Every year, hundreds of football players are given the opportunity to join an NFL roster for training camp and the preseason. For many, that’s the only chance they get. Some may spend a couple of training camps in the NFL but quickly see their dream of winning a championship fade away.
These athletes put in hours upon hours just waiting for a chance to show NFL coaches and scouts that they have what it takes to earn a contract at the highest level.
Due to the NFL’s strict protocols for unvaccinated players this season, a twist has been added to the mix for these NFL hopefuls — and it comes down to the decision to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
The NFL’s protocols are such that it is difficult for the unvaccinated players to build camaraderie with their vaccinated teammates even if no outbreak is taking place. Simple tasks like attending team meetings, game planning for the upcoming week, and sitting down for team meals will be objectively much tougher for unvaccinated players this year.
“The unvaccinated players are going to have a harder time this season,” Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said just after the protocols were announced. “When we go on the road, they won’t be able to go out to dinner with anybody. They’ll have to travel on buses differently, travel on planes differently. A lot of the meetings will be virtual like this, so there’s not only the safety part of being vaccinated, but as far as being part of a football team, it’s just going to be so much easier.”
And then, of course, there is the possibility of a positive COVID-19 test, which has happened with the Vikings. When rookie quarterback Kellen Mond tested positive, all unvaccinated players he had been in close contact with had to quarantine and miss valuable practice time with teammates.
While starting quarterback Kirk Cousins and backup Nate Stanley were each unvaccinated and thus had to miss practices, second-year quarterback Jake Browning‘s vaccination status suddenly provided him a massive opportunity.
He was QB1.
Zimmer made sure to note that Browning’s availability was definitely helping him.
Browning was temporarily vaulted to the top of the Vikings’ quarterback depth chart for a week of practices, where he gained invaluable experience and took advantage of the chance to show his talents. He was suddenly at the helm of Minnesota’s first-team offense, which included completed passes to All-Pro wide receiver Adam Thielen and up-and-coming superstar Justin Jefferson and handing the ball off to superstar running back Dalvin Cook.
Additionally, Browning gained valuable experience competing against Minnesota’s first-team defense, which includes several elite players in its own right. And Browning impressed, both with his attitude and his play.
Now, with training camp beginning to wind down and preseason games right around the corner, Browning suddenly has the inside track to the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Cousins. Mond is still recovering from the virus, while Stanley appears to be a longshot to make the team.
Browning was vaccinated when others in his position group weren’t. It provided him with a can’t-miss opportunity that could extend his NFL career. Imagine if the statuses were reversed, and it was Stanley who was vaccinated. He likely would have been given the same opportunity to leap into the No. 2 quarterback spot.
This is important to note as NFL rosters are slimmed down over the next few weeks. It was recently reported that Minnesota has the lowest vaccination rate in the NFL, with just over 64% of players fully vaccinated. Moving forward, if there’s one team that’s most likely to be impacted by another positive COVID-19 test, it’s the Vikings.
Of course, the prominent starting-caliber players don’t have to worry about their roster spots. Cousins is likely the most valuable player on the team. His decision to not get vaccinated won’t hurt his chances of making the team. However, that’s not the case for bubble players trying to earn their spot on the 53-man roster. Every year, coaches agonize over the decisions they are faced with to trim the final roster down to 53 players before the regular season. And almost none of the conversations necessary to cut the roster down are easy.
This year, the added variable of a player’s COVID-19 vaccination status will reduce the sweat and the stress on coaching staffs. If two players are in contention for one roster spot and one is vaccinated, keeping the vaccinated player is a better football decision based on how the NFL’s protocols are set up for the 2021 season.
Browning was given a massive opportunity because he was vaccinated while his teammates were not. And it’s fair to assume a similar scenario will arise when it’s time for Zimmer and his staff to make cuts. If two players are vying for a roster spot, and one is vaccinated, which one will Zimmer choose?