Numbers game: Shrinking roster size having growing ramifications

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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.''

In addition, a team that went deep into the playoffs last season, and perhaps suffered some injuries doing it, may be at an even more severe disadvantage under the 80-man camp roster limit. Consider the Patriots at the start of camp in 2007, coming off their run to the previous AFC title game. New England had defensive end Richard Seymour and receiver Chad Jackson starting camp on the preseason physically unable to perform list, and safety Rodney Harrison was suspended by the league late in the preseason for violating the league's substance abuse policy. All three players counted against the team's 80-man camp roster, shrinking the Patriots' pool of available players even further.

"Players who had offseason surgery and start camp on PUP, not being able to practice really hurt you now,'' said the AFC general manager. "That becomes a big problem with fewer roster spots available. I know we're going with one kicker and one long-snapper in camp this year, and we've always had two of each in the past. Maybe you go with one fewer quarterback, one less arm in camp. That means your starter is throwing more. That's one thing that everybody loved about NFL Europa, the quarterback exemption you got from it. But having one less arm in camp, one less quarterback to develop, that's a big thing. This thing goes in a lot of different directions.''

The impetus behind the owners' move to freeze rosters at 80 is the cost savings they realize from having fewer players in camp, especially given that teams were reportedly losing roughly $1 million per year on NFL Europa. More importantly, with team owners trying to build the case that their profit margins are surprisingly thin given the nation's economic downturn, and that the players received too much of the financial pie in the 2006 CBA settlement, they're in no mood to send the signal that another half-dozen camp roster spots per team is negotiable.

That's why the owners at the league's annual meeting last month in Palm Beach, Fla., tabled both a proposal by Tampa Bay to increase rosters to 90 at the beginning of camp, and an NFL management council proposal to make 86 players the operative limit at the start of the preseason. Both proposals remain on the agenda for further discussion at this month's spring owners meeting in Atlanta (May 19-21), but league sources tell me that no one sees much likelihood of the owners reversing their position before serious CBA talks resume with the NFL players union over the course of the next year or two.

"We hear it's a bargaining chip in the next round of CBA negotiations,'' said one league executive. "The 80-man camp roster is going to be a two or three-year problem that will have to be dealt with by everyone, because the owners can't just give the union jobs and not get anything in return for it. Getting camp rosters back where they were before will be part of any new CBA deal that eventually gets done.''

Football people within the NFL rightly believe it's a pretty short-sighted approach by league owners, because the downside costs of limiting camp rosters to 80 could far outweigh the meager savings of slicing six bodies from a team's preseason contingent. During the preseason, rookies only make about $1,000 per week, so the cost of carrying six more collegiate free agents is minimal compared to the risk of having to pay off multiple players with injury settlements brought on by short-handed teams not being able to patiently wait while a player recovers from a preseason injury.

"If a guy has a four or five-day hamstring injury, and you've got two guys hurt at that position, you're probably going to have to make an injury settlement with one of them and go find another body in order to conduct practice,'' Newsome said. "That's the reality this year.''

With NFL teams carrying an average of 86 players at the start of camp last year, that's 192 players (32 teams, at six each) who won't be invited to compete for roster jobs this summer. Those 192 jobs eventually will be used as leverage with the union, which always fights for more opportunities for players, but teams this year won't have that pool of potential injury replacements on hand at the start of camp.

"The young coaches who aren't careful about how they practice are really going to have some problems,'' said the veteran AFC general manager. "You're going to have to give guys injury settlements really quickly in order to get fresh legs in there to practice, and that's not going to be good for the team or the players.

"Not only is there the expense of the injury settlements, but for that one player, it eliminates the possibility of re-signing with that team for quite a while. Let's say a player agrees to a four-week injury settlement. On top of that you have to add the six weeks that he's not allowed to re-sign with you for, and now you're talking 10 weeks before that player can come back to you. That's going to hurt in some cases.''

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, fully representing the wishes of the league's owners in this case, dismissed the concerns with the size of camp rosters at last month's annual meeting.

"Coaches would have rosters that, literally -- it used to be 120 or 130,'' Goodell said. "There were no limits on it. I think it's just trying to keep the game competitive, and make sure that everybody's operating at the same level -- that 80 was sufficient. Yes, we've had exemptions from NFL Europa players, but that 80 was sufficient for what we were trying to do from a competitive standpoint and from a business standpoint.''

But coaches and personnel men in the league aren't focused on the "business standpoint.'' They're going to be left dealing with the real-life consequences of trying to construct a regular-season roster, and they're going to have less of a margin of error in that process than in the recent past.

Teams that are known for giving undrafted players a legitimate shot to make their roster will also feel the impact of having fewer roster spots in camp. The Colts are perhaps foremost on that list, and both head coach Tony Dungy and general manager Bill Polian have been outspoken in their opposition to the 80-man roster limit.

"I think we had six guys (from our) Super Bowl (team in 2006) who were collegiate free agents and played prominent roles,'' said Dungy last month, himself a former undrafted free agent who made the Pittsburgh Steelers roster as a rookie in 1977. "Gary Brackett, Josh Thomas, Jeff Saturday, Dominic Rhodes, Ben Utecht, and Aaron Moorehead. This is what we try to sell, that if you come to us, we'll give you a chance to show what you can do. But this means we'll miss out on some of the guys who could have helped us.''

Dungy said the new roster limit even quickens the pace of evaluating players, which can't begin with the start of training camp, as it has in past years.

"We'll tailor it and cut down on the injuries and all of that, but it's going to force us to decide, 'Is this rookie free agent better than the guys we have here?' '' Dungy told the Colts' team Web site last week. " 'Can he help us more? What are his chances of helping us?' You're going to have to make those decisions much faster and you're not going to be right as often.

"You have to find out what guys can do and make some decisions before we go to training camp. That's unfortunate, but that's the way it is. Our numbers are pretty well going to be set by just being able to make it through camp with this number of guys. I was not a fan (of the new rule), nor was Bill, but that's what we have to work with.''

In the NFL this preseason, making the numbers game work is going to be a challenging competition all to itself.