Although nothing is official at this point, earlier this week the NFL proposed not playing any preseason games after lobbying from the NFLPA and the players themselves over safety concerns. Although the league had been mulling reducing the number of preseason games, essentially canceling the preseason would still be somewhat surprising.
What does this mean for the regular season? Does this make it more or less likely teams will be able to play all 16 regular season games? It’s too early to tell at this point. Canceling football games—exhibition or not—is an ominous sign, but this gives players and teams more time to adequately plan for how the regular season would work.
In the meantime, I don’t think fans will really miss the preseason. The games are almost never entertaining, with starters hardly playing in three out of the four games, and are largely meaningless for the majority of the players on the roster. They exist mostly as a moneymaker for the league.
That said, skipping the usual four exhibition games will have an impact on players and teams. Per usual, let’s take a local angle and talk about how this will impact our Arizona Cardinals.
Lost Reps for Rookies
There’s no question that having no preseason games would impact rookies the most. They receive more playing time than veterans, and that first taste of NFL action before the games count for real is invaluable experience. So that likely means that most of our rookie class will be eased into playing time in the regular season. So Josh Jones won’t have any real chance of earning the starting RT job (although it probably wasn’t happening anyway), Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence might not play much right away, and Evan Weaver and Eno Benjamin will almost certainly be relegated to special teams only in 2020. What about our 1st-round pick? Could this mean Isaiah Simmons won’t be a starter come Week 1? Very possibly. Those preseason snaps would have been critical for Vance Joseph to see where he fits best in the defense. So he might play more of a situational role, at least at first. He’ll also face a much tougher uphill battle to become the second-straight Cardinal to win a Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Less Time to Integrate Veteran Additions
Besides rookies, the Redbirds have a ton of new faces for 2020—especially on defense, where there could be as many as half a dozen new starters. Without preseason games, new additions like Jordan Phillips, De’Vondre Campbell, and Devon Kennard won’t get any reps playing alongside the established starters until Week 1. And remember that presumed starting corner Robert Alford didn’t play at all last season due to injury, so he’s essentially a new face as well. That unit might take several weeks to jell—but fortunately the early-season schedule isn’t too daunting, with just a Week 1 trip to San Francisco as a true test for the defense (vs. WAS, vs. DET, at CAR, at NYJ after that). On offense, the only real new face is offseason prize DeAndre Hopkins. I’m not as worried about a pro like him acclimating to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, but a few preseason series would have helped a bit. I’m less worried about the veterans than the rookies, but I’d feel a bit better about the team going to San Francisco in Week 1 if everyone had at least a little time playing actual football together.
More Uncertainty about Position Battles
Although preseason games aren’t the be-all, end-all of position battles, they are still a valuable part of the process as coaches have actual game film to review when making their decisions. Without the usual preseason games (and practices before), Kingsbury and Co. will have less to go on than usual when deciding on the winners of the remaining position battles. Glancing at the current roster, there are still several starting positions up for grabs: center, right tackle, one defensive end spot, and potentially another linebacker or safety spot (depending on what happens with Isaiah Simmons). You can also throw in both kick and punt returner as well. With training camp likely to be abbreviated as well, the coaching staff will have precious little information with which to make their decisions. They might favor familiarity and continuity in that case. That could be good news for the likes of Mason Cole, Justin Murray, and Jonathan Bullard—and bad news for Marcus Gilbert, Lamont Gaillard, and Zach Allen.
Fewer Chances for Guys on the Roster Bubble
Guys that lose the position battles above will still probably make the roster. But players on the roster bubble won’t have as much of a chance to make an impact and perhaps secure a roster spot. In recent years, guys like Kerwynn Williams, Jaron Brown, Olsen Pierre, Josh Mauro, Trent Sherfield, and Justin Murray have shined in the preseason (whether with the Cardinals or another team) and earned a spot of the roster. Now, players like this are hardly superstars, but they still contribute. This year, UDFAs and low-level street free agents face long odds to make the regular season roster. It’s sad to think how many players’ fleeting NFL dreams will be quashed because they didn’t get the chance to prove themselves on the field, even in a meaningless preseason game.
The NFL has actually already canceled one preseason game—the annual Hall of Fame game, which was supposed to be played in two weeks. Will the rest of the preseason games—planned to start in three weeks on August 13—follow suit? We should know soon. But I’m not holding my breath.
While we wait for official word, share your fondest preseason memories in the comments. If you have any. I’m not sure I do, and I’ve been to a few.