What is the NFL guardian cap and how does it work?

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If you’ve tuned into any NFL training camp coverage, you might be confused why the players look like they’re donning space helmets.

Fear not, the league has no intention of sending players outside Earth’s atmosphere. These cushiony helmets, called guardian caps, are just the NFL’s latest effort to protect players and reduce the risk of concussions and head injuries. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the guardian caps and how they’re being used in the NFL.

What is the NFL guardian cap?

Guardian caps are a soft-shell, padded covering that goes on the outside of the regular NFL helmets. 

Developed by Guardian Sports, the protective attachment can trace its design origins back to a controversial helmet design from the 1990s -- the ProCap. While players like Mark Kelso and Steve Wallace wore the ProCap, it was generally dismissed around the league and pushed into obsolescence.  

Over two decades later, Guardian Sports is finding a more palatable option for the NFL with the guardian cap. The ability to have a detachable protective layer is especially important to gaining support in an industry that’s historically been resistant to change. At just under $60, it is also a more affordable and accessible option to players and teams beyond the NFL.  

How does the NFL guardian cap work?

The guardian caps operate as an airbag, absorbing the majority of a collision and reducing the direct impact on a player’s brain. 

According to the NFL, guardian caps reduce the impact of a collision by at least 10% when one player is wearing the protective gear and at least 20% when both players are.

Guardian Sports also reported that in smaller and slower players, such as at the high school level, the impact reduction could be up to 33%. 

Who is required to wear guardian caps?

Linemen, linebackers and tight ends are all required to wear guardian caps between the start of the training camp contact period and the second preseason game. 

While wearing the guardian caps for these positions is mandated by the league, some teams are extending that requirement throughout the roster. 

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been a particularly strong proponent of the protective measure, requiring players to wear guardians caps before the required period and even donning the clunky headgear himself. 

When was the guardian cap introduced to the NFL?

Guardian caps were invented in 2010, but didn’t make their NFL debut for a decade when the league agreed to move the protective gear from the lab to the on-field experimental phase.

In March 2022, team owners eventually agreed to pass a resolution making guardian caps mandatory for certain positions. 

While the NFL has been hesitant to make the jump, many grade school and high school teams adopted the technology several years ago. 

Will the NFL guardian cap be worn during the regular season?

Fans can expect the regular season fits to proceed as normal…for now. 

The requirement ends at the second preseason game. However, as research continues to emerge about the risks and impact of football, the league will likely face increased pressure to adopt more safety measures throughout the season. 

What do players think of the guardian cap?

Very few people throughout the league are rushing to award the cap style or comfort points, but plenty recognize the value of the protective layer.  

Addressing his team earlier this season, Tomlin gave an impassioned speech on behalf of guardian caps and his personal ownership of the team’s health and safety. 

In addition to Tomlin, NFL head coaches Frank Reich, Ron Rivera and Mike Vrabel spoke out on the importance of implementing guardian caps into training camp.

“Our game is only as good as our players,” Vrabel said. “There’s nothing more important than the health and safety of our players and their family, and not only immediate health, but the long-term health.”

Not every coach is as complimentary of the new requirement. 

Jets head coach Robert Saleh and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, longtime friends who started their careers together as assistants at Central Michigan, both expressed concerns about tackling technique and the transition out of guardian caps heading into the regular season. 

Packers linebacker De’Vondra Campbell echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“I think it’s stupid, to be honest,” Campbell said. “You say you’re doing it to protect us, but the minute we take them off, we’re going to be so used to hitting with them, that when you hit without it, it’s going to feel a lot different.”

In response to this line of criticism, Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, reiterated that the brain doesn’t “acclimate to head impacts.” Rather, the intention of this safety measure is to reduce the risk of injury and repeated impacts during the preseason, “a time of the season when we see the greatest concentration of them.”

Other players, however, have managed to make light of the situation.

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