How NFL training camps will work in 2021: Answering big questions around new COVID-19 protocols, rules for unvaccinated players

NFL training camps this summer will be unlike any other in league history. They'll represent a hybrid between the tightly restricted version we saw in 2020, as the league began its journey through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the traditional structure from 2019 and earlier.

Fans will be allowed at camp, but they must stay at least 20 feet away from players and can't seek autographs. Teams can return to their off-site locations, but only if they can duplicate protocol requirements implemented at their primary facilities. Players can eat together in the team cafeteria, and coaches can meet in person -- but only if they are fully vaccinated.

Vaccination status will be a top story throughout the summer, especially after the NFL warned last week of potential forfeits and loss of game checks if unvaccinated players prompt an outbreak during the regular season. The league has made clear that life for unvaccinated players, coaches and staff will be difficult, to say the least, and the immediate futures of at least two assistant coaches -- Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach/running game coordinator Rick Dennison and New England Patriots co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich -- are uncertain because of vaccine issues.

As of Friday, however, nearly 100% of non-player football staff members -- known as Tier 1 and Tier 2 -- were vaccinated, according to league data. More than 80% of players on training camp rosters had received at least one dose of the regimen.

Let's take a closer look at what to expect over the next six weeks, a time period that will include the return of joint practices and preseason games after a one-year absence.

What's the schedule this week?

Veterans for 29 of the 32 teams will report Tuesday, with the first opportunity to practice on Wednesday. The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers reported last week because they are scheduled to play the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 5. So did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will open the regular season early (Sept. 9) against the Cowboys.

Will players jump right into full pads?

No. The current collective bargaining agreement -- signed last year -- limits the first week of camp. The first day is deemed a conditioning day. Days 2-3 are no-contact, with players wearing helmets. Players can add shells on Days 4-5, still without contact, and are off on Day 6. Full-pad practices with contact can begin on Day 7.

Do players still have to pass multiple COVID-19 tests to get into the team facility?

No. Players who are fully vaccinated are only obligated to test once every 14 days, and the exact day is at the discretion of the team. Unvaccinated players will be required undergo a rapid PCR test, known as Mesa, each day upon arrival at camp. For the first four days, those players will not be allowed to enter the facility until the test is returned as negative. Mesa tests can be returned in as fast as 20 minutes. Starting with the fifth day, those players can enter the facility and engage in all activities before learning the result.

What will happen if there is a positive test?

Again, it depends on vaccination status.

An unvaccinated player who tests positive will follow the same protocols as 2020. He must isolate for at least 10 days, whether or not he has symptoms. If asymptomatic, he can likely return after that time. If he has symptoms, he would isolate 10 days plus 24 hours after the last day he recorded a fever.

Fully vaccinated asymptomatic players can return to camp after two negative tests that are at least 24 hours apart, even if that occurs before the 10-day isolation period is over. Since NFL personnel returned to work, four players and 13 staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Contract tracing will occur for every positive test, vaccinated or not. All personnel will be required to wear Kinexon tracing devices when at the training facility. Unvaccinated players will also be required to isolate for five days -- even if they have tested negative -- if they are found to have a "high-risk" exposure to an infected person.

All players who test positive will be placed on the COVID-19 list, which allows teams to replace them on the active roster. Eight players were placed on the list over the weekend, including New York Giants receiver Kadarius Toney, a first-round draft pick.

What qualifies as fully vaccinated?

Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the NFL considers someone to be fully vaccinated if they are two weeks past the final shot of their regimen. Following up on new research, the NFL also added a second definition: A person is fully vaccinated if they are two weeks past their first shot (of Pfizer or Moderna) and had a previous COVID-19 infection.

What other differences will there be for vaccinated and unvaccinated players at camp?

A bunch. The easiest way to think of it is that unvaccinated players will endure the same protocols as at 2020 training camps, while vaccinated players will face almost none of them. In many circumstances, it will be like having two teams of players. It will separate them for meetings, team travel and work in the weight room.

Here is a handy side-by-side cheat sheet:

How will teams know who is vaccinated?

Players must inform teams of their status, to be recorded in a database, but that still leaves a difficult practical matter to consider. The NFL has asked each team to find a way -- via a wristband, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are doing, or something like it -- to visually distinguish fully vaccinated players from those who are not. An easy identification will allow teams to enforce the two sets of protocols.

That sounds like a pain for teams. Can they just cut the unvaccinated players?

Not solely because of their vaccination status. The NFL's official notice of termination, as described in the CBA, offers teams five reasons to legally release a player:

  • Poor physical conditioning

  • Failure to disclose a physical or mental condition

  • A deterioration of skill

  • Personal conduct that adversely affects the team

  • An expectation of a smaller contribution than other players who are available

With that said, teams will almost certainly take into consideration a player's vaccination status when weighing roster options. And it will be especially important when signing free agents or considering trades. Note what prominent agent David Canter tweeted late last week:

What about fines?

Vaccines aren't mandatory, so NFL teams can't fine players for declining.

They can, however, fine players for failing to abide by the COVID-19 protocols that apply to their status, such as a failure to submit to testing or not wearing a contact-tracing device, in a carryover of a policy implemented in 2020. Teams can fine players up to $14,650 for a first offense. In 2020, for example, the Washington Football Team fined former quarterback Dwayne Haskins $4,833 for a violation related to the team hotel.

Teams can also be fined for failing to follow protocol. The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens were fined $350,000 and $250,000, respectively, for their roles in outbreaks that caused changes to last season's game schedule.

How are players reacting to all of this?

The numbers show that, whether they're happy about it or not, four out of every five NFL players have at least started the vaccination process. A relative handful of players have pushed back publicly, most notably Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley, who was active on Twitter over the summer and recently tweeted that NFL COVID-19 rules won't make players safer and are designed simply to keep games from being canceled.

What about the assistant coaches who have lost their jobs?

Coaches and other support staff fall under a different category. They're not part of a union and not protected by a CBA. But unvaccinated Tier 1 or Tier 2 employees can't participate in meetings, on-field activities or interact with players. They can apply for a religious or medical vaccine exemption.

Late last week, ESPN reported that Dennison had become the first assistant coach known to part ways with his team after refusing to be vaccinated. In a statement, the Vikings said they were still in discussions with Dennison about the league's COVID-19 protocols. The Patriots' Popovich won't work this season because of vaccine issues, according to multiple reports and confirmed by ESPN.

Isn't there a vaccine threshold that would drop these protocols for everyone on a team?

Not yet. There has been widespread speculation that certain requirements would be relaxed if and when a team hits the 85% full vaccination rate, as has been applied in other professional sports. But as of Friday, the league and the NFLPA were still negotiating that possibility. So for now, even the unvaccinated players on teams with rates of 90% and higher are subject to full 2020 protocols.

So what's the bottom line here? Will there be a direct correlation between vaccination rates and the success of training camp?

The NFL has certainly set it up that way, assuming you agree that a successful camp can be measured in large part by maximum participation and health of the players. Full vaccination reduces a player's chance of an infection that would force him to miss time and all but eliminates the chance of a severe illness that could affect his performance. And even if he does test positive, the return-to-play protocol for vaccinated players can be much quicker.

There are also less direct elements to judge, including the extent to which teams and position players can meet in person versus joining virtually. It might not directly be reflected in wins and losses, and it's worth noting that many teams played at a high level last season despite crushing COVID-19 infections and restrictions. But after setting up an intentionally uneven playing field, teams are highly incentivized to maximize their vaccine compliance.