One week in the books. Two more weeks of OTAs to come.
The Bills are deep into the busy part of their offseason now. And while it's difficult to convince fans that what happens on the practice field in May is critical to a NFL team's success in the fall, OTAs can certainly help determine which players are on the roster in the fall.
OTAs, or Organized Team Activity, are essentially the NFL version of a college football team's spring practice. They are a fairly recent development in pro football, a voluntary football camp designed to bring veterans back to work on conditioning and installation of new systems, and to indoctrinate the rookies into the world of the NFL.
After an eight year career with the Bills at safety, Mark Kelso is still around the game as the color analyst on the Buffalo Bills Radio Network. Kelso believes the real value in OTAs is what it can mean to the rookies.
"It really helps the young players," he said, in an appearance on The John Murphy Show. "I think there's a real value to the young players –being able to study film, being able to work with the coaching staff, being on the field and seeing what the competition level is, and trying to get up to speed with that competition level."
"I think it's very valuable to the young player, but quite frankly, I think it's annoying to most of the veterans," Kelso said.
During his playing days (1986-93), Kelso said the Bills didn't have OTAs. They did have a three-day weekend minicamp which was voluntary for the players. But until that June minicamp, the players never got together in any organized fashion for workouts.
"Never stepped on the field—not until minicamp," he said. "Minicamp was probably a little more robust, although we didn't do much more. It was pretty watered down."
The biggest difference from Kelso's era to the current offseason setup is that the team has organized the structured workouts. Kelso says when he was a veteran in the league, he preferred having his own workout schedule.
"You like your offseason to be dictated by your own schedule," he said.
That's an opinion echoed by another former Bills Defensive Back. Troy Vincent is now the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the league. But during his playing days, including his three years with the Bills, Vincent was also President of the NFL Players Association. He was very concerned about teams encroaching on the players' offseason free time by scheduling too many "voluntary" workouts.
"It has evolved, especially over the last collective bargaining agreement," Vincent said in an appearance on The John Murphy Show. "Time and time away and how you practice during the offseason—it was evident then and it was important for leadership on the players association side of it to ensure that proper rest and the lack of contact was important."
For young players trying to make the roster, OTAs can be critical. In fact, in 2006, a young small college running back who had been bouncing around Arena Football and NFL Europe leagues made enough of an impression in the Bills minicamp to earn a stint on the practice squad that year.
Eight years later, Fred Jackson is now the third leading rusher in franchise history. Jackson thinks his performance in the 2006 OTAs helped jump start his success with the Bills.
"It was just one of those things I knew I had to take advantage of every opportunity I was going to get," he said. "That meant coming in, stepping right into OTAs, and showing the coaches that I was able to make plays when my name was called, and I knew what the offense was about and where I needed to be and I was going to be able to pick up blitzes—OTAs are the opportunity that I had."
OTAs also provide a young player a chance to show that he belongs on the field as a starter. Last year's second round draft pick, Kiko Alonso, had such a strong showing during the spring, he was on the field immediately as a starting MLB for the Bills when they went to training camp in July.
"It's a chance to pick up the offense, defense special teams, whatever it may be," Jackson says. "They can hit the ground running with it and give the coaches a chance to see you know what you have to do and where you have to be. It's about getting that chance to show them they can rely on you, and that you have been in the playbook and you know what you're doing."
Troy Vincent has the perspective of viewing the Organized Team Activity from a variety of viewpoints: as a player, a union leader, and now a league official. And he agrees with Fred Jackson—the OTAs can be critical for a young player.
"When I came into Miami back in '92, those days in the spring were critical because it was the only time I could get it where I wasn't on the clock," he said. "Now with the way things are set up, and with less time on the field, it's critical. Those young players that take advantage of the time when the veteran is sitting, it's extra reps for the third, fourth and fifth guys on the depth chart in that position."
And for players like a young Fred Jackson eight years ago, it's a chance to make his mark and get the attention of the coaching staff.