Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Geoff Schwartz
- There are two types of NFL players in the preseason: Ones on the roster bubble and ones with guaranteed spots.
- I was on the bubble for most of my first six seasons in the league.
- Here's an insider's perspective on both experiences.
I’ve been irrationally excited about the NFL preseason, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you feel the same way.
There are two different preseason experiences for players, though. And as a veteran of nine training camps, I’m going to give y’all an inside look at both.
The ‘Player A’ Experience
Training camps are an intense three weeks of preparation. And while it isn’t what it used to be, it’s still a mental and physical grind.
Days run from 7 am until as late as 10 pm for at least six days a week. There’s a practice and a walk through each day, with meetings, lifting, rehab, prehab, eating and down time in between.
The first piece of advice I give rookies is to learn the playbook. And not only for their own position — which is tough enough — but for every other position, including on the opposite side of the ball. Being fluid with the playbook and schemes is never more important than it is for the first of two NFL players in the preseason: The one fighting for a roster spot.
I Was ‘Player A’ My First Six Seasons
I was in a constant battle to earn a roster spot or to keep one I thought I already had. I felt I needed to be perfect every day at practice. I was hard on myself and stressed out over every little mistake, no matter how big or small, because I thought each one was another step closer to being cut.
A mental error is even worse than a physical error — which, humble brag, I rarely had. It’s one of the reasons I played for so long. Mental errors cost you practice time and game reps. They reflect poorly not only on you but also on your position coach. He’s not going to give you reps if you make him look bad.
So, how do you master the playbook?
You study. At night after meetings. By taking diligent notes (I did my whole career). By asking for help from veterans or coaches. Always paying attention to adjustments on the field and coaching points given to older players. By trying to learn what other positions on the field do, although that takes until your second or third season to master.
Preseason Games Actually Matter for ‘Player A’
Preseason games should be treated like the Super Bowl. The eye in the sky doesn’t lie, and you need that eye to show some positives on the field. No technique errors and no mental mistakes. You have to finish every play.
One thing coaches stress before the first preseason game is to play well to earn a spot not only on their team but also possibly another team. Each team has 53 final roster spots, but not every team will like 53 guys who are already in their organization. Teams will watch preseason film and identify players to add from other rosters if they’re released.
I learned the importance of this my final training camp, even though I already knew it.
It was in Detroit, and I was coming off two injury-filled seasons in New York, during which time I started 13 of 32 games. I signed with the Lions to get some preseason film to prove I was healthy.
I played only 15-20 snaps in the first preseason game, and then I was held out the next game less than a week later because my ankle was sore. The third game was 10 days later in Baltimore. I practiced all week and was excited since my ankle was feeling good. I knew I’d play the entire second half at a minimum, and I was getting fired up at halftime when my offensive line coach pulled me aside and informed me I wasn’t going to play. Without a reason.
I was upset. I needed those reps to show I was healthy and could play. Without them, I wouldn’t even get a change to get picked up.
Unfortunately, I was right. The Lions released me the next day, and I didn’t get a whiff of attention for months until I retired. Having those reps was a must.
That’s the importance of the preseason for players fighting for a roster spot.
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The ‘Player B’ Experience
If you’re the second of two types of NFL players in the preseason, that means you have a roster spot and all of the above doesn’t matter.
You use the preseason to hone your technique and build up calluses for the season. You might work on this or that in practice, because getting beat while working on new techniques isn’t a big deal to the coaches since they know you can play.
Mastering the playbook is done. You know the offense or defense, even if it’s a new scheme. You understand football by now, or at least you should.
Preseason games are for working on techniques. The only goal is not to get injured. Plain and simple.
The biggest difference between Player A and Player B in training camp is mental peace of mind.
When you’re fighting for that roster spot, you’re always fearful of being released. When you’re starting, your mind is at ease. There’s no worrying after mistakes or poor performances. You just want to get to the regular season as soon as possible.