NFL Pro Bowlers cite safety issues as deterrent to 17th regular-season game

ORLANDO, Fla. -- If the players participating in the Pro Bowl are a true representation of the rest of the league, NFL owners are going to have a fight on their hands during negotiations to potentially add a 17th regular-season game to a new collective bargaining agreement.

Only a few of the players polled at Pro Bowl practices at ESPN's Wide World of Sports this week were receptive to the idea of a 17th game, with most against the idea because of safety concerns.

Defensive end Calais Campbell, the Jacksonville Jaguars' union rep, said he's talked to a lot of players over the past several months and his feeling is that the 17th game could be the biggest sticking point in CBA negotiations and it's going to take a lot of haggling to make it work.

The current collective bargaining agreement between NFL players and owners expires after the 2020 season.

"When I talk to the guys, I don't think many people want to do it," Campbell said. "Really, you talk to guys and I don't think anybody wants to do it. It's going to be very, very tough. I know the ownership's really hard on it. We're definitely talking, trying to figure out what we need to do, how we can make this thing work.

"It's going to be a process, but 17 [games], that's very tough."

It would take significant concessions from owners for the players to consider a 17th game.

Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey suggested dumping all, or the majority of, training camp.

"At the end of the day, it's more paychecks. But at the end of the day, your body gets worn down," Casey said. "Your body goes through a whole lot through this sport. Honestly, if you add more games, you take away something else. If they take away more practices, I guess, more camp, I'd play more games.

"Get rid of those camps and we can do [more] games, baby."

Casey was partly joking because he knows there's no way teams will do away with training camp, but it does show that eliminating one preseason game -- which is one of the things being considered -- isn't enough to get players to agree to an additional game during the regular season.

More money, expanded game-day rosters, an additional bye week, expanded playoffs, guaranteed contracts and a higher percentage of the revenue split between owners and players are among the potential inducements that the league could offer to the players.

"Most of the starters don't play in that last [preseason] game anyway, so if you take away that one preseason game, you're not taking away anything for us," Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said. "You're just adding a game. I'm not for the extra game. I think the game's long enough. It's physical enough, tough enough on people's bodies to play 16 games and also playoffs, so I'm just not for that.

"I understand that it's going to be hard to stop it, but I'm not for increasing the games at all."

Ravens safety Earl Thomas said he's not sure what kind of package the owners could offer that would make players seriously consider approving a 17th game, but Atlanta Falcons tight end Austin Hooper said a second bye week would have to be included.

"I don't have the answers, but I think if the NFL says they care about player safety and tell the parents of kids in youth football how much they care about player safety, then it doesn't make sense to play football without more rest," Hooper said. "So it'll be interesting to see if their actions align with their words.

"... I mean, the NFL is coming under a lot of player scrutiny -- there's a lot of former players taking their own lives and having a lot of issues -- and their answer now is to play more football and have more traumatic brain injuries. If they care as much as they say they do publicly, I feel that they should add another bye week."

An increased risk of injuries was an overwhelming concern of nearly every player asked -- especially among linemen, who are involved in contact every play. Teams averaged 63.5 offensive plays per game in 2019, according to Pro Football Reference, so an additional game would mean roughly 130 more snaps.

"Player safety should be at the forefront of what they're doing," Hooper said. "Because more and more players are put in adverse medical situations and do horrific things. It makes football look bad. And the answer isn't running into each other for another week. So again, I don't have all the answers. I'm just willing to give some insight on the things that I see that I think could be changed. Again, if they want more money, meaning another game, they should add more rest as a part of it."

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter said players want a longer offseason. After the regular season ends in late December, voluntary workouts ramp up all over again in April and are followed by OTAs.

"I would say they need to give us a longer offseason, shorten down OTAs," Hunter said. "If they're gonna do that, make OTAs less weeks -- and give us more bye weeks during the season -- that would be OK with me.

"They've gotta take something away, because the season just ended for me last week. I got 14 weeks until I'm back to football again. The [regular] season is like 16 weeks [plus a bye], plus the preseason -- that's 21 weeks. And then you come back in the offseason for OTAs -- that's another three months -- so 14 weeks is not enough."

Perhaps no players would be impacted more by a 17th game than rookies.

Their first NFL season begins from the moment they either finish their senior season or declare for the draft. There are all-star games such as the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, two months of training for the NFL combine, pro days and a grueling schedule of team visits and workouts. After the draft (or after signing as an undrafted free agent), there are rookie minicamps, organized team activities, mandatory minicamp, training camp, the preseason and the regular season.

Teams also require rookies to remain at the facility for several additional weeks once the veterans are dismissed after the mandatory minicamp.

Their heads are spinning as they try to learn a new offensive or defensive system, figure out the proper way to prepare for games and take care of their bodies. Some guys obviously handle things better than others, but adding another game to the rookies' plate would be "a bloodbath," Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said.

Jaguars defensive end Josh Allen, who led all rookies with 10.5 sacks, agreed.

"We're the ones that are the future, and I feel like if they don't consider us, if they don't consider the rookies' bodies and minds, that's how guys get lost," Allen said. "I guess they say they're going to pay us more, but my body, my mind comes before money. I think about my family. I think about myself. That means a lot. Mental health is really a serious thing and I feel like that can play a part into that.

"... You've got all those different things. It's not just the season. You've got OTAs. You've got minicamp, training camp. You've got preseason. You've got all the things, and then rookies don't have time [to adjust]."