DENVER (AP) – NFL teams are reviewing the way they handle rookie minicamps after season-ending knee injuries to two prized picks less than a week after all the hugs and handshakes of draft night.
Locker rooms and front offices were jolted when defensive end Dante Fowler, the third overall pick, blew out his left knee on the first day of Jacksonville’s rookie minicamp. Twenty-four hours later, tight end Jeff Heuerman, Denver’s third-round selection, tore his left ACL covering a kickoff.
Both were practicing under standard injury protection waivers. Fowler later received a fully guaranteed four-year, $23.5 million contract, same as he would have had he not been injured. Heuerman has yet to sign.
While some coaches insist injuries are as unavoidable as they are unfortunate, John Lynch, the former hard-hitting safety and current television commentator, said players might be overdoing it leading up to the draft.
After the college season ends, they work out relentlessly for their pro days, team visits and the NFL combine. This exhaustive process, he said, can endanger top prospects as they go from getting wined, dined and timed to gearing up for the first time in months.
“They never get a break,” Lynch said. “Sometimes I think they’re just worn out. Maybe break them in a little easier.”
Saints rookie cornerback P.J. Williams agrees that the months-long auditioning can put some draft picks in jeopardy as they abruptly shift their focus from physical fitness back to football.
“You get out there and you want to make an impression on the coaches and go hard,” Williams said. “Coming from not doing much is definitely tough.”
Fowler agreed he wasn’t in “football shape,” having trained not so much to chase down quarterbacks but to bench press and run in a straight line and a T-shirt.
“You have the combine, pro day, visiting teams, so it’s kind of hard to stay in shape with things like that,” Fowler said. “I was going to get accustomed to that in minicamp and camp.”
Broncos Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. suggested moving rookie minicamps back another week or two to help reduce the risk of injury: “They’re just off the street, really, doing their own training and then going straight to practice,” he said. “That’s hard. That’s dangerous.”
Some teams say they’re already doing everything they can to protect their players, however.
“It’s part of the game and it’s an unfortunate part of the business and things happen that are out of your control,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “Right now we are worried about teaching the players the way we need to practice. Injuries are just part of the game.”
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said he re-evaluates his rookie minicamp every year, and he agrees with Lynch that scrapping it altogether would do more harm than good.
“What’s that saying, ‘You can’t learn to swim by reading a book’? For these guys it’s the same mentality,” Bradley said. Plus, he said it prepares them for the rest of the offseason workouts with the veterans.
San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula said the Jaguars did everything right.
“They were practicing. They were doing everything in the way you do football. We looked at it closely to make sure, ‘Hey, is there anything that’s going on here that we’re doing that we shouldn’t do?’ No. We (decided to do) the same things Jacksonville was doing,” Tomsula said.
Dialing down the intensity isn’t the answer, either, Broncos general manager John Elway said.
“When you’re a rookie, you get excited about it. I remember my first minicamp. We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off, too,” Elway said. “So, it’s always hard to pull the reins back.”
That’s especially true when the draft class of soon-to-be millionaires is mixed in with undrafted college free agents and players on a weekend tryout just itching to make an impression.
Slowing things down a bit might be the happy middle ground.
“It’s fair to say they’re behind from a football physical standpoint of being in shape,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “So it’s important for us to make sure the transition here isn’t too fast physically. In other words, we have to get them up to speed.”
The collective bargaining agreement allows for teams to hold their rookie minicamps either the first or second weekend following the draft. Along with the Saints, only the Chargers, Chiefs, 49ers and Titans waited a week.
“By having the second weekend, it has allowed us to have four days with them and really get a gauge on where they’re at” and set the tempo accordingly, Payton said.
Despite all the safeguards, injuries are a fact of football, Payton said, “and those are tough things, especially when it’s a high-profile player you’ve invested a lot of research in.”
– By Arnie Stapleton, AP Sports Writer
AP Sports Writers Bernie Wilson, Dave Skretta, Janie McCauley and Mark Long contributed along with AP freelancers Bradley Handwerger and Terry McCormick.
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