Though training camp is an exciting time for coaches, players and fans (mostly fans), sometimes it’s too easy to get carried away watching highlight-reel catches in scrimmages or logging the completion percentage of the different quarterbacks playing with different teammates. Training camp is absolutely about evaluation and depth chart battles, but the difficult thing is making sure that you know what to watch.
Of course, there’s not really a wrong way to watch camp. In many ways, a lot of what surrounds camp is a PR construction from teams to get hyped up before the season starts. Admitting fans and creating a “Vikings Village” easily accessible for anyone interested in watching the Vikings does exactly that, and there’s nothing at all wrong with indulging it. Football is entertainment, and training camp provides a tantalizing appetizer for the season to come.
But some fans want to dig in and evaluate talent or project how the roster battles are going instead of simply watching playmakers make plays. For that, a little more rigor is necessary. There are things worth paying more attention to, and conversely things worth not getting fooled by.
One on Ones
The single most important evaluation drill is the one that aligns most closely with actual football—defensive linemen vs. offensive linemen one-on-ones. Most other one-on-one battles are good for determining if a player is relatively good at his position, but the defensive line drills in particular provide good insight. In 2013, it provided the first clues that Matt Kalil and John Sullivan were not up to 2012’s standard, and also gave us hints at who would be included at the bottom of the roster—Chase Baker in 2013 and Tom Johnson in 2014 did an excellent job in these drills.
In 2015, the second-worst player was T.J. Clemmings, which shouldn’t surprise many people. 2016 was a bit less predictive, but the best players included Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison. Last year, a number of cuts – including some mild surprises – were at the bottom of the one-on-one list, including Freddie Tagaloa, Datone Jones, Will Sutton and Alex Boone.
It makes sense that these matter; they simply line up a defensive lineman and an offensive lineman and have them go at it, exactly like they would on the field. There doesn’t need to be a science to it, either. One could go into detail about pass-rushing moves and hand technique, but simply seeing who beats who is extremely valuable information.
If you have an opportunity to see the battles in detail, it is useful to see who consistently gets good leverage, whether or not the defensive players have flexibility, who continues to drive through with hip rotation or leg drive, who continues to move their feet, whether or not defensive linemen are dependent on a very small array of moves and so on.
Offensive linemen need to make sure that they strike at the jersey numbers, not outside of the arms or on the shoulder. In more detail, it’s better for offensive linemen to keep their elbows tight to their body instead of flared out, and their thumbs up when striking the numbers. Keeping their toes under their knees while they’re moving in pass pro is good as well, though typically footwork problems will be exposed by the opposing defender pretty quickly.
After that, there’s some good value in watching the receivers play against defensive backs. It’s not always a good determinant because many one-on-ones are simply tests of man coverage and principles that don’t translate into the scheme or full play (2vs3 drills might, however—two receivers against two cornerbacks and a safety).
Nevertheless, it’s a good way to figure out how the Vikings will approach press coverage, and who is best equipped to beat it. It’s also a good way to see who has a good sense of positioning and instinct for winning jump balls.
Often in DB vs WR one-on-ones, the defensive back will know what route the receiver is going to run, and that changes things significantly in terms of evaluation. Reading a receiver is one of the most critical skills a defensive back can have, and it’s not being tested in most one-on-one drills.
Still, one can look at the size of the passing window the defensive back creates to see what they do once they’ve diagnosed the play. Getting beat does not necessarily mean the defensive player did something bad; the quarterback must throw in a situation where he might not otherwise when things are live and he has multiple passing options. Every QB has the ability to thread things into tight windows at least on rare occasions, and he’ll beat good coverage at camp at times. If the throw is necessarily difficult, that might mean much more than if the throw is completed (for evaluation purposes).
There is one red flag: if a defensive back gets beaten by speed at camp, then he may not be long in the NFL. Similarly, if a receiver can’t get off of press coverage in any of the drills, he’ll have trouble cracking the roster.
There is one thing that observers can grab from these drills – press technique. College football notoriously avoids press coverage, so cornerbacks and receivers both miss the experience they need to demonstrate that they can win in those situations.
For receivers, beating press coverage means finding ways to minimize contact. There are a lot of ways that can happen; they can win by swatting away his opponents’ hands and keeping their jersey clean. Other equally effective receivers will dip their shoulders and make their body small.
Defensive backs need to do the opposite – find a way to force receivers to take valuable time keeping clean. That can mean punching the inside or pushing them off route. They’ll usually want to put a hand on the receivers’ close hip. Corners will want to be patient and wait for the receiver to declare their route. They also need maintain eye discipline — usually keeping an eye on the receiver’s hips – at the snap and throughout the route. Hip fakes are the most difficult body fake for a receiver to pull off, but the heads and feet will lie.
For the most part, the one-on-one drill is a good one, but largely incomplete.
There are also pass-blocking and route-running drills between tight ends/safeties and linebackers/running backs. Those provide the least amount of information as far as winning camp battles and determining true talent goes, but that doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant.
One widely shared video outside of the Vikings sphere showed Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey demolishing Luke Kuechly in route. It looked impressive, but linebackers rarely cover running backs without some kind of help on top and in adjacent zones. In a football situation, McCaffrey likely wouldn’t have had that room.
Similarly, observers need to treat what they see in camp with that same critical eye.
Players like Mike Boone need to prove their worth on the field with pass blocking, but a lot of what they need to learn won’t be tested until later in camp in terms of pass protection. Because there is limited contact in camp, it is difficult to tell when off-ball players like tight ends and running backs are very good at pass protection.
The route-running/pass defense drills are useful here, but not nearly as determinative as the WR/DB drills, if only because linebackers and running backs have multiple duties and won’t be in man coverage (or on an island) as often as defensive backs. Conditional zone coverage, off-man coverage and combo coverages will mean fewer opportunities to test the ability of players with how they’ll be used.
The final set of one-on-one drills to pay attention to aren’t “position” drills so much as skill drills. The gunner/jammer drill is good for figuring out who may end up being a critical special teams player down the road and will play a big part in bubble battles. Like the defensive line/offensive line drills, you can generally determine who is good at being a gunner or jammer by who “wins” in each individual drill.
Unlike the position drills, however, relative ability seems to be fluid. Players who are winning early in camp in the gunner/jammer drills may not be winning as often by the end of camp. That phenomenon happens far more with these kinds of drills than in the position drills.
Further, the squeeze/return drills, where two players attempt to contain a returner, tell observers a lot about who might end up earning a spot on the coverage units and how important chemistry can be on special teams.
Remember, the drills that may reveal the most about a player aren’t necessarily the drills that expose the most technique or the easiest to evaluate, but the ones that occur at the end of a long day. Fatigue exposes most what technical failures you might see from players late in games and conditioning issues that need to be resolved if they are to continue playing in the NFL. A poorly conditioned player will not win games.
For individual drills, check out how defensive backs perform in the “W” drill.
The “W” drill is aptly named—defensive backs backpedal to start moving diagonally back to a cone, before planting and driving diagonally forward to another cone, then backpedaling back and driving forward once more, often with another ball drill attached, like a fumble recovery or interception.
The drill doesn’t just test agility and explosion, but also it’s a good time to check technique. If they maintain a good pad level, keeps their footwork clean and stays square, they’re doing a good job.
It’s also useful to take a look at the tackling angles that players take in any number of drills, particularly rookies. You’ll see them peppered in throughout camp.
Receivers running comeback routes and square-in routes will need to make sure that they do so without taking too many steps to stop or turn. A lot of players will start slowing down early or take two or three obvious extra steps at the top of the route stem. It’s also important to see if players start lifting their shoulders up as they get close to the route break. Ideally, players will wait as long as possible so it looks like they are running deep downfield. A phenomenal example of this last year was Laquon Treadwell, who never took too many steps and didn’t lift his pads until the final moment in the route stem.
The drills for defensive linemen, offensive linemen, tight ends, fullbacks and linebackers involving various iterations of blocking sleds are useful, too. Players need to sink their hips and roll forward through them, while keeping their hands square to their body as they punch the dummies. Some of the sleds and blocking dummies allow for movement, which allows coaches and players to work on leg drive.
In particular, linebackers and defensive linemen should lead through blocks with the same foot and shoulder. You won’t find many practices where all defensive players don’t do this, because they know they should; it’s eye-opening when it doesn’t happen. In live games, it will be more difficult for players to follow-through on this, as it can be awkward and unnatural.
When players do not do this, it’s much easier for them to turn through their lead foot, and it becomes a pivot foot.
Watch for all players on both sides of the ball to keep their backs straight in these drills while also sinking their hips in order to get low. The common cliché is that one must “bend at the knees and not the hips” and that’s true, but that’s better as a piece of advice to players than it is for scouting because it’s common to misinterpret the phrase and misdiagnose proper technique as improper—just look for players to get low by sinking their hips and keeping their back straight at the same time.
This allows players to explode through blocks because it stores power that can be uncoiled through the hips and into the opponent.
You’ll hear “low man wins” a lot, but how a player gets low is just as important. If a player leans forward to get underneath a block, they’re unbalanced and can’t control the opponent. Without a foundation that produces a strong kinetic chain, they’ll hit the dirt more than they’ll move the opposite man.
There are other things to keep in mind—making sure they don’t sink too low, driving feet through center mass and so on, but it’s difficult to gauge all of these things with how far away spectators typically are. Specific handwork varies between coaches, so that may not be easy to judge either. Generally, it’s better to strike with the thumbs facing up and elbows kept tight to the body.
For the most part, however, just check for players maintaining an even line and getting low with balance.
Seeing which players continue to maintain form while generating pop (usually through a fluid uncoil) gives you some idea of which players are mastering some of the fundamentals that can get ignored in college or are missing throughout camp. Players at the professional level can miss fundamentals, like a wide base, a flat back and footwork.
One last thing: Zimmer prides his defenses on everyone using the same technique—he wants them to “look like twins” in individual drills. If you see a player who is out of sync or looks a little bit off in these drills, they are probably doing it wrong. Then again, you may hear enough yelling from the coaches to clue you in anyway.
There isn’t a lot of advice to give about watching team scrimmages, other than to pay more attention to repeatable fundamentals than play outcomes. A 20-yard touchdown run because two defensive players slipped isn’t necessarily a good play for the offense, just a bad one for the defense.
It’s even less meaningful if it occurred because the running back wouldn’t acknowledge the play was over and the defenders have given up trying to “tackle” him.
A highlight catch from a receiver can actually be worse for the offense or the receiver because of the process used to get there—applause for a difficult catch is fun, but often the receiver himself made the catch difficult by being off of his spot or falling down earlier. Instead, smart route-running and good hands-technique produce better receivers more sustainably.
Further, a running back’s vision is far more important than the yardage they gain on the six or so plays they’ll get in full contact on any particular day. This is a fairly difficult thing to evaluate in camp; it usually takes the eye-in-the-sky cameras to really capture anything of note from a running back on a running play.
Most importantly, paying attention to context is important. It’s not useful to learn that a quarterback went 3-for-9 or 8-for-9 if they both failed the same amount within the context of a drill. For example, there were warning signs to watch out for when Christian Ponder completed pass after pass in camp but continued to fail in advancing the ball—he threw 8-for-9 on a day when he converted on third down once in those nine attempts. The completion rate was not a sign of success, but was widely reported.
Paying attention to down markers (specifically, the marker that tells you what down it is) is a critical part of looking at team exercises.
One final thing to pay attention to: special teams. Keeping track of who are on the first and second special teams units (kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return) is a nice cheat guide to predicting the final roster.
Check out the rest of the training camp guide:
Sam Ekstrom’s Position Battles
Sitting Brian O’Neill: Have “Developmental” Day Two Offensive Linemen Succeeded?
Pay Attention to Tryout Players
Can Kirk Cousins Be the Savior? (COMING SOON)