CHARLOTTE — When Panthers head coach Matt Rhule walked off the field Wednesday to close the team's on-field minicamp work, he knew there was a new NFL policy on COVID-19 vaccination protocols. He didn't know the specifics at that moment, but he knew one thing for sure.
"There's clearly going to be a benefit to have vaccinated players and be at a point where you don't have to have the same regimen we'd have otherwise," Rhule said. "It's clearly going to be a competitive advantage to have teams that are more vaccinated than less vaccinated. I don't tell anybody, 'Hey, do it,' I tell our team it's better for our team if you're vaccinated."
The policy and protocols agreed to by the league and the NFLPA spell out a number of key differences in how vaccinated and unvaccinated players and staff can move around the workplace. The entire memo can be viewed here.
Among the changes, there will be no daily testing for those fully vaccinated, and they aren't required to wear masks. They can also eat together in the team cafeteria, and gather with other players in and out of the facility.
Unvaccinated players are subject to restrictions when the team travels, including being required to remain in the team hotel instead of venturing out for meals. They're also prohibited from attending indoor concerts or other events, and are still subject to a mandatory five-day isolation if they come in close contact with a person who tests positive.
In short, the experience will be close to normal for vaccinated players and staff, still very restrictive for those who are not.
Rhule wouldn't specify a number of how many team personnel or players had been vaccinated, but emphasized the benefits.
"The way I would couch it, I don't ever tell anyone else what to do," Rhule said. "I encourage our players; I encourage our team to get vaccinated. We've certainly given our players a lot of information. We presented it as this is what we'd like the team to do, but at the same time, it's a personal decision for each guy. . . .
"I've been focused on the goal of where we want to get to, and hopefully we're going to get there."
The topic is a sensitive one for many players, and quarterback Sam Darnold said he wanted to keep his status "personal" after mentioning earlier this month he hadn't been vaccinated.
But Darnold also acknowledged the importance of players being available to their team, and said that was a factor as he evaluated things.
"Yeah, absolutely," Darnold said. "I'm personally weighing those decisions every day. That definitely plays a huge part in it."
WRAPPING IT UP
The Panthers finished the on-field portion of the offseason program with a practice heavy on situational drills.
There was a lot of detail on down-and-distance, clock situations, and the number of timeouts. The goal is to keep players aware of the small things, as they work through the rest of the season.
Rhule said since there's so much emphasis on installing the base offense and defense this time of year, having that kind of specific work was good for the team.
For instance, he explained his reasoning for extending the practice by one play.
On what was supposed to be a game-ending field goal situation, veteran defensive tackle DaQuan Jones used a correct technique, while some of the younger players around him did not. So Rhule called up the team, reset the situation, and had kicker Joey Slye try again before they went off into the break before training camp. Slye hit the field goal, and the linemen did their jobs appropriately, so they were able to leave on a high note.
MOST IMPROVED UNIT
The Panthers have had wholesale changes throughout the roster this offseason, but Rhule said he was especially impressed with the way the cornerback group looks now.
It certainly should, considering the amount of resources poured into it — with the addition of free agents A.J. Bouye and Rashaan Melvin, and drafting Jaycee Horn in the first round to join incumbent starter Donte Jackson.
"Positionally, probably corner stands out to me because we brought so many guys in," Rhule said. "Rashaan Melvin's had a really good camp, A.J. Bouye has had a really good camp. We have the young guys who are learning as they go, Donte is growing as a player; I like the things Donte has done.
"So corner has been a position that stands out to me in terms of making some steps."
After they finished next-to-last in the league in defensive third-down conversion percentage last year, it needed to be a priority, and the work appears to have paid off so far.
— They still have a conditioning test Thursday, but players won't practice again until they report to Spartanburg for training camp. It will be much hotter there, so the kind of pleasant weather they've enjoyed so far will be the kind of thing they remember fondly.
— There were still a number of passes being batted down at the line of scrimmage, which are at least partially a function of offensive linemen not being able to block defenders. But Darnold admitted it was something he had to look at, and consider moving around the pocket or adjusting his arm angle if it continued to be a problem.
— While it wasn't a "competitive" practice, players still take the results seriously. Linebacker Denzel Perryman dropped to the ground and started doing push-ups to punish himself for not intercepting one tipped pass.
- Rhule let running back Christian McCaffrey and linebacker Shaq Thompson help coach for the late stages of Wednesday's work, allowing the veterans to call the timeouts for their respective sides.
— Defensive end Frank Herron left practice on a cart after an apparent injury, and there was no immediate word on his status. The Panthers were already without defensive ends Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, and Morgan Fox, so depth was a temporary concern. Those three are expected to be healthy by the time training camp starts.
View photos from Wednesday's minicamp practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.