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Dozens of NFL players will likely test positive for COVID-19 at camp. Catching them is imperative

A scene from Cowboys training camp in California in 2019. The coronavirus pandemic forced the NFL to abandon, at least for 2020, the fading but still time-honored tradition of teams traveling to training camp.Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

Get ready for a wave of positive COVID-19 tests to hit the NFL, across all 32 teams. It’s coming, and the NFL knows it.

The league is still scheduled to open training camps July 28. Though the NFL and NFL Players Association have yet to agree on their testing protocols, players and coaches will almost certainly not be cleared to practice until they test negative for the virus.

The other American pro sports leagues have experienced positive test rates from 2-5 percent as players report for work from the outside world. Extrapolate those numbers for about 4,500 NFL players, coaches, and staff, and the league will likely have dozens to hundreds of people test positive for COVID-19 when they arrive to training camp in two-plus weeks.


“We absolutely expect that, and I think that’s just reflective of the fact that this disease remains endemic in our society,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.

For the NFL to have a chance of pulling off its season amid a global pandemic, the first few days of training camp will be crucial for catching and quarantining those with positive tests and not allowing the virus to take root inside team facilities.

“The critical period is that transition point,” said infectious disease expert Dr. Dev Anderson, whose project, Infection Control Education for Major Sports, is consulting for the NFL and several other leagues. “It’s not the same, but it’s analogous to all of the work the NHL and NBA are doing as they try to create these protected environments: Identify the people that may have infection or have exposure, and stop them from coming into the club. I think it’s really, really important.”

Commissioner Roger Goodell and Sills have been forthright that there is no risk-free plan to play football, and that there will be positive tests throughout the 2020 season. The hope is to install several safeguards — social distancing, frequent sanitizing, mandatory facemasks, and a robust system of testing, tracing, and quarantining — that would allow the NFL to catch positive cases early and limit the spread of the disease.


The NFL and NFLPA are still negotiating many of the important protocols for testing and treatment. But when camps open, playing football will take a back seat to finding and treating of the players those who have COVID-19.

“You don’t want anyone who is infected to come into that team environment,” Sills said. “That is an absolutely crucial screening for us to try to start off with a very healthy environment, and also make sure we can give the appropriate treatment and care for those individuals who may be affected and not be aware. But I think we all anticipate that there will be those cases, and we’ve been very clear of that throughout.”

Anderson, also a professor of medicine at Duke University, said the NFL should test players and coaches twice, several days apart, before allowing them into team facilities. Anderson consulted with the NFL in developing the protocols, but the final decisions are negotiated between the owners and the NFLPA.

“Ideally, you’ve got two negative tests over several days before players start to come into the club,” Anderson said. “There are false negatives, and also a time element. The general rule of thumb is that if I’m tested today, it’s an indication of what happened two days ago.”


Those who test positive may not get back onto the field for at least a couple of weeks. Sills said the NFL has an “obligation” to adhere to guidelines devised by local health officials and the CDC. The NFL’s training camp guidelines, agreed to by the NFLPA this past week, outline that those who test positive and show symptoms will have to quarantine for at least 10 days, and those who are positive and asymptomatic have to quarantine for at least five days and have two negative tests.

Even when a player is clear of the virus, he may not be able to play football so quickly. Jonathan Drezner, a Seahawks team doctor who chaired the NFL-NFLPA task force on COVID-19 treatment and management, said players may need a significant ramp-up time before returning to football activities, especially since there weren’t any practices this spring.

“The recommendation is not to exercise when you are actively affected with the virus, because it can potentially increase the chance that it goes to your heart or lungs,” he said. “So now you have people who are coming out of isolation for 10 to 14 days who need to restart their conditioning and reacclimatization to sports. As much as we’re looking at safety about the virus, there’s also just safety about how you progress appropriately into football for people who haven’t been able to train the way they normally do.”

It probably would make sense for players to arrive to their team cities up to two weeks ahead to quarantine and make sure they will be ready to go for the start of camp. But that likely won’t be the case.


One agent with more than a dozen players said his clients are not arriving to their teams until they absolutely have to. It may lead to more positive tests, but players don’t want to give up their workout routines.

“We’re still waiting for the official word on when camp is actually starting,” the agent said. “And most [players] are not coming early just because they want to make sure they have facilities to work out in all the way up until the team facilities open up for players.”

The NFL faces several daunting challenges as it tries to hold a season amid a pandemic. Making sure the virus doesn’t take hold during the “transition point” at the start of training camp is one of its most important.


Mahomes didn’t need big deal yet

It’s hard to be too critical of Patrick Mahomes’s decision to sign a 12-year contract worth a maximum value of $503 million. Even if he doesn’t collect the entire sum, he’ll still make a lot of money. And if he’s happy with the contract, that’s all that matters.

But after reviewing the details, it does leave me wondering why Mahomes agreed to this contract.

As a 24-year-old franchise quarterback with an MVP and Super Bowl championship on his résumé, Mahomes was always going to get record-setting money on his next contract — especially if he were patient enough to play out the final two years of his rookie deal and hit free agency in 2022.


But Mahomes took the big contract two years early, and he didn’t seem to get the best bang for his buck. Mahomes didn’t get a lot up front, and he gave much of the control of his career over to the Chiefs. Mahomes had time and massive leverage on his side, and didn’t seem to capitalize nearly enough on it.

The trend in today’s NFL is for shorter deals, since NFL revenues are consistently climbing, and shorter contracts give players more bites at free agency and market value. Dak Prescott and the Cowboys are squabbling because Prescott wants a four-year deal, and the Cowboys want five.

Mahomes may be the exception, but players who sign long-term deals, such as Rob Gronkowski and Tyron Smith, usually regret it toward the end, as they lament not having control over their contract.

Now, Mahomes’s contract does make it hard for the Chiefs to release or trade him until at least the mid-2020s, with large bonuses that become guaranteed a year in advance. And he does have a no-trade clause.

But Mahomes also ensured that he will never hit free agency again during his prime years, and will now allow the Chiefs to dictate the latter years of his career. The Chiefs, not Mahomes, now have the leverage when it comes time to release him, or ask for a pay cut or restructure.

Those are significant giveaways by Mahomes in a league that will go back to printing money in a year or two.

Most curiously, Mahomes didn’t get much up front for his trouble. His new deal added just $6 million over the next two years. And it’s going to take him awhile to be paid like the NFL’s top quarterback. Over the next four years, Mahomes will make $103 million, while Ryan Tannehill will make $118 million. Had Mahomes played out his contract then played on two consecutive franchise tags, he would be at least $10 million ahead of the contract he signed.

As pointed out by Joel Corry of CBS, the first new five years (2022-26) average $39.5 million, and the last five years (2027-31), where Mahomes is more at risk of being released, average $50.5 million.

The price tag for the Chiefs is high, but there’s a reason they happily did this deal. The Chiefs got cost certainty at their most important position for the next 12 years, which will allow them to plan their roster and better account for Mahomes’s cap hits. And it didn’t cost much in the present to get it done.

Mahomes did say on a social media video that his contract “allows the team to be great throughout my entire career,” and perhaps this deal will better ensure that the Chiefs can surround Mahomes with talent.

It also allows Mahomes and his agents to market him as the first half-billion-dollar pro athlete, and as the highest-paid NFL player. Mahomes’s new-money average of $45 million per year demolishes the previous record of $35 million by Russell Wilson.

But there really was no rush to do the deal, and Mahomes gave up a lot without getting much in return.


No shortage of Newton notes

Cam Newton will vie for the Patriots' starting quarterback job.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Cam Newton’s contract may be one of the greatest values of all time. He has a minimum base salary of $1.05 million and a cap number of $1.13 million that ranks 50th among NFL quarterbacks.

And per ESPN, the only way for Newton to achieve the full $7.5 million value is if he starts all 16 games, plays 90 percent of the snaps, is named to the Pro Bowl, is named first-team All-Pro, and leads the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory. The Patriots will gladly pay $7.5 million for what would amount to the best quarterback play in the league.

▪ Newton has up to $3.75 million in play-time incentives, and the first threshold is a $250,000 bonus for playing in 13 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.

Why such a specific number? Because Newton played in 12.67 percent of snaps last year, playing two games before a foot injury knocked him out. By setting the bonus level at 13 percent, the Patriots ensured that the bonus is considered “not likely to be earned,” and therefore does not count against their salary cap this year. Whatever incentives Newton earns this year will be reflected in next year’s salary cap.

▪ Longtime NFL coach Norv Turner, who was Newton’s offensive coordinator in Carolina for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, said this past week on San Diego’s XTRA 1360 that his only concern with Newton and his fit in New England is Newton’s health.

“If he’s healthy there was a big upside to it,” Turner said.

Turner said that when he got to Carolina in 2018 he was curious to see how Newton was perceived by the team’s other leaders, including Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen, and Ryan Kalil.

“There wasn’t a guy more respected than Cam,” Turner said. “He knows how to prepare, he knows how to play, he knows how to commit himself to be the best he could be.”

Turner thinks Newton will be a great fit in New England, personality-wise and scheme-wise.

“As I looked at New England, there’s a lot of things that we did that are very similar that they did, so I’m sure they looked and said, ‘He’s thrown these routes, these combinations’ they’re doing,” Turner said. “Cam knows what he’s getting into and he’ll be successful with it.”

Game-day protocols

Jersey swaps like the one seen here between Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (left) and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson won't happen this season under the NFL's new coronavirus protocols.Nick Wass/Associated Press

The NFL released its preseason game-day protocols Thursday, and several players, including Richard Sherman and Deshaun Watson, expressed dismay at some of the rules. Most notably, players will be prohibited from engaging in postgame handshakes or jersey swaps with players on other teams, and everyone in the bench area will be encouraged to socially distance as much as possible. Coaches will also be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

It does seem a little silly for the NFL to ban handshakes and jersey swaps after allowing players to wrestle with and breathe all over each other for a three-hour game. But I understand what the NFL is trying to accomplish, which is to eliminate all unnecessary interactions. Tackling and close contact are necessary to play football. Handshakes and jersey swaps are not.

Not to mention, the rules were agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA. So, if the players have an issue with the rules, they need to take it up with their union leadership.

Extra points

Curious to see if the Patriots adjust Nick Caserio’s job title this year because of the pandemic. As the director of player personnel, he is the de facto general manager, and negotiates many of the team’s contracts. But Caserio is also an on-field coach, using his college quarterbacking background to help out in various ways during practice, and wearing a headset in the coaches’ booth during games. In the NFL’s protocols, GMs are given Tier 2 access, which restricts the amount of contact they can have with the team and their access to certain parts of the team facility. But coaches are given Tier 1 access, which allows them more access and more contact with players. If Caserio wants to still help out at practice and sit in the coaches’ booth during games, he may have to become part of the coaching staff again … Tom Brady revealed this past week that his favorite NFL performance was a 56-10 win over the Bills in 2007, in which Brady threw for 373 yards and five touchdowns while the Patriots scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions. Interestingly, his 146.1 passer rating was only the 13th-best of his career (including playoffs). He compiled a perfect 158.3 rating twice — in a 2007 win over Miami, and a 2010 win over Detroit … It’s long past due for Washington to change its team name, and “Warriors” is reportedly one of the finalists. But owner Dan Snyder should completely disassociate with Native American imagery at this point. The Washington Post reported this past week that “Redwolves” is gaining steam, and would be a much better choice. Redwolves are not only an endangered species, but was also the name of a helicopter squadron in the US Navy Reserve from 1976-2016.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.