Not every NFL team has the same number of starting players.
That's what I learned during my first training camp as a member of the Baltimore Ravens' scouting department. Sounds crazy, right? Well, it's true.
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Obviously, every team has 22 players who take the field as either offensive or defensive "starters," but the quality varies from one club to the next, and some players secure starting gigs by default. Each organization strives to accumulate as many quality players as possible, but some are more successful than others.
I asked several different personnel executives and coaches for their opinions on which teams have built the deepest rosters, and the same names kept coming up over and over again.
Here are the five deepest teams in the NFL:
1) San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers' front office has done an excellent job of building quality depth in all three phases of the game. On offense, they are four-deep at running back, with a nice mixture of styles. Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs are physical, downhill bulldozers, while undersized runners Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James provide shiftiness and big-play potential.
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The Niners are very deep in the trenches on both offense and defense. They have no less than eight starter-caliber offensive lineman. Most NFL offensive lines have at least one glaring weakness, but San Francisco is solid at all five spots. Led by Justin Smith, the defensive line features five players capable of dominating against the run.
Linebacker is another position filled with talent. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman both earned All-Pro recognition last season, while outside linebacker Aldon Smith is coming off a 14-sack rookie campaign. Ahmad Brooks is the other starting outside backer and he can also rush the passer, as evidenced by his seven sacks in 2011.
2) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have a lot of depth in key areas. They have an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line. How many teams boast six starter-caliber defensive ends? The actual starters, Jason Babin and Trent Cole, combined for 29 sacks last season. Backups Brandon Graham and Darryl Tapp are both solid pass rushers as well as stout run defenders. They also have Vinny Curry, a very talented rookie from Marshall who has been very productive in the preseason. However, the best player of the entire group during training camp was actually Phillip Hunt. The former CFL star dominated practices and preseason games.
The Eagles also boast quality depth at the corner position. Starters Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha were both down in 2011, but they are Pro-Bowl-caliber players. Joselio Hanson was a solid nickel cornerback for several seasons, but Philadelphia reportedly cut him to make way for talented rookie Brandon Boykin.
On offense, the team boasts enviable depth at both receiver and running back. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin provide an outstanding starting tandem on the outside, while Jason Avant is one of the better slot receivers in the NFL. Rookie Damaris Johnson has been outstanding in the preseason and provides another explosive weapon to add into the mix. The running back group is led by All-Pro stud LeSean McCoy and features three other talented young backs. Rookies Bryce Brown and Chris Polk have been very impressive in the preseason, while second-year back Dion Lewis is a shifty runner who can also catch the ball effectively.
3) New York Giants
The defending Super Bowl champions have a roster full of explosive players on both sides of the ball. Aside from quarterback Eli Manning, the lifeblood of this team has been the talent and depth of its defensive line. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora combine to form arguably the top pass-rush trio in the NFL, while Rocky Bernard and Linval Joseph are both excellent interior run defenders.
The linebacker group lacks the star-quality of the defensive line, but the unit is very deep. Backups Mark Herzlich and Keith Rivers would start on several NFL teams. The secondary looked very deep earlier in the offseason, but that depth has been severely challenged by a rash of injuries over the past month.
On offense, the skill positions are very well stocked for the Giants. At receiver, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz form a top-notch tandem, while backups Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden and rookie Rueben Randle all possess great size and reliable hands. The running back stable has two very versatile players in Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie David Wilson. Both guys have good quickness and vision as runners, while also possessing skills to help in the passing game.
4) New Orleans Saints
Despite losing several talented players during the offseason, this roster is still one of the most talented in the NFL. The offensive skill positions are absolutely loaded. The running back group is arguably the deepest of any team in the league. There are no less than five quality players at the position. Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory are all solid runners and pass catchers out of the backfield. The surprise of the group is rookie Travaris Cadet. The former Appalachian State runner currently leads the entire league in receptions (30) and receiving yards (246) during the preseason.
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New Orleans' defense isn't nearly as deep as its offense, but the starting unit has very few holes. The defensive line doesn't have any dynamic individual players, but seven quality guys rotate into the lineup. The Saints took a hit at linebacker with Jonathan Vilma's season-long suspension, but they replaced him with a fantastic player in Curtis Lofton.
5) Houston Texans
This team is both balanced and full of talent. On the offensive side of the ball, the Texans have a game-changing running back and receiver. Arian Foster is one of the top two or three backs in the entire league, while a healthy Andre Johnson can make the same claim at the receiver position. Backup running back Ben Tate fell just 58 yards shy of 1,000 last season, averaging a healthy 5.4 yards a pop. Beyond Johnson, the rest of the receiving group lacks top-tier talent, but young guys like Lestar Jean, Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey possess a lot of exciting potential.