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Concerns over physical health of players rise during pandemic

This coming Monday, a handful of NFL team facilities were supposed to open to players for the start of offseason workouts. Instead, the doors will remain closed for the foreseeable future, leading to increasing questions about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on players' mental and physical health but also their wallets.

Unlike the last time there was no official offseason program -- the 2011 lockout -- players are stuck at home with nowhere to go. For the most part, they can't go to gyms or independent workout facilities to get the full work they need to begin preparing for an NFL season. There is a concern from teams, league executives and the NFLPA that the physical health of the players is set to suffer drastically in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, sources say teams have already had to turn away players who arrived at their facilities, either because they were unaware of the guidelines the league recently put in place or consciously disregarded the rules. Their routine has been disrupted, and many worry how players will be able to handle extended quarantines, particularly since the structured period of their offseason was supposed to start soon.

This week, the co-chairs of the NFL-NFLPA Joint Behavioral Health Committee sent an email to all active players with information on maintaining physical and mental health.

"Establish a routine and try to stick to it," the email advised. "Though the normal cycle of the season has been disrupted, you can still train while social distancing."

There have already been discussions between the league's management council and the players' union regarding how to navigate this unusual offseason.

During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, NFL executive vice president/general counsel Jeff Pash said there are ongoing talks regarding what the league's spring program would entail if teams can't get back inside their buildings in advance of training camp. Pash noted there most certainly will be a "virtual" element, which is expected to involve teleconferenced team meetings with coaches and players but also could include a form of physical activity for the players, with strength and conditioning coaches already designing workout programs to be communicated and coordinated electronically.

Teams usually provide players with an offseason workout handbook for the time between the end of the season to the start of spring workouts. One general manager said his club will have to provide an updated regimen for players now that it's clear they won't be in the building this month.

"The tough thing is they can't throw or do anything on the field together," the GM said. "Nothing is ideal right now."

Teams are hopeful states will loosen the social-distancing guidelines soon enough to allow for a shortened offseason program in May or June.

There's also talk of a multi-week ramp-up period in late June through mid-July that would roll right into training camp. The thought is that period would serve as a mini-offseason program to help players get in shape so there wouldn't be an overabundance of injuries in camp.

The physical health of the players is a concern the NFLPA has already expressed, with one source saying the union doesn't want "guys going from zero to a hundred right away." Teams are also aware there might have to be a conditioning program that precedes training camp, no matter when that winds up occurring.

For now, the attention of many players and agents has shifted to the first sizeable chunk of money that's suddenly in question. Namely, roughly $36 million in workout bonuses league wide.

Players such as Packers linebackers Za'Darius Smith ($750,000 workout bonus) and Preston Smith ($650,000), 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ($600,000) and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ($500,000), were slated to start earning big checks soon. In total, the Packers have $5.52 million tied to workout bonuses, while the Bills' players can earn more than $3.4 million combined, and the Chiefs, Bengals, Panthers and Raiders are set to pay out more than $2.7 million each. (Nine teams don't have any workout bonuses on the books).

In their discussions about how to handle the offseason, the league and NFLPA have talked about how workout bonuses might be earned, sources say. One proposal is for them to be tied to participation in the virtual meetings or workouts in the coming weeks. There's also the possibility they could be earned during the proposed ramp-up period before camp.

In the meantime, players who rely upon their daily stipends are set to suffer.

Under the collective bargaining agreement, players were set to earn $235 per day they participate in offseason workouts. While that's pocket change for someone such as Garoppolo or Cousins, players on rookie or veteran-minimum deals with no workout bonuses and no guaranteed money rely on the roughly $7,500 they would earn over nine weeks of workouts and OTAs. Multiplied over 90 players and 32 teams, that's upward of $20 million slated for players' pockets that's currently in limbo.

Of course, these figures will be dwarfed by the millions lost if portions of the regular season are lost. No one seems ready to start talking about those scenarios, with Pash saying this week the league plans to start on time and play all 17 weeks. But even he acknowledged no one seems to know what even the near future holds.

While the sides wait, they're attempting to control what they can control, and that is the health and safety of the players so that, whenever the season does begin, they can be in the best possible mental and physical shape to start playing.

Follow Mike Garafolo on Twitter @MikeGarafolo.

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