Sports Outside the Beltway

80 Man Roster Hurts NFL Camps

SI’s Don Banks breaks down the ripple effects of the NFL enforcing its 80 man roster this offseason. Previously, teams were able to carry a handful of extra guys because they got exemptions for guys who played in the now-defunct NFL Europa.

So what, right? Those guys probably weren’t going to make the team anyway, right?

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.

Which means the emphasis has shifted from “the best guy” to the most versatile.

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.”

Wah wah. Kickers aren’t really football players anyway, right? This doesn’t just affect kickers.

“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.

So, we’re likely to see more injuries as a result of this? That’s not good. But there’s more. Some teams will actually have fewer than 80 players to utilize.

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.”

So, if everybody sees what a big problem this is, it’s easy enough to up the roster size, right? Not so fast. There’s the Ralph Wilson Factor.

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.


“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.

Oh, and those six extra guys who had no real shot at making the team, anyway? It’s not really true.

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.”

So, to recap: Some guys who are better than the guys currently on each team’s roster won’t make the team. Some veterans will be injured and not playing for the team. Practices will be watered down, making the teams less sharp. All to save some billionaires a few thousand bucks and some leverage with the union.

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