Bills safety Jordan Poyer had a quick request for the media this past week at the start of his Zoom call.
“Real quick, before we start, I’m not going to be answering questions about vaccines,” Poyer said on Wednesday.
Poyer, entering his ninth NFL season, made the request because the Bills’ hesitancy to get vaccinated has been a hot topic. Receiver Cole Beasley posted a series of tweets questioning the efficacy of vaccines and masks. Quarterback Josh Allen declined to say whether he will get one. Poyer’s wife, Instagram model Rachel Bush, is outspoken on social media in her beliefs against masks and vaccines.
“I’m concerned about it. I’m being very upfront,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said of the lack of vaccinated players in his locker room.
The NFL hasn’t said how many of the league’s 2,880 players are vaccinated, but anecdotally, the Bills aren’t the only team having trouble. One AFC player said about 50 percent of players on his team are vaccinated. Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker said that getting the vaccine isn’t the best choice for him. Two agents representing several dozen players estimated that less than half of the league’s players have gotten at least one shot.
Since it takes six weeks for a player to be fully vaccinated (unless they get the one Johnson & Johnson shot), a player needs to get his first shot by the middle of June in order to be fully cleared for the start of training camp in late July.
“Man oh man, it’s been hard to get my clients to get vaccinated,” said longtime agent David Canter, who represents about four dozen players. “Guys are going to do what they’re going to do. They’ve never been guys who are going to kowtow to whatever the public or whatever coach wants them to do, unless their job is on the line.”
Officially, teams can’t release or trade a player because he won’t get vaccinated. The NFL is requiring all coaches and football staff to get the shot, but it remains optional for players. Bills general manager Brandon Beane got in trouble with the NFL and NFL Players Association last month for saying that he would consider a player’s vaccination status when deciding whether to cut him.
“Our labor agreement is pretty clear on what grounds you can and can’t release a player for, and there is not a requirement that players be vaccinated,” NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said via Sports Business Journal.
But Beane just made the mistake of saying the quiet part out loud. The NFL has provided so many incentives for players to get vaccinated that it’s only natural that vaccination status will play a factor in roster cuts.
Consider that unvaccinated players still have to get tested every day; wear masks at the facility; have to sit out at least five days if they are a high-risk close contact of an infected individual; sit out for probably multiple weeks if they get COVID-19; can’t participate in meetings; can’t leave the hotel or see family during travel; and can’t leave their home city on bye weekends.
In May, several unvaccinated Browns players had to be sent home from the facility because they were high-risk close contacts. That’s not a big deal in the offseason but would be a major problem during the season — especially if your opponent doesn’t have to deal with the same issues.
As of late May, fully vaccinated players only have to get tested once per week, don’t have to wear masks, don’t have to miss practices or games, don’t have travel restrictions, can do in-person marketing opportunities, and basically can return to pre-pandemic life.
“The moral of the story is get vaccinated and things can return to close to normal,” a source from the league office said.
The NFL is also negotiating with the NFLPA the threshold at which a team can drop its COVID protocols completely. One number being considered is if 85 percent of players get vaccinated.
So while teams can’t officially cut a player because of vaccination status, it is bound to happen. Who is the team going to keep — the vaccinated player who doesn’t have to worry about COVID, or the unvaccinated player who is constantly at risk of missing a week or more of football at any time? If a team is at 83 percent vaccination, won’t it naturally consider getting rid of a few holdouts so it can put an end to COVID protocols?
“There is a lot of peer pressure to get the shot,” the AFC player said. “All of the coaches are encouraging it. They have people at the facility daily handing out shots. I think we’ll get to the 85 percent.”
One agent who asked not to be named said he notices more rookies and roster-bubble players getting vaccinated than established stars.
“I’m not going to force them to get the vaccine,” the agent said of his clients. “But especially the rookies, the guys that are borderline, if you want to increase your chances of making the roster you should get [the vaccine]. It’s pretty cut and dried.”
However, many players still aren’t convinced that getting a vaccine is important or safe, nor do they like being told what to do.
“It’s similar to showing up for workouts vs. not, with some veteran leaders who are really adamant about it,” the agent said. “It’s really a peer pressure thing. Some teams have a bunch of guys that are getting it, some teams have leaders who are like, ‘Coaches can’t tell me what to do, the government can’t tell me what to do.’ And the other players follow.”
NBC’s Peter King reported last weekend that one team has about 65 of 90 players getting vaccinated. Bill Belichick said Friday that he couldn’t put a percentage on the number of Patriots players who got vaccinated, but “we’ve got quite a few guys” and “the number is increasing.”
“I was kind of against it before, but I’ve seen a lot of people pass away [from COVID],” Patriots special teamer Brandon King said in May. “At this point I’d rather take a risk with the vaccination than exposing someone or someone’s family member.”
Getting vaccinated seems pretty obvious for the players. It removes all daily restrictions and ensures they won’t have to miss playing time because of COVID-19.
Yet the NFL is struggling to get enough players on board.
“We’re having conversations as a team,” Allen said. “I’m going to keep those conversations and choices of myself and my teammates in-house.”
Edelman gives look
behind Patriots’ curtain
Now that Julian Edelman is retired, he is no longer bound by Bill Belichick’s code of silence. Appearing on the podcast of former teammate Chris Long this past week, Edelman shared more insight on the Patriots in one hour than I heard from him in eight years of covering the team.
Edelman joked that he’s still “in fighting shape” but reiterated that he’s done with football.
“Right now I have no thoughts of going back,” he said. “I can’t. My knee is pretty jacked up. I could go out and run right now and it would feel great, but if I would compound five days a week, two weeks, three weeks . . . I don’t feel like dealing with that. I’ve gone past the fence.”
Among his other revelations:
▪ The bye week during the first weekend of the NFL playoffs is time to rest up and get guys healthy, right? Not necessarily in Foxborough. Edelman shared that in the 2015 playoffs (the year the Patriots beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl), Belichick had his team conduct a full-speed scrimmage on the bye week.
“There was a snowstorm, it was frozen over at the practice fields, we had to go into the stadium, and we’re having a full-on blue-and-white scrimmage a week before the playoffs start,” Edelman said. “Guys are like ‘Braveheart’ out there. We’re splitting up teams, this and that. I’m like, ‘What are we doing?’ ”
▪ Belichick has one hard-and-fast rule about social media — no pictures inside Gillette Stadium, or even the parking lot, Edelman mused.
“Guys would [mess] that up all the time,” Long said. “A rookie did a selfie — ‘I’m at home at Patriot Place!’ — a nice little benign post. That [post] was taken down so fast.”
“I would be at my locker, and . . . all of a sudden you’d see little Berj [Najarian, Patriots director of football/head coach administration], walk in. ‘Hey, Bill wants to see you,’ ” Edelman said.
“Never good news,” Long said.
▪ Edelman said what annoys Tom Brady the most as a quarterback is when receivers round off their routes and aren’t precise.
“His biggest pet peeve is if you didn’t come flat-to-downhill on an out-breaking route. Or in-cuts, if you didn’t go flat-to-downhill, if guys rounded it and it got undercut,” Edelman said. “As a quarterback, I remember throwing to guys — if a guy didn’t come flat-to-downhill, he wasn’t protecting the throw.”
Edelman noted that he watched every Buccaneers game last year because he was injured and Tampa Bay was always on TV.
▪ Edelman said he never wants to coach because of the time commitment. He said he has seen the Patriots’ coaches do “drive-through visits” with their families.
“I put 14 hours a day in as a player, then you see coaches that probably put in another five hours,” Edelman said. “When you’re leaving the facility and you’re seeing the coach in the parking lot with his family in his car, who had to come see him at his little dinner break before they have 9 o’clock [meetings]. I’ve seen guys playing catch with their kids in the parking lot.
“I can’t do that, and that’s why you tip your hat to guys in New England that have put in so much time.”
Edelman said he wouldn’t even be able to coach on another team, just because he knows how hard the Patriots’ coaches will be working.
“I know it’s not like that everywhere, but the fact that I have that in my head, that some group is doing that, then I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I was on another coaching staff,” he said.
▪ The Patriots’ Week 4 game against the Chiefs was an anxious time for the players. They had a small COVID breakout, they were barred from the team facility, the schedule kept changing every hour, and the game was ultimately pushed back by about 27 hours.
That led to an unusual training session for Edelman, who lives in the Back Bay.
“I had to keep my knee moving,” Edelman said. “So I had to go out to the Esplanade in Boston, and I had to like jog on Sunday because they postponed the game. I’m over here in my cleats jogging in public over in Boston Common.”
▪ Finally, Belichick is famous for squirting practice footballs with water to make them slick and help improve the players’ ball security. But apparently he goes to even greater lengths.
“He has these balls that he greases with silicone,” Edelman said. “Literally you can’t use gloves, you can’t pick up the ball, it’s so slick. [Then] you got coaches in freaking boxing gloves trying to take them out.”
most of opportunities
Rex Burkhead’s four-year tenure with the Patriots came to an end this past week when he signed a deal with the Texans. Burkhead had a tough time staying healthy, missing 23 games over four years, but he was efficient when in the lineup.
Burkhead only played in 20 percent of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in his four seasons, but he scored 18 touchdowns in 41 games (11 rushing, seven receiving). Burkhead’s 0.44 touchdowns per game from 2017-20 ranks 41st among NFL players.
Burkhead also scored those 18 touchdowns on just 349 touches, or 5.16 percent. That ranks 11th-best among NFL running backs over the past four years.
Interestingly, current Patriot Brandon Bolden leads NFL running backs in this category, with seven touchdowns on just 49 touches (14.7 percent).
Burkhead added three touchdowns in the Patriots’ 2018 postseason run, including the winning score in overtime against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. It’s a shame he couldn’t stay on the field more, because Burkhead had impressive versatility as a runner, receiver, and special teams player.
Brady finally got what he was looking for
The Buccaneers have given Tom Brady everything he ever wanted — and couldn’t get from the Patriots.
They rolled out the red carpet for Brady last spring and gave him two years fully guaranteed. They signed his buddies Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown. They adapted their playbook for him. They let him do as much social media and off-field branding as he wants. They let Alex Guerrero have free reign of their facility and sideline. They have no issue with Brady skipping offseason workouts and throwing with guys on his own.
Now we learn that Bruce Arians let Brady scout receivers in the draft, too.
Arians told “The Rich Eisen Show” that he said to Brady, “Look at these receivers and see if there is something you like.”
“He did great,” Arians said of Brady. “There are certain things he likes. He likes really good, big, fast receivers.”
Though the Buccaneers eventually drafted receiver 5-foot-8-inch slot receiver Jaelon Darden in the fourth round.
The Packers have mandatory minicamp this coming week, and for Aaron Rodgers (or any player who skips it), he incurs a fine of $15,515 for missing the first day, $31,030 for the second day, and $46,540 for the third day, for a total of $93,085. Of course, that money is a drop in the bucket for Rodgers, and means little if Rodgers wants to send a message to Packers management. The far more important date is the start of training camp — Rodgers will be fined $50,000 for every day of camp that he holds out, and full game checks of $864,000 for every preseason game he skips … The Jaguars announced plans this past week for a massive public-private development around their stadium and downtown Jacksonville. The plans include a Four Seasons hotel and residences, a 42,000-square-foot orthopedic sports medicine complex, improvements to a local marina, and a new football performance center for the Jaguars that was a big condition for new coach Urban Meyer when he signed on in January. These plans exhibit significant commitments from the city to the Jaguars and vice versa, and should finally squash those rumors of the team wanting to relocate to London … Broncos defensive end Dre’Mont Jones was asked this past week how the team is handling the quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. “I don’t give a [expletive],” Jones said. “Whoever’s the quarterback is the quarterback.” Put it on a T-shirt … The USFL, which lasted from 1983-85, announced it is coming back as a spring league in 2022. Considering Fox holds the broadcast rights, perhaps former New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump will get involved.