PITTSBURGH — Najee Harris made headlines during the weekend at Steelers training camp even before he had his first carry in pads. It was not a headline that he or the team welcomed.
Harris was photographed at practice wearing a yellow wristband, indicating that he has not started or completed the COVID-19 vaccination process. The NFL has ordered its teams to identify players who are not vaccinated, and the Steelers merely were following protocol with Harris' yellow wristband.
The league has a good reason for its mandate and is absolutely right for issuing it: Its revenue dropped from $16 billion in 2019 to $12 billion last year because of the pandemic, according to Sports Business Journal. It is so determined to do better financially this season that it is all but threatening players to get vaccinated. It is clear the teams will cut marginal players — Harris is safe because he's a No. 1 draft pick with stardom likely ahead of him — if they don't comply. The NFL feels so strongly about this that it's even is willing to ostracize unvaccinated players from their teammates. It is hoping the teammates turn up the pressure on the unvaccinated.
"We do not agree to the [wristbands] and think they are unnecessary," NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said in a statement Monday.
Apparently, the NFL doesn't care what the NFLPA thinks about this issue.
Nor should it.
Non-playing personnel — that includes coaches — are required to be vaccinated. Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison and New England Patriots co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich lost their jobs — at least temporarily — because of the COVID-19 issue.
More than 75% of the players have at least started the vaccination process. That number is believed to be much higher with the Steelers, even though Harris wasn't the only player wearing a yellow wrist band during the weekend. By all accounts, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has been very persuasive when it comes to the vaccines. That's because he knows there is a competitive advantage involved.
Protocols from last season have been greatly eased for vaccinated players. They can eat in the team cafeteria, work out in unlimited numbers in the weight room and meet in-person with their coaches.
But unvaccinated players must follow the same protocols from a year ago. That means they can't attend meetings with their coaches and teammates. They have to do so virtually.
All league personnel are required to wear contact-tracing devices while at training camp.
Players and teams can be fined for violations of COVID-19 protocols, same as last season.
The NFL knows that even vaccinated players and staff members can test positive for the virus, primarily because of the delta variant. ESPN reported Monday that four players and 13 staffers have tested positive since the camps opened despite being vaccinated. The Indianapolis Colts announced Monday that head coach Frank Reich tested positive, although he is asymptomatic.
Here's the difference between the way the NFL looks at positive tests among unvaccinated and vaccinated personnel:
An unvaccinated player who tests positive must isolate for at least 10 days. A vaccinated, asymptomatic player can return to the team after two negative tests that are at least 24 hours apart and does not have to isolate for the full 10 days.
The NFL believes a fully vaccinated player faces much less risk of COVID-19, at least less risk of becoming seriously ill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99.5% of COVID-19 deaths over the past six months occurred in unvaccinated people, and 97% of the people entering hospitals were unvaccinated.
Clearly, the NFL believes a vaccinated player will get back in the lineup quicker if he does get the virus without his performance being negatively affected.
That's where the competitive advantage comes in.
The NFL sent out a memo last week telling its clubs that it will not extend the season if there is a COVID-19 outbreak and will forfeit games instead. Players on both teams in a forfeited game won't be paid.
It should be noted the league did not have to forfeit games last season despite major virus outbreaks among the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens. What the league hopes is that its pressure on the players to be vaccinated will prevent a repeat of the Steelers and Ravens having to play a game on a Wednesday afternoon at 3:40 p.m., as they did last season.
"The threat of missed game checks is matched by the threat of lost revenue to NFL owners, so we all have a vested interest in playing another complete season," Tretter wrote.
No, there won't be any forfeits this season. That is safe to say.
That doesn't mean the NFL's strong message to its players isn't as clear as it can be:
"Be a good teammate. Get vaccinated."
2022 NFL mock draft: Way-too-early projections
7. Atlanta (66/1) — Christian Harris, LB, Alabama
Harris had 79 tackles — one behind Dylan Moses for the team lead — 4.5 sacks and an interception as a sophomore. Top needs: RB, Edge, LB
8. N.Y. Giants (66/1) — Drake Jackson, Edge, USC
Jackson can play in space or rush the passer off the edge. In 2019, he was the first true freshman to start a season opener for the Trojans on the defensive line since Everson Griffen in 2007 (and just the second since Tim Ryan in 1986). Top needs: OL, Edge, S
10. Philadelphia (50/1) — Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Elam took a step back after an impressive freshman campaign in 2019. He'll be hard to pass on as a 6-foot-2 corner with elite ball skills if he can fine-tune his technique and become a more reliable tackler. Top needs: CB, LB, OL
11. N.Y. Giants from Chicago (50/1) — Zion Nelson, OT, Miami
The 6-foot-5, 315 pound Nelson has developed into one of the premier pass blockers in college football. Top needs: OL, Edge, S
12. Carolina (50/1) — Evan Neal, OL, Alabama
The massive Neal — he's 6-foot-7, 360 pounds — played right guard as a freshman for the Crimson Tide before moving to right tackle in 2020. He'll replace first-round pick Alex Leatherwood at left tackle next season. Top needs: OL, LB, S
14. Arizona (40/1) — Charles Cross, OT, Mississippi State
Cross is a powerful blocker who can do damage at the second level in the run game with premium athleticism and his target-lock awareness. Top-10 is a possibility if he develops as a pass protector. Top needs: OT, Edge, TE
15. Minnesota (40/1) — Josh Jobe, CB, Alabama
Jobe would have been a day two pick had he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, but he decided to return to Tuscaloosa for a little bit more seasoning. Top needs: CB, S, WR
16. New England (30/1) — Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
The Mission Hills product shunned millions of dollars to come back for his senior season in Columbus and will likely be a top-three prospect at the position in 2022. Top needs: WR, CB, OL
19. Tennessee (25/1) — Cade Mays, OL, Tennessee
Mays has the talent and size (6-6, 325) to play all five positions on the offensive line. He's likely the most refined blocker in college football. Top needs: WR, LB, OL
20. Dallas (25/1) — Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Michigan
Hutchinson suffered season-ending ankle surgery in 2020, but he was disruptive as a sophomore in 2019. He produced 4.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, six pass deflections and two forced fumbles. Top needs: Edge, OL, S
21. Cleveland (25/1) — Xavier Thomas, Edge, Clemson
This projection is based on Thomas' special talent, but he has to stay healthy and develop consistency. Top needs: Edge, WR, DT
23. N.Y. Jets from Seattle (22/1) — Rasheed Walker, OT, Penn State
Walker would have heard his name called had he declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, but his current developmental trajectory puts him as one of the first offensive lineman off the board in 2022. Top needs: CB, TE, S
24. Indianapolis (20/1) — Jon Metchie, WR, Alabama
Metchie could be the fifth Alabama wide receiver selected in the first round in three years. He had 916 yards on 55 receptions and six touchdowns in an offense dominated by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris. He'll be Bryce Young's clear-cut number one target in the fall. Top needs: OT, WR, CB
25. New Orleans (18/1) — Jordan Davis, DT, Georgia
Davis would've likely been the first defensive tackle selected this year had he left school — Christian Barmore was selected by the Patriots in the second round with the 38th overall pick. Top needs: WR, DT, QB
27. Baltimore (12/1) — Tyler Linderbaum, C, Iowa
Linderbaum was recruited as a defensive lineman, but switched to the offensive line during bowl prep of his freshman season and has never looked back. He heads into the fall as the top center in college football. Top needs: OT, DL, C
28. Buffalo (12/1) — Sevyn Banks, CB, Ohio State
Every starting cornerback for the Buckeyes since 2013 have been drafted — seven in the first round. Banks has the physical traits and skillset to keep the party going. Top needs: CB, LB, WR
30. Tampa Bay (10/1) — George Karlaftis, Edge, Purdue
The pandemic limited Karlaftis to only three games last fall (he still had two sacks), but he was an AP Freshman All-American in 2019 after producing 7.5 sacks with 17 tackles for loss as a true freshman. Top needs: DL, WR, CB
31. Green Bay (9/1) — Perrion Winfrey, DT, Oklahoma
Winfrey's quickness makes him a disruptive force on the interior. He'll be the anchor of a potentially dominant Sooners defense this season. Top needs: LB, WR, DL