The Payne Train: What minicamps don’t tell you

Seth Payne
Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is pleased to announce the debut of "The Payne Train," former NFL defensive lineman Seth Payne's new column about life in and out of the game. Selected in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars out of Cornell, Seth played five years for the Jags, and five more for the Houston Texans. Since leaving the game after the 2006 season, Seth has been honing his writing skills, and has proven to be a real treat on Twitter with his football knowledge and wicked sense of humor. He'll be bringing both to Shutdown Corner on a regular basis.

My friend and former teammate N.D. Kalu, a retired 12-year NFL veteran, spoke to the Houston Texans rookies earlier this week.  On his radio show the next day, he talked about how the experience left him a little depressed, because he knew that most of the bright-eyed rookies he spoke to would never make it to an active roster.  Veterans may joke about the uselessness of these organized team activities and minicamps (I'll just call them minicamps henceforth), but to young players, and especially undrafted rookies, these sessions are sometimes the only chance they will have to make a positive impression.

As a veteran player I was always frustrated when I saw a young player with ability get overlooked in May and June.  Usually it was a strong, technically sound lineman who lacked athletic ability but had a good feel for the game.  Those players can struggle in the spring because minicamps, which are unpadded, reward speed and minimize physical play.  Coaches know this, of course, but first impressions are important and often hard to change come August, and some of these players won't be invited back for camp at all.

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There are at least three major problems with using minicamp for talent evaluation, and they're all related to the fact that unpadded practice is a severely limited method of discovering a football player's true ability.

1. Balance and body control issues are disguised in unpadded practices.

A common edict in any NFL practice is to always "keep your feet." If there are pile-ups there will be injuries, so linemen try to find the right practice tempo, an equilibrium of intensity and caution that keeps guys from getting injured.  That is all well and good until a young guard abuses the system and fires out full bore and off-balance.  The defensive tackle has to yield somewhat to avoid a pile-up.  Deep down, the coaches know better, but still they can't help but admire the speed and intensity of the guard.  Never mind that in a game situation a good defensive tackle would use the guard's aggressiveness against him and plant him on the ground.

This situation, by the way, is what we call a tempo violation, and is probably the leading cause of minicamp fights.  [Full disclosure: I played defensive tackle and have a healthy prejudice against vile, loathsome offensive linemen!]

2. Minicamps eliminate the physicality of the game.  I can hear you saying "Thanks, Captain Obvious," but there are nuances to this, I promise!

Despite recent efforts to turn it into a gentleman's parlor game, football remains violent.  With all other factors equal, men who are good at violence outperform men who are gentle.  Minicamp is not violent.  It is the equivalent of a charity boxing match fought with comically over-sized gloves, and some players thrive when the physical element of the game is eliminated. After several weeks of seeing a defensive end dominate on third down in minicamp, it's easy to cement that player's "baller" status in your brain.  You tend to forget that the guy hates contact.  Meanwhile, the kid who's grinding away in the trenches working on his hand placement is rewarded with a job selling insurance.

3. Competition in minicamp is against the same people and the same scheme.

This eliminates the importance of a crucial trait among good NFL players, which is the ability to adjust to different opponents and game plans on a weekly basis.  A coach once told me that Kevin Greene, third in career sacks, wasn't all that impressive in practice. The crucial difference was that he studied his opponents better than anybody else.  His superior knowledge of the opposing team's players and tendencies showed up on gameday.  Conversely, many great practice players can't adjust to the mental demands of installing a new game plan every week.

I am by no means suggesting that there isn't value in unpadded practices.  The San Francisco 49ers of the Bill Walsh era won multiple Super Bowls while practicing mostly without pads.  But when it comes to evaluating players, we all need to remember that the positive reports coming from our favorite teams at this time of year need to be taken with a grain of salt.

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