With plans for a full Bank of America Stadium, Carolina Panthers training camp returning to Wofford College and coaches no longer wearing masks outside at practice, the NFL continues to move closer to a 2021 season resembling pre-pandemic times.
The impact of COVID-19 in the NFL, however, is still being felt, including player vaccination rates around the league. There are no requirements for coaches, staff members or players to be vaccinated, but there are strong incentives to doing so.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold shared Wednesday that he is among the players who have not yet been vaccinated.
“I still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it,” Darnold said. “Again, it’s everyone’s choice whether they want to get vaccinated or not. So, that’s really all I got on it. I don’t want to go too into detail.
“ ... I’m just staying by myself right now. I don’t have a family or anything like that ... I’m gonna evaluate that on my own and make the best decision that I feel like, again, is the best for myself.”
Players that are inoculated only have to get tested for COVID-19 once a week, no longer have to wear masks inside the facility, do not have to quarantine for contact-tracing and will not have any restrictions related to travel.
Those who are not vaccinated still have to test daily, wear masks at the facility, be subject to physical distancing, quarantine after possibly exposure and will have travel restrictions, including not being able to see family and friends on the road.
Head coach Matt Rhule said last month that the entire Panthers coaching staff was either in the midst of getting their vaccines or were already vaccinated, including himself.
“We did it for family reasons, but also because we want to make sure that we keep our players safe,” Rhule said.
The NFL and NFL Player’s Association have not yet set an exact threshold for the percentage of players vaccinated on a team needed to relax the protocols entirely. Many teams expect to still have regulations in place for training camp and it can be considered a competitive advantage to have more players vaccinated due to the loosening of protocols.
“I don’t tell anybody what to do. It’s their personal decision,” Rhule said. “As with any topic in life, I would say ... do your research, but do it from the right sources. Talk to doctors, talk to your doctor, talk to our doctors, talk to whomever. Obviously, making sure that our guys understand the difference between being vaccinated and being non-vaccinated. There are differences in the protocols, there will be differences in training camp.
“... It’s my job to give people information, and let them make decisions. Not much beyond that.”
A Panthers spokesperson declined comment when asked directly the percentage of players on the team currently vaccinated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Studies show that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at keeping you from getting COVID-19. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine will also help keep you from getting seriously ill even if you do get COVID-19.”
Panthers kicker Joey Slye decided to get vaccinated based on the advice of the doctors at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, who treated his brother, A.J., before he died of leukemia in 2014.
“I had my doubts at certain points about the vaccine and the virus and understanding just kind of how everything’s transpired over the last year or so,” Slye said. “When (the doctors at St. Jude’s) gave me the A-OK ... it was kind of a no-brainer for me to go ahead and get it.”
Notes from OTAs
▪ Panthers wide receiver Robby Anderson was absent from a third straight week of voluntary organized team activities. Outside lineback Haason Reddick, tight end Dan Arnold and first-round pick cornerback Jaycee Horn were also not at practice. Horn and the three other Panthers players selected in the first three rounds of the draft remained unsigned.
Rookie wide receiver Shi Smith, offensive lineman Cam Erving and defensive lineman Morgan Fox were among the players limited in practice, joining a group of about eight teammates who have been limited previously in OTAs, including defenders Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn and tackle Trent Scott.
▪ Chinn is expected to have a different role with the Panthers this season and has been working with the safeties as opposed to by himself with defensive run game coordinator Al Holcomb in position group meetings.
This year, he will be moving around on the field in a different way.
“Last year, we used (Chinn) from the front (to the) back, and I think he’s going to be a little bit more from the back up, but a lot of the same things he can do,” Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “Based on what we’re calling, we’ve got to utilize him and maximize him. (An) example: To not blitz Jeremy wouldn’t be very smart, would it? I mean, he’s fast and big. We’ve got to still implement a lot of things, but just do it in a different way.”
▪ The Panthers have finalized two days of practice with the Indianapolis Colts prior to the Aug. 15 preseason game in Indianapolis to give the team more live reps.
▪ Wide receiver Ishmael Hyman spent most of last year on the Panthers’ practice squad, but he had no trouble being noticed during Wednesday’s practice. Hyman thudded against the padded wall surrounding the outdoor practice fields when catching a pass from quarterback Will Grier. He was a bit shaken up and checked out by head athletic trainer Kevin King.
Despite the noisy crash, he then put back on his helmet and made a solid grab before the day was over. His efforts are being noticed, especially given the extra opportunities with Anderson absent.
“I think (Hyman’s) really improving and has put two or three really nice days together,” Rhule said. “Ish has done a nice job showing what he can do. I think all those guys have had some good moments, Ventell (Bryant) and (Omar) Bayless, but Ish is a guy that the last few days has stood out.”
Rhule also mentioned receivers Brandon Zylstra and Keith Kirkwood as “sturdy” players.
▪ Tight end Ian Thomas had a bit of a rough start to team drills during practice. He jumped early and was called out for a false start. He then had to run around the entire practice field as a punishment.
▪ The lack of consistency at left tackle for the Panthers since Jordan Gross’ retirement after the 2013 season has been well documented. With Erving and Scott (offseason shoulder surgery) out due to injuries, there was an especially short supply of options at the position during practice Wednesday. So, a familiar presence on the other side of the line, right tackle Taylor Moton took a few snaps at left tackle.
Moton has been a consistent presence at right tackle the last three years, outside of starting on the left side for the first two games of the 2018 season. But don’t expect a long-term change.
“We’re just giving him some reps,” Rhule said. “Just like the right guard sometimes plays left guard. Taylor’s a great guy, he wants to always challenge himself, so he’s trying to do new things.”
▪ Special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn said that the team may bring in another kicker to try out during the team’s mandatory three-day minicamp next week. Blackburn said he has been pleased with Slye‘s offseason and the way that he has been performing. Kicker is the only spot on the roster with no competition after waiving former Oklahoma State kicker Matt Ammendola following rookie minicamp.
Slye made his first two kicks during the team’s two-minute drills with crowd noise at the end of practice, except a 63-yard attempt that bounced off the upright.
“The kick today I hit pretty pure, it was like three quarters up on the upright when it hit the upright. I had like a left-to-right wind,” Slye said. “... I’ve been hitting some bombs recently.”