An Expert Handicapper's Guide to NFL Training Camps
by Trevor Whenham - 07/09/2008
As hard as it may be to believe, NFL training camps are just around the corner. Soon, multi-millionaire players for teams that still respect tradition will be living in dorm rooms in some sleepy college town, practicing once or twice a day, and getting ready for another year. It's a great time of year. As media scrutiny of the NFL has intensified, though, coverage of training camps have become more and more intense. That's mostly a good thing, but it can also be proof that there is such a thing as too much information. There are some things we hear out of training camps that are important aids to our handicapping process, and others that are absolutely meaningless and misleading. Here's an attempt to help you tell the difference between what training camp coverage to listen to, and which to ignore for your NFL handicapping:
Ignore: Freakish performances
Listen to: Rookies practicing with the first unit
Every year it's the same - some receiver is catching the ball like it's glued to his hands, or some running back is so fast that the defense can't see him, or some defensive end is getting to the quarterback so easily that he will surely end up with 30 sacks. Occasionally, those performances in camp turn into strong seasons, but not usually. More often, the player is long forgotten by the time the season rolls around and the only people that remember how good he looked in August are all the suckers who wasted a pick on him for their fantasy teams. Stories of superhuman performance in camp mean almost nothing. Instead, focus on stories of young players who are playing with the starters. This is a much better sign of a player who is making an impact. It's especially important if those players play a position that is typically filled by a veteran that is still with the team - that means that something s definitely up.
Ignore: A different look on defense in games
Listen to: A different look on defense in practice
Preseason games are meaningless in all regards, but especially on defense. Coordinators don't want to give away any of their tricks, so defensive schemes are as vanilla as they can possibly be. If a team is doing something different in a game than we are used to there is no guarantee that we will see the same thing in the regular season. If there are consistent reports, though that a team is working on something new in practice, then chances are pretty good that opposing offenses are in for a surprise when the season starts.
Ignore: A veteran player skipping a practice or two
Listen to: A veteran player living in the training room
By the time you have been through a few training camps I'm sure the novelty has worn off. If a player sits out a practice we are going to hear about it, and it's easy to assume that he is fighting an injury problem. That's not always the case. Sometimes he just doesn't feel like practicing. Don't assume that an injury might be an issue until you hear reports that a guy has essentially taken up residence in the training room, or that there is some other clear sign of a problem - like crutches.
Ignore: Every statistic from preseason games
Listen to: The tempo and intensity a team plays their preseason games with
Offenses don't use their full playbooks and they don't use their starters for the whole game. Defenses only use a small selection from their bag of tricks, and they don't use a lot of starters, either. It's as close to irrelevant as anything can be how many yards a team passed for, or ran for, or how well the defense did against the run or the pass. Don't get suckered in. What is important, though, is whether the team looks like they are excited to be there. If a team is enjoying themselves, and their coaching staff is getting through to them, then they will play like they want to be there. If camp isn't going as well as it could then that will be reflected on the field as well. Ignore the numbers and look for the subtle clues instead.
Ignore: Everything a coach says
Listen to: How comfortable he looks while he says it
Coaches lie. Even if they don't mean to, it is genetically impossible for a coach to stand in front of a microphone or a tape recorder and tell the whole truth. If you trust their words completely then you are just setting yourself up for a fall. Instead, pay attention to whether they look relaxed, or if they seem confident, or how well rested they seem. For veteran coaches, compare their current demeanor to how they usually are. When it comes to interviews with coaches, the real value comes from looking between the lines.