Friday , September 30 2022

NFL offseason priorities for 2022

It’s almost wrong to refer to the time period between the Super Bowl and training camp as the NFL offseason. Packed with tentpole events designed to keep fans interested for the next five months, it’s more accurate to call it the NFL’s second season.

The spring of 2022 will be just as busy as recent years, mixing standard affairs with a now three-year effort to confront and manage the COVID-19 pandemic. A revamped competition committee, including four new members, will analyze the game and consider rule changes on a number of fronts, most notably on special teams. Here is the makeup of the 10-person committee, with new members marked by an asterisk:

In a tangible sign that the league is moving back to a state of normalcy, the NFL has already announced its key dates for the next few months. After playing the Super Bowl a week later than normal, thanks to the first-ever 17-game regular season, the offseason/second season will come fast. Here’s what we know so far:

  • February 22 (tentative): First day to designate franchise or transition tags

  • March 1-7: Scouting combine (Indianapolis, Indiana)

  • March 8: Franchise/transition tag deadline

  • March 14-16: Negotiating period for pending unrestricted free agents

  • March 16 (4 p.m. ET): Free-agent deals can be signed, and trades can be officially consummated

  • March 27-30: Annual league meeting (Palm Beach, Florida)

  • April 4: Teams with new head coaches can begin offseason conditioning programs

  • April 18: Remainder of teams can begin offseason conditioning programs

  • April 22: Deadline for restricted free agents (RFAs) to sign offer sheets

  • April 27: Deadline for teams to exercise right of first refusal on RFAs

  • April 28-30: NFL draft (Las Vegas, Nevada)

So what will the offseason hold? Let’s run through the NFL’s to-do list and 14 priorities to address before training camps open at the end of July.

Re-evaluate the need for COVID-19 protocols

The NFL has played two full seasons under the pandemic with minimal disruption to its schedule and small numbers of serious illness among players and staff, in large part because of its strict protocols and high vaccination rates. A total of eight games were rescheduled, and there have been four known hospitalizations between the start of training camp in 2020 and the end of the 2021 season.

Now, the NFL and NFL Players Association will have to decide which protocols — if any — to preserve for the start of the 2022 season. It’s hard to project the state of the pandemic at the time that training camps open in late July, or even whether it will still be considered a public health emergency by then. But the trend among many local and state governments has been toward eliminating protocol mandates.

The NFL ended the 2021 season testing only when symptoms presented, after starting 2020 with daily testing for everyone. Will there be any testing in 2022? Will there be a need for players and coaches to isolate, and miss practices or games, if they’re ill? If so, what will the time period be? And in anticipation of a possible late-fall/early winter surge, will the league mandate booster shots to be classified as “fully vaccinated?”

There is no urgency here, especially given the evolving nature of the virus. But there will be some heavy discussions and negotiations with the NFLPA before anyone reports to training camp.


Replace or re-imagine the Rooney Rule

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that all options are on the table to improve diversity outcomes among head coaching hires. Only two minority coaches were hired in the 2022 cycle to fill nine openings, leaving the league with a total of five among its 32 teams. The NFL has tweaked the Rooney Rule on a near-annual basis in recent years and has certainly increased the visibility of minority candidates through interview requirements and incentives to develop diverse job candidates. But it might have squeezed all it can out of a rule that governs interviews but not outcomes.

What could the NFL replace it with? It’s fair to be skeptical of a “re-brand.” No matter how genuinely Goodell wants to diversify the head coaching ranks, owners make the final decisions. They are independent, largely unaccountable and unlikely to approve a policy change that legislates their autonomy to hire preferred candidates.

Goodell struck the right tone last week, noting that a diverse workforce is a better workforce. As such, his long-term play is to convince owners that their chances of winning increase if they genuinely consider and hire candidates outside their comfort zones. Diversifying ownership groups would help in that regard, and the NFL is actively recruiting diverse bidders for the Denver Broncos‘ upcoming sale. The short-term path is less clear.


Defend against lawsuits from former coaches Jon Gruden and Brian Flores

Yes, the NFL is being sued separately by two of the 32 men who began the 2021 season as head coaches.

Gruden, who resigned from the Las Vegas Raiders last October, alleged the NFL and Goodell orchestrated a “malicious and orchestrated campaign” to end his career by leaking the old, private emails that included racist, misogynistic and anti-gay language. The NFL has filed to dismiss the case and move it to its internal arbitration process.

The league is expected to follow a similar path against Flores, whose class-action lawsuit alleges discriminatory hiring practices. Flores, who is Black, was fired after three seasons with the Miami Dolphins and accused multiple teams of hosting “sham interviews” to fulfill the terms of the Rooney Rule. Because it is classified as “class action,” it’s possible that other coaches could join the lawsuit with more accusations.

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Ryan Clark reacts to former Dolphins’ head coach Brian Flores suing the NFL alleging racism in hiring practices.

The NFL will work feverishly to minimize the public spillover of discovery in both cases, as it has successfully done in other recent lawsuits, including those filed by the city of St. Louis and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But already, the events leading up to and following the Gruden and Flores lawsuits have aired an incredible level of the NFL’s dirty laundry.


Get to the bottom of Flores’ pay-to-lose accusation

The NFL will pay just as much attention to a secondary allegation in Flores’ lawsuit. According to Flores, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him a $100,000 bonus for losing games during the 2019 regular season, when the team was apparently trying to position itself for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

There have been plenty of times in NFL history when teams have targeted future seasons for competitiveness in the midst of long-term rebuilding plans. And there have been individual occasions when teams have made personnel decisions that don’t maximize their chance to win a particular game. The Philadelphia Eagles‘ choice to play No. 3 quarterback Nate Sudfeld in a 2020 Week 17 game comes to mind. You could refer to all of that as “tanking.”

But documented evidence of an owner incentivizing a coach to lose games is a much different story, and it is a step that would call into question the integrity of the core NFL product. Seasons are built on the idea that every team is trying to win, even if their personnel puts them on uneven ground with competitors on a given day. The NFL sells its games to broadcast partners with that explicit understanding.

Flores has said he has witnesses to Ross encouraging otherwise. If the allegation proves true, the NFL will have a major cleanup job on its hands, one that would include severe discipline for Ross. It’s notable that Goodell confirmed last week that the NFL could force an owner to sell a team, pending votes from the rest of the league’s owners.


Wait for Aaron Rodgers to start the QB dominoes

Teams hoping to upgrade, or at least change out, their starting quarterbacks will have fewer options than in recent years, thanks to a draft that doesn’t have the typical number of top-end passing talents. That will make veteran quarterbacks more valuable this spring, but nothing can really happen until Rodgers decides if he wants to play in 2022 and, assuming he does, whether it will be with the Green Bay Packers or not.

By all accounts, the Packers want Rodgers back despite the presence of 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love on the roster. Rodgers has promised a relatively swift decision, and any team that might want to trade for him — if he decides to play elsewhere — would be wise to wait for it. Other veteran quarterbacks who could be in play for a trade or at least a new contract are the Houston TexansDeshaun Watson, the Seattle SeahawksRussell Wilson, the Las Vegas RaidersDerek Carr, the Minnesota VikingsKirk Cousins, the San Francisco 49ersJimmy Garoppolo and the Arizona CardinalsKyler Murray.

Teams can agree to terms on a trade at any time after the Super Bowl, but the deal can’t be formalized until the new league year begins March 16. The top free-agent quarterback at the moment is Jameis Winston, who is recovering from a torn ACL and could return to the Saints.


The football world seemingly forgot about Watson after the Texans failed to deal him at the 2021 trade deadline. In the end, one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks did not play for the entire season, even though he was healthy and not suspended. Watson is facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, and as the cases worked their way through the justice system, the Texans paid him his $10.5 million base salary to stay away from the team. Next season, Watson is guaranteed a $35 million salary.

Watson is expected to begin giving depositions later this month, but there is no reliable timetable for how long the cases could take to be resolved. And without a legal resolution, it’s impossible for the Texans or any other team to project the extent to which he might be disciplined by the NFL. All of which is to say that Watson’s career is effectively and indefinitely on hold.


Sort through draft’s QB prospects

The 2022 draft will likely be the first in five seasons with a non-quarterback selected at No. 1 overall. There is no Trevor Lawrence (2021), Joe Burrow (2020), Kyler Murray (2019) or even a Baker Mayfield (2018) in this draft. Instead, the top pick is likely to be a pass-rusher (Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux) or a left tackle (Alabama’s Evan Neal).

There will still be multiple quarterbacks selected in the first round, a list that could include Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, Liberty’s Malik Willis, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder. The separation between this group is likely to be a matter of team preference as opposed to obvious skills, and matching players with teams will be one of the most consistent themes of offseason discussion.

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Todd McShay goes through the pros and cons if a team decides to draft Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder.


Shrink the gap between replay review and a ‘sky judge’

The NFL’s limited expansion of replay in 2021 was just as notable for what it couldn’t fix as it was for what it could. The league rightfully touted the hundreds of mistakes it corrected, without a formal review or coaches’ challenge, and unquestionably there were moments when the on-site replay official’s quick reactions sped up the game. Some seasoned observers noted moments where the “video assist” program seemed to function outside its intended parameters, providing a road test of sorts for a full-fledged sky judge with the same authority as any official on the field.

But there were still many plays when an obvious mistake couldn’t be corrected, either because a coach didn’t challenge or because it wasn’t eligible to be reviewed. The NFL might not formally hire sky judges to work every game, but at the very least, there will be extensive discussions this spring about adding to the menu of plays that replay officials can address in real time from the press box.


Address overtime … or at least appear to

A surge in overtime ensured a rigorous offseason debate about the fairness of its rules. A total of 23 games went to overtime during the regular season and the playoffs, more than in any year since 2012. And the Chiefs’ divisional playoff victory over the Bills, courtesy of a touchdown on the first possession of overtime, was a reminder that the winner of the coin toss holds an inherent advantage. Several prominent coaches, including the Chiefs’ Andy Reid, have stated a preference for a guaranteed possession in overtime for both teams. Other teams, such as the Ravens, have proposed alternatives to the coin toss to make the first possession more fair for the team that starts on defense.

It’s not at all clear that the NFL will reach a consensus on this issue, but appearing to consider the matter seriously will be the first priority. A possible compromise might be to adjust rules only for the playoffs, when a loss ends a team’s season.


Evolve special teams

The NFL’s health and safety group sounded an alarm earlier this month, calling attention to the disproportionate number of injuries on special teams, especially the punt. Chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills noted the punt is the most injurious play in football. All told, special teams accounted for 17% of total plays in 2021 but hosted 20% of concussions, 30% of torn ACLs and 29% of lower extremity muscle injuries.

Rule changes and revised training techniques are among the possible solutions, subject to competition committee recommendations. The NFL tried to address some of the issues at play here in 2018, when it instituted a rule that prohibited players from lowering their helmets to initiate forcible contact with an opponent. General awareness of the “helmet rule,” as it’s known, might have contributed to a steadily dropping total of reported concussions in recent years. But as a practical matter, the rule is so difficult to officiate that the NFL instructed its referees to stop mentioning it when they threw a flag for it. Instead, referees announced it as “unnecessary roughness.”

There is one previous revision, a one-year experiment to rearrange positioning on kickoff returns, that should be kept in place. Whether by design or coincidence, the NFL achieved its highest recovery rate for onside kicks (16.1%) in four years during the 2021 regular season.


Drop the taunting emphasis

Everyone can agree that the NFL, particularly its coaches subcommittee, made its point on taunting. Based on play-by-play logs culled by ESPN Stats & Information, there were 52 taunting flags during the 2021 regular season. That was the second-highest per-game rate since at least the 2001 season, and it’s possible that number is an undercount. (Some referees referred to taunting simply as “unsportsmanlike conduct” in their announcements, which are the source for public play logs.)

This particular emphasis took an unusual path. Normally, points of emphasis fade after a heavy barrage of flags during the preseason and first few weeks of the regular season. But there were several waves of heavy enforcement, including nine combined flags in Weeks 14-15 alone. Some coaches are adamant that taunting sets a bad example and causes hostilities between teams. But there are plenty of other people around the league who believe that rooting it out via flags generated an outsized ratio of public derision, and at least neutralized the benefit of limiting the act of taunting itself.


Address in-person media access

The pandemic has changed how players and coaches interact with the media, shifting interviews from the locker room and practice field to virtual settings and occasional but formal press conferences. The arrangement has limited the capacity to develop the kind of personal relationships that allow reporters to convey a deep understanding of what happens on and off the field, and it has no precedent in NFL history.

This might seem like an insider issue, and most fans probably don’t care about it. Ultimately, the responsibility is on reporters to gather information, not on teams to provide it — or even to make it easy to gather. And it’s quite likely that many teams and players remain in favor of the new approach. After two years of closed locker rooms, it would be easy to continue with the status quo when the public health emergency fades.

But there are also many people around the NFL who understand the value of deep media coverage. Former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton advocated last month for locker rooms to re-open, saying: “People don’t understand when all of a sudden you practice inside with the COVID restrictions, the relationships that many [reporters] have with our players, it’s hard to do those jobs effectively as you might like.” And some prominent players — including Packers receiver Davante Adams — have said they prefer the back-and-forth interaction that occurs during in-person settings.

Even if locker rooms remain closed to independent media forever, there are plenty of other ways to enhance access beyond the stop-gap measures of 2020 and 2021. Some of them will be the topic of offseason discussions among the NFL, NFLPA and the Pro Football Writers of America.


Wrangle Washington into line

The NFL did the Washington Commanders a huge favor last summer when it largely internalized the findings of its investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment. It also issued a relatively light $10 million fine and a vague mandate that owner Daniel Snyder step away from day-to-day management for an unspecified amount of time. The franchise has appeared emboldened by the outcome, and last week it twice drew public rebukes from the league for the way it has handled new allegations made against Snyder during a roundtable discussion in front of a Congressional subcommittee.

As a result, the NFL has once again launched an investigation into a franchise that has quite frankly embarrassed the league over the course of multiple seasons. We should make very few assumptions about where it might end. Conventional wisdom suggests the league won’t make a move on Snyder’s ownership of the team, but how many serious and costly investigations will it take for that mindset to change? At the very least, Goodell needs to assert a level of control over the franchise that he currently doesn’t have.


Accelerate cleat/turf study

During the 2021 season, the NFL compiled two data sets that has generated new relevance after Los Angeles Rams receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a non-contact knee injury at the Super Bowl.

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Odell Beckham Jr. falls to the ground and grabs his knee after dropping a pass in the second quarter.

The league tracked the type of cleats worn by each player and also conducted an engineering analysis of every type of playing surface NFL games are staged on. The idea is to take relative injury rates by cleat, match it with surface performance and try to find the best combination of shoes and playing surfaces moving forward.

Grass is generally considered a safer playing surface, but it’s not an option at some NFL stadiums, or at least not preferable given the heavy use the surface gets from other events. In cases where an artificial surface is unavoidable, the league’s medical department hopes it can guide better cleat selection to minimize the chances of the type of injury we saw Beckham suffer Sunday night.


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