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High Time For League To Rethink Rookie Camp Eligibility

The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie minicamp is finally upon us—I assume it’s one of the latest in the league—and that means one thing, of course: complaining about the mechanical restrictions on eligibility. I’m not sure if it’s something that I talk about every year, but maybe it should be, and I will be right now.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, rookie minicamps are primarily for, you know, rookies. Teams all around the league get to hold a three-day introductory practice schedule for their new draft picks and rookie free agents to help them get acclimated to life in the NFL before getting onto the field with veterans.

Starting with the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, it’s also become much easier for teams to bring in players as camp invitees, meaning that while they have not formally signed a contract to a team’s 90-man roster, they are eligible to work with the team during minicamp, and many of these players around the league do end up getting signed to contracts after camp—displacing somebody else on the roster, of course, if the team has its allotted 90 players.

But it’s not just rookies that are eligible to participate. It’s all first-year players, and there are a variety of ways in which players can be classified in that manner. If they went undrafted and unsigned at all, as Will Johnson did the year he declared, he would be a first-year player.

Practice squad players who have never been on a 53-man roster are first-year players. Players who spent less than six games in a single season on a 53-man roster are still considered first-year players. A player could have started a dozen games over three years, hypothetically, and still be a first-year player.

Yet if you’re a rookie who spent your first season in the league on injured reserve, you accrued a season toward free agency, and so you lost your eligibility to participate in rookie minicamp. That is the situation for Keion Adams right now. That was the situation for Jerald Hawkins last year. And Senquez Golson the year before. And Jordan Zumwalt the year before that. and Nick Williams and Nik Embernate the year before that. And Sean Spence the year before that.

In other words, it happens a lot. And I don’t think they are the only players who should be given exceptions. I think all players who are eligible for the practice squad should be given the opportunity to participate in rookie minicamp. These are all players who don’t play much—or at least mostly, since all players with two or fewer accrued seasons are eligible under the current rules.

This is not to pain the situation as though the loss of participation in a three-day minicamp is really setting anybody back, but it really doesn’t make much sense that Lavon Hooks is participating in his fourth rookie minicamp while Adams and others cannot. It’s something that should be looked into in the near future, either in the next CBA or during the annual league rule tweaks.

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