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Training Camp Debrief: COVID-19 reshaping NFL before season starts

This is usually the column where I break down way-too-early winners and losers from training camp. This is not that column. This is not that training camp.

Instead of padded practices beginning over the weekend, two starting quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford and Gardner Minshew) were placed on a reserve list created last month for a virus that was broadly unknown to humanity last year. On the same date that the Packers held Family Night in a packed Lambeau Field a year ago, Eagles coach Doug Pederson began to self-isolate after contracting COVID-19.

Virtually every aspect of the upcoming season is going to be different, with the events of the last week just the beginning. Players continue to opt out of the season at a steady pace, especially in New England, with longtime captain Devin McCourty indicating more could be coming. He wasn't happy about a report implying that the deadline to opt out of the season could be early this week.

"Monday will be our first day in the building, so to try to act like guys are trying to make a decision about something other than virtual meetings is a joke. When players understand how much power we have, we've seen things change for us; primarily even with this deal, with the COVID-19 and trying to get everything back, we saw some of that strength," he told New England reporters. "Hopefully, we'll see how everything turns out come Wednesday, if it ends up being the deadline. I support guys no matter what they decide, but I'm still out here having fun and figuring things out. So, we'll see how we go."

"Figuring things out" could be the slogan of this season. McCourty's words suggest that organizations still don't yet know who's officially on board for 2020. The growing list of names on the reserve/COVID-19 list also creates a new level of uncertainty that won't go away when players hit the field. Most teams aren't expected to be in full pads until Aug. 17, but the season is expected to start on Sept. 10. From now until then, organizations will be in a sprint to the season without the usual allowances to run.

"It'll be a little different setup, but that's what college teams do every year," Bill Belichick said about the lack of a preseason while talking to reporters on a Friday video call. "I don't think it's anything that's revolutionary here. ... It's just football. That's all. I don't really see it any differently."

In a season of change, it's comforting to know Belichick remains the same. His team, on the other hand ...

Opt-out fallout

1) The Patriots' defense was likely to decline even before losing Dont'a Hightower. No team has been impacted more by players opting out of the season than the Patriots, who have lost three core starters, including two of the four biggest cap figures on the entire team (Hightower and right tackle Marcus Cannon).

Hightower will be the most difficult to replace. The linebacker is Belichick's coach on the field, a player whose instincts, versatility and playing strength were crucial to the 2019 Patriots defense being the franchise's best since its 2001-04 stretch. The Football Outsiders Almanac put together a compelling case that New England lost more value on defense this offseason because of veteran departures than any team in two decades, and that was before Hightower and safety Patrick Chung opted out.

The loss of Chung is not as concerning. His play was declining, and the Patriots have depth at his position, including second-round pick Kyle Dugger. New England's secondary remains one of the best in football, but the front seven is a smorgasbord of young players and role players who will test Belichick's ability to manufacture a pass rush. It's unrealistic to expect the Pats to remain a top-five defense, which will put more pressure on Cam Newton to adapt quickly to Foxborough.

2) The Broncos' offensive line has a familiar problem. After years of striking out in his efforts to fix his O-line, Broncos GM John Elway was entering camp with the best-looking group he's ever had, supplementing last year's promising rookie guard, Dalton Risner, with free-agent OG Graham Glasgow and third-round C Lloyd Cushenberry. While the unit's interior still looks rock solid, Monday's announcement by right tackle Ja'Wuan James that he's opting out is a familiar blow.

James was given $27 million fully guaranteed last offseason to stabilize one of the worst revolving doors in the NFL. He was only able to play three games and had some disagreement with the team regarding his health, and now the Broncos are back to square one with a weak pair of tackles that includes 2017 first-round pick and penalty machine Garett Bolles.

3) C.J. Mosley's decision may have already changed the Jets' 2020 plans. Like James, Mosley's a big-ticket 2019 free-agent item who hasn't seen the field much in his new uniform. His decision to opt out might've already accelerated the Jets' plans at other positions in 2020. One day after the news about Mosley was reported, the Jets cut guard Brian Winters, the longest-tenured member of the team. New York Daily News columnist Manish Mehta notes that the Jets were trying to trade inside linebacker Avery Williamson all offseason. He was at risk of being released, but Mosley's absence could change that. By cutting Winters, the team saves roughly the same amount of cap space as they would have by releasing Williamson.

If healthy, Williamson is a solid player. But the Jets paid Mosley as the top inside linebacker in football and were hoping they found a foundational leader in his prime. With Jamal Adams and Mosley gone, there isn't a position group on the entire roster that looks above-average.

4) Nate Solder's absence speeds up the Giants' youth movement. A segment of the Giants' fanbase wanted the team to start No. 4 overall pick Andrew Thomas at left tackle and third-rounder Matt Peart at right tackle even before Solder opted out. The team has journeyman Cameron Fleming around, too, but the team's turn to rookies is likely to be sped up now. That means the G-Men will have a handful of padded practices to get ready for T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree in Week 1.

5) Damien Williams' absence will open a lot of yards. The Chiefs are well-positioned to survive losing their Super Bowl hero with a first-round pick (Clyde Edwards-Helaire) in place and an RB-friendly offense. But Andy Reid's track record indicates that CEH may not get all the touches fantasy football owners are hoping for. Don't be surprised if Raiders import DeAndre Washington winds up getting a lot of run.

6) Not many nose tackles left: Considering evidence that people with higher body-mass index could be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications, it's notable that at least 25 of the players who have opted out thus far have been defensive linemen. That's roughly half of all opt-outs as of this writing. Many of them have been prominent defensive tackles, especially run-stoppers. Eddie Goldman was one of the best at his position for an excellent Bears defense over the last two years. Michael Pierce was given $9 million fully guaranteed as a centerpiece in Minnesota's rebuilt defensive line. Star Lotulelei was given a big contract in Buffalo in 2018 for a similar reason.

Defenses have been getting lighter every season, and this exodus of true run-stoppers may speed that process up. With the opt-out deadline looming, it's a position to keep an eye on around the league.

Rising COVID-19 numbers

1) Doug Pederson's diagnosis is a warning for the rest of the league. More than 80 players have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, which indicates the individual has either tested positive for the virus or come into close contact with someone who has. At least nine players have already come off the list. But the Eagles head coach's announcement on Sunday that he contracted the virus may have the most far-reaching impact.

Pederson spoke to the media Monday and indicated he's feeling no symptoms and will continue to coach the team as much as possible while he isolates from his colleagues and family. Assistant head coach Duce Staley will help take over, a reminder for teams throughout football that contingency plans need to be in place for all coaches. Pederson said the Eagles have backup plans in place to fill the responsibilities for all assistants. The same plans will have to be made for support staff, as well, especially when any coach or staff member tests positive during the season. It's going to be a big year for backup plans.

2) Matthew Stafford and Gardner Minshew are the first starting QBs to hit the list. Its foolhardy to analyze what Stafford and Minshew's placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list will mean for their teams. No one knows how long they will be sidelined, and the primary hope is that they are healthy, with no lasting medical impact. But their names showing up on the transaction wire this weekend was a reminder that the virus will not care about depth charts or where we're at in the calendar. So much of this season may come down to who is available, and it's unrealistic to believe that NFL players will avoid the virus entirely until the country has it under control.

While many teams haven't had any player test positive, the Lions and Vikings have both already had eight players hit the COVID-19 list. It's hard not to think about what the repercussions would be if a similar cluster impacted any team during the regular season.

Great free agents still available

Jadeveon Clowney looks comfortable waiting this one out. With more players opting out, more teams suddenly have surprise salary-cap space available for the 2020 season. Perhaps free agents like Clowney, Everson Griffen, Logan Ryan and Eric Reid will wind up getting the contracts they desired after all.

Consider a team like New England, which could be interested in adding a pass rusher to the depleted defense. Back when the Patriots signed Cam Newton, they had virtually no cap space. Now, after a series of opt-outs, they suddenly have more than $35 million. Teams may be tempted to roll that savings over into 2021, when the salary cap is likely to be reduced, but there is plenty of cap space available to spend for the unusual number of quality free agents still on the market in August.

As more opt-outs roll in and then injuries strike later in August once practices start, teams could also hit a level of desperation that didn't exist back in March. It's just not going to be like any training camp before.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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