With the start of training camps nearly here, several topics will be bandied about over the next few weeks. However, one issue is sure to receive more attention than others.
This is the first year clubs will not receive NFL Europa roster exemptions. The former developmental league, which the league folded last summer, gave clubs a chance to carry additional players beyond the 80-man offseason limit into training camp.
In April, the NFL voted not to expand offseason rosters from the current limit, mostly because of financial concerns. Now the reality of the situation is starting to hit home for teams.
Coaches and personnel people, without the use of player exemptions, have to survive the summer with a limited roster. Six extra camp players may not sound like a big difference to the average fan, but to the coach who has to push through the rigors of camp, install his offense, defense and special teams, it can be the difference between success and failure.
"I have to be ready to adjust at a moments notice, cancel a practice, add more walkthroughs if need be and settle for meetings rather than work," one head coach told me.
While roster sizes may be limited to 80 players, teams will divide up the players in different ways. For example, as of Thursday, the Buffalo Bills had nine wide receivers on the roster while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were carrying 12. As for defensive backs, the Dallas Cowboys list 13 players at the position while the Carolina Panthers have 15. The 49ers have two fullbacks and four running backs while Tampa Bay has two fullbacks and seven running backs. Teams that are low at certain positions hold their breath that the guys they have stay healthy.
"We may have to IR players (put on injured reserve and lose the season) sooner than we normally would if a guy can't go during the summer, and get another healthy body on the field," a pro personnel director said.
If a team were to lose two wide receivers, a cornerback and a running back to hamstring pulls in the first week of training camp -- something not out of the realm of possibility -- the club could easily be limited in passing practice sessions unless it puts a player on the shelf and gets a fresh body on the practice field.
At the league meetings in April, when the owners voted not to increase the 80-man roster even though this would be the first year without exemptions, the Buccaneers actually advocated for a 90-man camp roster. In the long run, the additional roster space might have turned out to be a lot cheaper than going with 80 players and needing to replenish areas as teams plow through the dog days of camp.
Head coaches also have to pay very close attention to the number of players at each position healthy enough to practice. When a receiver is one in a group of nine on a drill line taking his turn running routes, more work will be required from that team than one with 12 players at the same position.
The smart teams realize they get just as much work done in a shorter period of time. By the second week of camp, a receiver could be part of a rotation with only six healthy players. Therefore, it will not take long before a position begins to wear down from too many reps and consequently more players will end up on the sideline injured.
"Our coach has already promised me I will get a few practices off each week but that may be hard to do by mid-August," said one veteran player.
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It might be time to get rid of the summer camp mentality and just go to a regular-season type work schedule. Practice once a day for two and a half hours, probably in the evening when the weather is cooler, and hold a 45-minute walkthrough in the morning to correct mistakes and install new concepts. The challenge for the head coach in the salary-cap era, especially with a limited roster, is to get his best players to the regular season in one piece and not have them hit a fatigue wall around the middle of the season.
Preseason games are already a limited experience for good players, and that could be heightened this year. By the third week of preseason, when teams usually play their starters for at least a half, some coaches are anticipating potentially not having enough healthy players to go with a normal schedule.
"I worry about the receivers and defensive backs the most," said one coach, "and if I have to start using regulars on special teams during the week, I could have a number of players needing more rest instead of game experience"
For the fans, the 80-man roster may mean driving up to camp with the kids to watch a practice, and when you get there, practice is nothing more than a walkthrough, or even worse, cancelled.
Have a football-related question for Pat that you would like answered in a future column? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Movin' the Chains," Pat's SIRIUS NFL Radio show with co-host Tim Ryan, can be heard weekdays from 3-7 p.m. ET.