During the first 14 practices of training camp, the NFL is requiring certain position groups from all 32 teams to wear Guardian Caps, which is a padded shell placed on the outside of helmets. The requirement applies to offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and tight ends.
While this is the first season Guardian Caps are mandatory for some players, they were developed in 2010 and were first worn during NFL practices in 2020. The caps reduce the severity of helmet impact by at least 10%. The severity of helmet impact is reduced by at least 20% when two players who collide are both wearing Guardian Caps.
Bears head equipment manager Tony Medlin praised the players' cooperation with the new requirement. He was pleased with the questions players asked and their desire to learn more about the Guardian Caps.
"Once the players kind of found out what was going on, as it got closer to training camp, I introduced it to the team," Medlin said. "Players are very open to try it. When you mandate something, sometimes guys kind of raise the eyebrow, but in this case it's a little different. I was really, really impressed with how our guys took on this Guardian Cap. When you start talking the word safety, player safety, I think it really rings a bell. Just that word alone has helped a lot of ways. We have the NFL and NFLPA collaborating on all these initiatives on player safety. I think it's changed the whole look of player safety."
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For some players, the Guardian Caps aren't new. Bears defensive lineman Justin Jones wore the cap four years ago in college at North Carolina State, while offensive lineman Cody Whitehair tested it out last year as a trial run.
Whitehair ended up wearing the Guardian Cap in practice throughout the entire 2021 season. He said it wasn't noticeable after a couple days of wearing it. Both Whitehair and Jones have no complaints about the added padding, and they haven't noticed any of their teammates bothered by it either.
"We found out right before training camp that it was going to be mandated, at least for training camp. But I felt like everyone handled it well," Whitehair said. "With a decrease in chances of getting concussions, I mean, they're not 100% preventable, but anytime you can decrease impact to your head, that's a big thing in today's world."
While some colleges and high schools also use Guardian Caps, the ones worn in the NFL are unique to the league. Biomechanical engineers associated with the NFL and NFLPA collaborated with the Guardian Cap company to develop a cap specific to the level of impact sustained at the professional level. Following training camp, the NFL will analyze data collected from the caps then assess how they performed.
The new requirement is another effort to further the advancement of player safety around the league. Increased efforts from the NFL in recent years have made Jones and Whitehair feel more comfortable on the field and with their lives post-football.
"Brain injuries are a real thing when you leave," Jones said. "So being able to take precautions in order to mitigate some of that is really cool. And it gives the players a peace of mind knowing that they have our best interest in that aspect."
Medlin, who has been on the Bears equipment staff since 1987, is also impressed with the continuous efforts made by the league. He's also excited about the increase in collaboration between the NFL and NFLPA in recent years and how that relationship will further player safety.
"The NFL and the NFLPA, with them collaborating together, I think it has helped over the years ,and I just think it's one of the greatest things we can have in our game today," Medlin said. "We have two groups working together to make things better for the athlete. But, you know, the NFL and NFLPA, they collaborate, and they talk about other things other than just helmets, other than just footwear. So, I think it's been outstanding over the years just to see how far we've come to get to this point. When you see a Guardian Cap out on the field, another measure of protecting the athlete, that is huge. I think it's very important."