Coronavirus and the NFL: What to Expect as Players Report

Updates on testing agreements, roster exemptions, and what to watch as the preseason begins

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the obstacles facing the NFL and the strategies the league might implement to play through the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, the NFL and NFLPA reached agreement on many of the medical protocols needed to opening training camp by the end of July.

You can expect the situation to change frequently as the NFL continues to navigate through the coming fall and winter. But here’s where things stand with training camps on the very near horizon.

Data from other professional sports leagues

Between July 13 and July 20, the NBA administered 346 tests on players in its Orlando bubble. None were positive. Two NBA players had previously tested positive while in quarantine.

After starting formal training camps on July 13, the NHL administered 2618 tests on more than 800 players. Two tested positive.

The PGA and a number of European professional soccer leagues have reported positive tests since restarting competition but have largely been successful with very few interruptions in play.

While the quick turnaround of test results on a large number of players has prompted ethical questions about testing in the general public versus professional sports leagues, these reports provide hope for the league’s starting and finishing their seasons.

NFL and NFLPA agree to initial testing protocol

All players will report for coronavirus testing in the coming days.

Day 1: First coronavirus test

Day 2: Home quarantine with virtual meetings

Day 3: Home quarantine with virtual meetings

Day 4: Second coronavirus test

If both tests are negative, a player will be cleared to enter the team facility. Intake physical exams will be performed and players who pass a physical can then begin the strength and conditioning phase of training camp.

Players will continue to be tested daily for two weeks. If a team has fewer than 5% of its players and personnel test positive – a very high threshold – testing frequency will become every other day during the preseason.

Conditioning period and practice protocols not yet confirmed

There will be no preseason games in 2020.

However, the league and players have yet to reach a formal agreement on conditioning and practice time.

The NFL has proposed:

Day 1-6: Testing and physical examination

Day 7-12: Strength and conditioning

Day 14-18: Practice in helmets

Day 20: Begin padded practice

The NFLPA, relying on recommendations from a joint medical committee, strongly prefers 21 days of strength and conditioning and 10 days of non-padded practices before resuming full-contact practices.

Expect the agreement on a conditioning and acclimation period to be longer than the 20 days proposed by the league. Avoiding reconditioning injuries will be a primary concern for both groups.

New injured reserve rules and exempt list

Players who test positive for COVID-19 cannot return until recovered.

The NFL is likely to remain in line with current CDC recommendations, meaning a player cannot leave isolation until 10 days after their first symptom and 24 hours without fever. Players without symptoms may return after five days, assuming two subsequent coronavirus tests are negative.

Players are also subject to daily temperature and symptom checks and will be isolated pending further testing as needed.

To support players with illness and provide a roster buffer, the NFL will implement new injured reserve rules and provide exemptions for players diagnosed with COVID.

2020 injured reserve list changes:

  • Teams may return an unlimited number of players from injured reserve in 2020
  • A player may return to the active roster after three weeks on injured reserve
  • Teams have three weeks of practice to decide whether to activate a player designated to return

2020 COVID-related illness list and roster exemptions:

  • A player diagnosed with COVID will be placed on a separate exempt list
  • Teams will be given a roster exemption after a player with COVID receives medical clearance to return
  • Roster exemption for one week if the player was on the exempt list for less than 4 weeks
  • Roster exemption for two weeks if the player was on the exempt list for 4+ weeks

What to watch this preseason

Expect a number of players to test positive during their initial testing

As of July 21, the NFLPA reported 95 players with known positive tests to date. If the league allows 90 man training camp rosters, 2880 players will be tested – along with many more coaches, team personnel, and support staff.

Other professional leagues have had between 1-5% of their players test positive upon return to team facilities. Expect similar numbers for the NFL.

The early test results are important but will not be a deal-breaker. The NFLPA reported 30 additional players who tested positive between July 17 and July 21, though it's possible most -- if not all -- of those positive tests occurred before July 17.

If players continue to test positive after the league’s protocols are in place and camp begins, the NFL will have to re-evaluate how to move forward.

Expect a deluge of information after players report to camp for physicals

Disruptions to the offseason schedule have kept teams from follow up examinations and observing rehab on injured players. Strength, conditioning, and recovery are unknowns for the majority of players.

Expect to hear about players who had previously unreported offseason procedures. Expect the first updates in many months on players recovering from known procedures. Expect more players to be placed on the PUP and NFI list as teams assess conditioning early in camp.

Be mindful that some players may opt out of the 2020 season

The NFL and NFLPA have yet to formally agree on a date to opt out of the 2020 season for COVID-related health concerns. Many players have raised concerns about their own health and the health of their families. None have formally announced an intention to opt out.

Watch for updates on testing

The NFL’s teams are spread across the country. Some are in areas with increasing numbers of coronavirus cases, others are not. Flare-ups will occur throughout the preseason and regular season.

The NFLPA and the league are likely to update numbers frequently.

Should the players, team personnel, and friends and family adhere to mask and distancing recommendations, it’s likely the NFL can successfully hold its community to the same relatively few cases the other major sports leagues have reported.

The need for travel during the season, the likelihood of other respiratory viruses circulating in the fall and winter, and the possibility of schools reopening will all stress the NFL’s ability to avoid local outbreaks among teams.

Anticipate an increased number of reconditioning injuries

If teams and players are extremely careful with their strength and conditioning and practice protocols, it’s possible we’ll see the number of ligament injuries and soft-tissue strains remain in line with previous seasons.

Fewer padded practices, joint practices, and preseason games may limit injury. But we routinely see injuries early in training camp with a full offseason schedule. It’s likely we’ll see some increase in injuries in August.

I’ll have a full update of player injuries in next week’s article and weekly updates throughout the preseason.

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