As rookie minicamps commence throughout most of the league, two teams in Florida specifically have dialed back on the amount of on-field work in which players who haven’t played football in several months will perform. And it’s clear that last year’s season-ending ACL tear suffered by Jaguars linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., the third overall pick in the draft, served as a catalyst for change.
“It was something we’ve been discussing since probably around the Combine,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase told reporters on Friday regarding his decision to have rookies do less at minicamp. “Between [G.M.] Chris [Grier], [executive V.P. of football operations] Mike [Tannenbaum] and myself, we’ve talked a lot [with] our coaching staff, especially some of the older guys. [We talked about] their thought process of kind of trying something a little different. I’d reached out to [Rams] coach Jeff Fisher at the owners meeting because I had heard that he had always done it a little different. I think he’s been doing it different than everybody else for a long time going back to Tennessee. So it was just kind of how we wanted to build it and see how we could kind of take that injury out of what goes on in this camp. A lot of our guys haven’t practiced [in] four to five months, so we just wanted to make sure that they learned our program. We got them ready to go so when we get to OTAs, those guys are in the right kind of shape. I think last year probably scared a few guys. When you lose a first round draft pick like Jacksonville did, it just kind of gets you thinking ‘What’s the right thing to do at this point?’”
Appearing earlier this week on PFT Live, Jaguars G.M. Dave Caldwell did one of the rare things that anyone in football ever does — he expressed regret for not changing Jacksonville’s approach to the rookie minicamp before Fowler was injured.
“[Players go] through workouts all the way up to the draft and these players go through 10 to 15 visits,” Caldwell said. “Then all of a sudden they’ve had the combine and all this traveling and then we’re going to bring them in and the first weekend that they’re NFL players we’re going to throw them on the field for three practices. We don’t do it with our veterans. Our veterans are here for four or five weeks and conditioning and training. We get fitness assessments of them before we put them on the field.
“So I think you know the Dante [Fowler] thing, it was always something in the back of my mind and usually it was hamstring pulls or groin strains or calf strains. Something that the rookies would have and instead of getting better they’d be rehabbing all summer. To be honest with you I’m still pissed at myself that I allowed it to happen. I think with talking with Coach Bradley and our coaching staff we just said, ‘Hey lets bring these rookies in, lets see where they are from a fitness standpoint and then lets decide who’s gonna engage in some football activity on Friday and Saturday.'”
Caldwell pointed out that the league looked into Fowler’s injury and determined that there was no violation of the offseason rules. But Caldwell acknowledged that putting first-round picks, undrafted free agents, and players participating on a tryout basis on the field at the same time creates “a lot of organized chaos.”
“I think we just peeled back a little bit and said, ‘Let’s focus on the things that can help these guys a couple years down the road.’ In terms of nutrition, stretching, how to prepare, how to hydrate especially here in Jacksonville and give them a little bit of time in the playbook and then bring them along smoothly.”
It’s surprising more teams haven’t followed suit. If the 2016 rookie class in Miami and Jacksonville end up doing well right out of the gates, maybe it will happen in the future.