Here’s the NFL’s statement on the cancellation:
New: pic.twitter.com/Jme2W77RYy— Brian McCarthy (@NFLprguy) March 12, 2020
The meeting also serves the backdrop for several votes on new rules that affect the on-field product of the NFL. Last year’s controversial decision to make pass interference reviewable started with a yes vote at the annual event.
Instead of meeting in March, there will be calls with team owners and execs for the same days the annual meeting was scheduled instead of an in-person meeting. There might be votes on some of the discussions planned, too.
NFL owners, head coaches, and general managers will also all gather during the spring meeting on May 19-20. There, they will discuss the proposed rules and put them up for a vote. Those include rules about blindside blocking, the onside kick, automatic replay, and more:
Here’s a look at the 2020 rules change proposals submitted by the clubs: https://t.co/Wkwst9sraf pic.twitter.com/mTm5YTk86P— NFL Football Operations (@NFLFootballOps) March 10, 2020
See the NFL’s full list of proposals here.
The 2020 NFL Draft is still on, but it won’t include public events
The NFL Draft is scheduled for April 23-25 in Las Vegas, the first time the city has hosted. On March 16, the NFL announced that the draft will still happen in Vegas, but the public events usually held alongside it will be cancelled. The league is also “exploring options” for how the draft process will happen:
NFL announcement on its draft plans: pic.twitter.com/ynRG3Bw6fw— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 16, 2020
That means there likely won’t be any fans present at the actual draft. The Buccaneers have also cancelled their annual draft party, and the 49ers canceled draft events they had planned with fans.
The CDC has also recommended that for the next eight weeks, any gatherings of 50 or more people be cancelled or postponed.
The league’s general manager subcommittee unanimously recommended to Roger Goodell that the NFL Draft be pushed back due to the Covid-19 pandemic on March 24. Despite this recommendation, the league said they are sticking to its original April 23-25 schedule, per ESPN. The concern from general managers is that there won’t be enough time to get player physicals, psychological testing, and other information about players who aren’t allowed to visit their facilities. Another concern is that it could give an advantage to teams in places impacted less by the pandemic.
The NFL subsequently began making plans for a virtual draft that will include top prospects, although they won’t be on a stage per usual:
While they won't be together on a stage, NFL will reach out to top prospects this week to participate in the Draft set for Apr 23-25. In a letter to agents, the NFL said it is working on a virtual solution that will incorporate prospects in the broadcast from their own locations.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 25, 2020
Offseason activities are being postponed
In addition to announcing guidelines for how to handle free agency, the NFL and NFLPA also announced on March 16 that offseason team activities will be delayed “indefinitely.” They are still considering an appropriate start date for OTAs, which would include most coaches and players on the team in close proximity.
“During this period, the league and union, through their respective medical consultants, will develop a standard set of protocols for clubs to implement regarding facility cleaning and maintenance, equipment preparation, steps to identify players and staff who may be at an elevated risk for the coronavirus and other preventative measures,” the league said in a release.
In addition to that, players are not allowed to enter any NFL facility for a period of two weeks, beginning on March 17 and extended through March 31, except for those players who need access for ongoing medical treatment from the team’s staff.
Organized team activities were set to begin on April 4 for some teams and April 20 for others.
The league is moving forward with a “virtual offseason”
The league has approved a “virtual offseason” through the beginning of training camp, after negotiating with the NFL Players’ Association. Players can have virtual workouts to earn workout bonuses, with each individual team coming to their own agreements in terms of what counts toward offseason bonuses, per Charles Robinson of Yahoo.
Teams cannot resume specific types of work until all 50 states remove the lockdowns currently in place:
2. The NFL's offseason will remain virtual as long as all 50 states are under some kind of lockdown. This means NFL franchises cannot resume in-house work, OTAs or any form of camps until all 50 states have removed lockdown restrictions. This includes states without NFL teams.— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) April 13, 2020
The union’s executive committee voted unanimously to accept the terms of this virtual offseason, per Robinson. Further information came from Adam Schefter of ESPN:
Virtual off-season now officially approved, and this went to all teams after players approved it to lay out new off-season guidelines. pic.twitter.com/R4Fm1L5jCn— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 13, 2020
We’ll see how this plays out in the coming weeks, especially as high-profile players set out to earn their workout bonuses.