49ers star landing on COVID-19 list reminds NFL how quickly this season could change

The NFL’s containment of COVID-19 has always been a battle of mile markers and the progress made between them. With the season just 10 days from kicking off, the most significant measuring point since the start of training camps is approaching.

And the San Francisco 49ers reminded everyone of it.

Just days after the NFL’s reserve COVID-19 list whittled down to only Jacksonville Jaguars offensive tackle Ryan Pope, the league saw a negative turn over the weekend with the list jumping back up to five cases by Monday morning. Four new names were entered on the list: Carolina Panthers defensive back Derrek Thomas, New Orleans Saints running back Dwayne Washington, Atlanta Falcons defensive end Steven Means and 49ers linebacker Fred Warner. Pope was ultimately removed from the reserve list Monday afternoon, leaving the COVID-19 reserve IR at the four new players.

None of the franchises are saying whether the players have tested positive for COVID-19, meaning some of the new names could have merely come into contact with an infected person. But at least two of the instances are a reminder of how vigilant NFL teams must be from one week to the next.

The NFL will have its eye on the 49ers putting Fred Warner (right) on the COVID-19 reserve list. (Tony Avelar/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)
The NFL will have its eye on the 49ers putting Fred Warner (right) on the COVID-19 reserve list. (Tony Avelar/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

For the Panthers, Thomas is their first entrant on the COVID-19 reserve list. And for the 49ers, Warner is a budding young star who made the NFL’s top 100 player list this season — and whose absence would be a difficult blow to start the season. Not only was Warner expected to be one of the stars of the defense, a source with the team told Yahoo Sports on Monday that he had arguably had the best training camp of any player on the roster.

As 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan framed the loss to reporters, “It’s just a good reminder that no one is out of the woods. When you go a few weeks with nothing happening, you start to feel pretty safe. And it’s a reminder that this stuff is out there. … Fred is as much of a pro that I’ve been around. While he’s not in here, I’m sure he’s in his apartment doing bag drills or wherever he’s living [and] just going crazy that he can’t be in here. Fred’s a stud. Whenever he can come back, he will be ready to go.”

It remains to be seen how long Warner will be on the reserve list. If it’s just a case of being exposed to someone with the virus, Warner could sit out until results of his latest COVID test became available and return if he’s negative. But if Warner has contracted the virus, he will have to test out of the reserve list under guidelines that depend on whether he’s symptomatic or asymptomatic. If he’s showing symptoms of the virus, he will have to wait at least 10 days and shed his symptoms before a team doctor can clear him to return. If he isn’t showing symptoms, Warner could return to the team in as few as five days if he passes two COVID tests in a 24-hour window.

However it plays out, Warner landing on the list so late into the preseason is a reminder on multiple fronts for NFL teams of players’ vulnerability and the hoops they have to jump through to return. With most teams headed toward significant cut downs in the next week, this was expected to be the next window that concerned NFL teams. Partially because it is expected to feature a multitude of players changing rosters for the first time, but also because it will give the league an idea of exactly how healthy the player base can be heading into September travel and full-contact games.

Make no mistake, the next 10 days are considered the most important COVID-19 measuring stick for the NFL, with the next major “mile marker” coming after Week 1 games. That latter measure will arguably be the most important all season because it will give the league a snapshot of what the COVID situation looks like after every team has played in a full-contact game, with half the league having traveled and stayed in road accommodations.

One AFC general manager told Yahoo Sports his team laid out four significant tentpole moments after speaking with medical advisers: the first week after reporting; the first week after padded practices began; the final week before the season kicked off (after new players had been added following cuts); and then the week after the first regular-season game.

“After talking to the medical advisers, the sort of gist we got is when we get past [those four dates], we’ll have a pretty good handle on how controllable everything can be,” the GM said. “After that, there aren’t really many surprises. We know everything that we’re going to be dealing with at that point, so it’s just can you be disciplined and keep repeating your process every week?”

That discipline question has been at the forefront for teams all preseason long, and largely appeared to be going according to plan for every franchise into Monday. But as this weekend showcased, it doesn’t take long for a reminder to be delivered — both about how quickly things can change and how many measurements still lie ahead.

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