NFL offseason practices are held in helmets and shorts — no pads — and are glorified 7-on-7 sessions where coaches focus on installing concepts and players focus on technique. What’s more, these practices are also voluntary.
Most players attend to stay in the good graces of their teams, but the league’s big-name non-quarterbacks sometimes skip these sessions, called organized team activities. On Tuesday, three of the Chiefs’ best defensive players — safety Eric Berry, outside linebacker Justin Houston and cornerback Marcus Peters — were absent for the first of 10 full-squad offseason practices.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid is not scheduled to speak with the media until Thursday, and the club did not give any official explanation for their absences, other than to say that these practices are, again, voluntary. But if the Chiefs players who spoke to the media Tuesday had a problem with their absences, none dared say it explictly.
“The stuff’s all voluntary — you’re going to get the company line here,” quarterback Alex Smith said with a laugh. “They’re veterans, they’ve all played at a really high level. They’re not here right now and we’ve got to go.
“Certainly, I think there will be times in the season where stuff like that happens and the next guy’s got to play. Those guys that are here need to take advantage of those reps.”
Receiver Jeremy Maclin, one of the team’s postseason captains in 2015, agreed.
“That’s not really my place to say anything about it,” Maclin said. “We’re working. Whenever those guys get here, we’ll welcome them with open arms. Clearly those are three big parts of our defense, but at the same time, those younger guys right now are getting reps.”
This is not the first time Houston and Berry have missed OTAs. Players with injuries and/or unsettled contract situations sometimes sit out OTAs, and while Houston and Berry have each been rewarded with rich, long-term contracts recently, they both have had to contend with injuries and franchise tags, as well.
Houston skipped OTAs in 2014 as he angled for a new deal, and he responded with a monster 22-sack season. And when he was slapped with the franchise tag the following winter, he skipped them again before landing a lucative six-year, $100 million etxension in the summer of 2015. Houston was on pace for another Pro Bowl season, recording 7 1/2 sacks in 11 games, until he suffered a knee injury that required offseason surgery.
Houston, 28, did not practice during OTAs last year while recuperating from surgery, but Reid stated then that Houston was in the building rehabbing, and he could occasionally be seen doing light drills on the practice field.
Houston continued to battle knee issues throughout the 2016 season, but when asked about Houston’s health in mid-April, Reid said he was doing well.
Berry, meanwhile, missed OTAs in 2015 as he beat lymphoma and again in 2016, when he was franchise-tagged. Both years, Berry, 28, underwent a rigorous offseason program in Florida, returned to the team during training camp in excellent shape and went on to have outstanding Pro Bowl and All-Pro seasons.
His teammates expect him to be ready to do so once again, especially after landing a six-year, $78 million extension this offseason.
“With him, the last two years, that’s kind of been the game, right? Especially with the franchise tag,” said Smith, who was long expressed his respect for Berry, a fellow captain. “I know he’s working. I know he’ll come in ready to roll.”
Peters, meanwhile, is one of the game’s best young corners, a first-round pick in 2015 who, like Berry, is the only Chief to make the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams in 2015 and 2016. The 24-year old Peters wears the passion he plays the game with on his sleeve, and teammates are confident he will also be ready to go when needed, even if the absent players don’t show up until the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp, which will be held June 14-16.
“Those guys are clearly leaders on the field and off the field,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said. “We know that they’re going to put in the time and work, so when they get back, we know their presence will be felt.”