Numbers game: Shrinking roster size having growing ramifications
Navigating the pitfalls of training camp is a numbers game for NFL teams, but this year a degree of difficulty has been added that has wide-ranging ramifications in the eyes of the league's coaches and personnel decision-makers: The new 80-man training camp roster limit.
"New'' is not entirely accurate. In reality, the 80-player camp roster has been with us for a while now. But what is novel in 2008 is that with the recent elimination of NFL Europa -- and amid a backdrop of the league's looming opt-out of the collective bargaining agreement -- there will be no more camp roster exemptions for the players who had been assigned to that spring developmental league. The average team was able to carry at least six extra players in camp due to those roster exemptions, and the difference between those numbers and the 80-man limit is not insignificant.
You may not have heard much hue and cry yet about the freezing of the camp rosters at 80, but trust us, you will. The league's football people are already up in arms about the owners' strictly financial decision this spring to limit the size of rosters, and by August the issue is expected to come to a full summertime boil.
"It's a real story, a real issue for teams,'' one veteran AFC general manager told me this week. "It's going to have a ripple effect in a lot of directions. Teams are going to have to suck it up and make some tough choices because of it. It's going to be different than it ever has been.''
The potential ripple effect that will be spawned by the simmering controversy threatens to impact everything from the amount of throwing starting quarterbacks may be forced to do in camp, to the elevated playing time and risk of injury for veterans this preseason, to the decreased opportunity that rookies will receive in their bids to make an NFL regular-season roster.
One prime example of the difficult internal roster decisions that are now unfolding revolves around the issue of how many specialists teams can afford to bring to camp. Before this year, standard operating procedure was to bring two kickers, two punters and two long-snappers to camp. That's a luxury not likely to continue at the 80-man limit. Rather than necessarily searching for the best available talent at those positions, teams are prizing versatility above all else. If you're a punter who can also kick off, or a kicker who can handle some punting duties at least in the preseason, your chances to receive an invite to an NFL camp have risen significantly.
"We're not taking a second snapper to camp,'' said Baltimore executive vice president/general manager Ozzie Newsome. "We know it's going to be tough at certain positions. Teams are all looking for that punter who can kick off, or a kicker who can punt. Anything that helps you save a roster spot. There are positions where you've got to have extra bodies because you need fresh legs to practice.''
Gary Zauner, a former Vikings, Ravens and Cardinals special teams coach, is now a Phoenix-based special teams consultant who trains kickers, punters and snappers and helps them find roster spots within professional football. Several NFL teams have contacted him this spring seeking candidates for double duty in camp, rather than the top-rated prospect at any one particular position.
"They're no longer taking the best guy, they're taking the guy who is the most convenient for them given the 80-man limit,'' Zauner said. "To me, it's just a case where the NFL didn't look at this decision long enough. Everybody's trying to maximize the combination guy rather than the true specialists. Teams are saying get me a kicker who can punt, or a punter who can field goal kick and kick off. But the guys they're bringing in aren't as quality as they can be. Almost no one is bringing in two of everything this year. You need two kickers, two punters and two snappers to get through camp and get guys some rest. It's going to be a problem unless it's addressed.''
But special teams isn't the only segment of an NFL roster that may wind up bearing the brunt of the shortage of bodies this summer.
"It's going to affect older players,'' the AFC general manager said. "Because older players that need to have rest and need to be managed through the preseason are going to have to practice more. Coaches are going to say, 'I don't want to sign this guy. He can only do one-a-days in camp, or he'll need a day off twice a week. I won't be able to practice.' Older, veteran teams are going to be impacted.''
Get ready for a fresh round of debate on the necessity of a four-game preseason schedule as well, league sources say, because with starters needing to play more in those August exhibition games due to the reduction in the number of camp bodies, there will be more injuries suffered by regulars. And that will get everyone focused on the camp-roster issue.
"The preseason games are really going to be impacted, because I think you're going to see more players that you don't want to see injured in preseason games injured,'' the AFC general manager said. "Because they had to play more. And when those guys start getting hurt, there's going to be an outcry about it and the whole preseason-game issue will resurface.
"It's only six players, but every player really counts. Young coaches are really going to get tested in how they manage practices and games. You're not going to have the extra set of legs around to give the veteran offensive linemen the day off, to give the veteran receivers the day off. A lot of coaches won't think it through enough and they'll try to just suck it up.''