In normal times, National Football League teams sometimes must scramble to find players during the season when a wave of injuries or other issues hit. This year, those needs have been multiplied because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Helping out the 32 NFL teams on a limited scale — for now — is the NFL Alumni Academy, run by Dean Dalton, who coached in the league for seven seasons and, as he says: “Every time I have tried to leave the game, I’ve been pulled back in.”
The academy is at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, right next to the hall itself. Its first class has included 29 players cut in the preseason, and since early last year has undergone the kind of intensive work seen in training camps. An impressive array of teachers such as Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Munoz, and veteran coaches including Mike Tice and Dalton are working to provide another chance for these players, as well as aiding NFL clubs who repeatedly have found themselves shorthanded this season.
“The fundamental thing is we needed to have better NFL-ready players available,” said Dalton, who was with the Minnesota Vikings from 1999 to 2005 and is well connected throughout the league. “In all other pro sports, there is some sort of feeder system or minor or junior league. All the college programs are our feeder system into the draft, but we don’t have an in-season model.”
“It is tough to have a good pipeline of depth in season,” he said. “The saying is true, that ‘championship teams have championship depth.’ The bottom of their roster is a little more talented. When you have the next-man-up program, if your guy is better, you have a chance to play longer into the playoffs.”
Historically, many of the next men up did not initially make it onto an NFL roster. Some of the players who were released after training camp this year are getting the chance to jump the line, in essence, by working at the academy.
For this year, only offensive and defensive linemen, and running backs have been invited. That has proven wise during the pandemic, when the academy is using a bubble approach for all its players, and a modified bubble for the coaches and other personnel.
Dalton and staff make available video workouts of each player to a portal exclusive to NFL personnel departments.
“We would have allowed scouts and personnel people from all 32 teams, we didn’t plan on the quarantining, etc,” Dalton said. “They would have been able to come on campus to do interviews with players just as they do with the draft on college campuses, but this time they are scouting for their team for this week.”
“Our players are evaluated in real time every day, and teams know they are healthy and in shape. And so when they bring them in, they know they are getting guys who football-wise, they are at a higher level,” he said.
Thus far, eight players have been signed to practice squads, though several more have been brought in for workouts by NFL clubs. Everyone at the academy recognizes that being active for a game is a tougher task, what with the different roster rules this year in which teams can have veterans on their practice squads who routinely get the first opportunities to suit up for games.
“The work here is legit,” said Tavien Feaster, a running back who played for the Clemson Tigers and the South Carolina Gamecocks. “The NFL knowledge from the coaches and the intensity of the training make me even more confident that I will succeed in the NFL. I appreciated how quickly the players all bonded during our workouts and how the coaches really teach us about going to the next level.”
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