When I worked for the Dallas Cowboys, we prided ourselves on trying to have "a pair and a spare." That is to say, we wanted two starters and a quality backup at every major position.
The idea was that, in the event that a key starter was lost, we'd be able to elevate someone from our own squad to replace him -- if not to perform at the same level, then to at least keep that spot from being a major liability. Though that strategic philosophy might seem like overkill, it's actually quite pragmatic, as the one thing you can't plan on in the NFL is having all your starters go the entire season without getting hurt.
Last week's action was dominated by major injuries, but a number of NFL teams admirably weathered the storm. From the Baltimore Ravens (Bernard Pierce stepping in for injured running back Ray Rice) to the Green Bay Packers (James Starks filling in for Eddie Lacy) to the Houston Texans (rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins making some game-clinching catches with veteran Andre Johnson sidelined by a concussion), several squads were able to win with the understudy, so to speak -- proving how important it is to be prepared.
With that in mind, I thought I'd list the NFL teams with the deepest rosters, those squads that are most ready to handle a significant injury or two and keep rolling.
1) San Francisco 49ers
When it comes to the Niners, it's simple: They draft well and do a good job in the free-agent market, and thus, they have the most depth in the NFL. Obviously, this knack for finding talent has paid off in the form of top-line starters (draftees like Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick and free-agent additions like Carlos Rogers and Justin Smith), but it's also been a boon at the backup levels.
Consider rookie tight end Vance McDonald, whose 19-yard catch was one of the Niners' few offensive highlights in Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks. If starter Vernon Davis (who was dinged up in the defeat) were to miss any time, McDonald could likely step in and pick up the slack. Likewise, when nose tackle Ian Williams went down in the same game with what proved to be a season-ending injury, the Niners had a heckuva backup to turn to in Glenn Dorsey, the Kansas City Chiefs' first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. When you have guys like McDonald and Dorsey waiting in the wings, you know you've really got something going.
San Francisco would be better off with injured receiver Michael Crabtree on the field, but the fact that losing him was not the disaster it would have been for other teams illustrates the kind of depth they're dealing with. The Niners, of course, had provided a buffer at receiver by previously acquiring Anquan Boldin.
2) Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have that all-important ingredient: quality depth in the trenches -- on both sides of the football. For example, when Pro Bowlleft tackle Russell Okung was forced to leave Sunday's game with a torn ligament in his toe, the Seahawks had a capable and versatile backup (James Carpenter) with which to prop up the line. The Seahawks will, of course, miss Okung if he's out for any length of time, but they won't miss him quite as badly as the Denver Broncos will miss Ryan Clady, simply because Seattle's backup situation is much better than Denver's.
Similarly, while the Seahawks would be better with the injured Chris Clemons and the suspended Bruce Irvin in the mix, they have the defensive depth to survive until those players get back. Offseason addition Michael Bennett had four tackles and a sack while starting in Clemons' stead on Sunday, and fellow free-agent acquisition Cliff Avril added a sack of his own. And it goes beyond the proven veterans: Rookie Benson Mayowa, who went undrafted out of Idaho but proved worthy of making the final roster, is the kind of depth-boosting asset that winning teams tend to find.
Like the 49ers, the Seahawks had to deal with a significant injury to a young receiver (Percy Harvin) who was expected to play a big role in their game plan. And as is true with the 49ers, the setback is not nearly the catastrophe it could have been. (As an example of a team that would be less prepared to deal with such an injury, consider the Carolina Panthers. Can you imagine what they would do if veteran receiver Steve Smith were to go down?)
3) Houston Texans
Here's yet another squad that built depth through the draft and free agency. Hopkins, taken 27th overall in April, has piled up 12 catches for 183 yards and a touchdown in his first two NFL games.
Of course, we can't forget that the Texans were able to win a playoff game in 2011 (and came close to winning two) with third-string quarterback T.J. Yates under center. Yates is still in Houston, though now he's the No. 2; Case Keenum, who fits the Texans' style of play, rounds out the current depth chart at quarterback.
And finally, when discussing Houston's roster depth, I would be remiss not to include running back Ben Tate. Tate is probably one of the best running backs in the NFL without a starting job.
4) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have drafted well, aided by the extra picks acquired when they traded Carson Palmer away two years ago. They've also shown the acumen to know which veterans cast aside by their former teams are worth signing (like Brandon Tate and Terence Newman) or trading for (like former second-round draft pick Taylor Mays).
The talent they've drafted has really come through; consider that when top-notch tackle Andrew Whitworth had to miss time recently (he sat out the season opener), the Bengals were able to slide Anthony Collins in there without a problem. Cincinnati also has a backup quarterback (Josh Johnson) on its roster -- plus another (Greg McElroy) on the practice squad -- who could win a game or two if needed.
5) Green Bay Packers
As the team that won Super Bowl XLV in an especially injury-riddled season, the Packers are obviously no strangers to roster depth. This season, their knack for finding backups has come up big on the offensive line. Rookie offensive tackle David Bakhtiari has done a bang-up job filling in for injured veteran Bryan Bulaga; he really held his own against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1.
Green Bay also has kept things going on defense despite the absences of cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett, relying on players like Jerron McMillian and rookie Micah Hyde. Yes, the Packers allowed Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III to pass for 412 and 320 yards, respectively, but in this pass-happy era, numbers like those aren't quite as alarming as they once might have been.
6) Kansas City Chiefs
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If stud running back Jamaal Charles suffers an injury at some point this season (as history suggests he might), the Chiefs have the talent at running back (Knile Davis and Cyrus Gray) to keep things from completely falling apart. Kansas City also has good quarterback depth if it's needed, with backups Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray onboard.
7) St. Louis Rams
Les Snead should take a bow for what he's accomplished since becoming the Rams' general manager last year. The team has added lots of good young players at receiver (Tavon Austin, Chris Givens) and along the defensive line; they have solid pass-rush depth with Eugene Sims (who does, it must be said, predate Snead's tenure) and undrafted rookie Gerald Rivers.
In the free agency arena, St. Louis has excelled, landing starters like Jake Long, Scott Wells and Cortland Finnegan. Finally, a savvy pickup from the past is paying dividends now; with tackle Rodger Saffold hurting, veteran Joe Barksdale, a pretty good player who was scooped up after being waived by the Oakland Raiders, will keep the line from losing much.