One of the more interesting dynamics in Professional Football is how the coaches and front office determine the roster. It is not a simple formula; there is much more to it than playing well in a pre-season football game.
While this isn’t going to be the way every club determines its roster, it is the formula most rosters I have been involved with have been constructed.
Following veteran free agency and the Draft, a pre-season depth chart is made. This is not for public view but rather strictly for the decision-makers and coaches. The depth charts released in training camp are mostly put out by the PR department without input from the Front Office or Coaching staff.
When players are signed in free agency, especially those given multi-year contracts at higher salaries, they are expected to come in and start. That’s why they were signed in the first place. The same holds true with premium-round draft picks (first and second rounds). While technically, they have to “earn” the job, on paper they are listed as starters.
During the off-season program, OTAs, and early training camp, some of these players may not line up with the first unit, but that doesn’t mean that come opening day, they won’t be. They must underperform and not live up to expectations for them not to be a starter.
Yes, there are surprises when lower-round draft picks or undrafted free agents totally outperform a player who was counted on being a starter. Let’s use last year as an example. When offensive tackle Braxton Jones was selected in the fifth round, it was thought that he was going to be more of a developmental player than a starter. The thinking was he would come on in year two or three. The main reason for this was because he came from a low FCS-level program, and it would take some time for him to be comfortable with the speed and physicality of the NFL game.
During last year’s OTA period, Jones proved that the game wasn’t too big for him as he picked up the mental part of the game relatively easily. He was easily athletic enough, but he still had to prove in training camp that he could withstand the physical part of the game. Again, he shined, and early in training camp the Chicago Bears knew that they had got a special player in the fifth round. Having an FCS-level fifth-round pick come in and play every offensive snap as a rookie is a rarity, and he’s only going to get better with an off-season in an NFL weight program and further playing experience.
Kyler Gordon was also expected to start when he was drafted. His development was a little slower than expected because he had some injury issues during OTAs and the beginning of training camp. That slowed the learning process and his physical progress on the field. It showed early in the season, but in the second half of the season, he played the way the decision-makers hoped he would play when he was drafted.
Jaquon Brisker, on the other hand, showed he was a quick study with the mental part of the game, and once camp started, it was obvious that he was going to be a very physical player.
Velus Jones had to be a bit of a disappointment to the staff. It was hoped that with his rare speed and athleticism, he would be a playmaker early on. That didn’t happen, but given his third-round draft status, there is no way the Bears are going to give up on him this early. Some young players develop earlier than others, but it is usually in their second year that they “get it” and begin to play to expectations.
Given he was taken with the tenth overall pick in the first round, tackle Darnell Wright is expected to start. He may play behind Larry Borom during the off-season program, but I would expect early on in training camp, he will become the starter.
With second and third-round defensive linemen Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens, the expectation for them is to play in the defensive line rotation. Most clubs prefer to play seven to eight defensive linemen during a game. They could split the game reps 50/50, or the “starters” may play 60% of the snaps, but all will be given extensive playtime unless they prove they can’t play. I would expect that early on in the season, both Dexter and Pickens will be closer to 40% of the snaps, but as they gain experience, their snap count will grow.
As a talented corner drafted in the second round, Tyrique Stevenson is expected to be a starter across from Jaylon Jones. Kindle Vildor would have to thoroughly outplay Stevenson to remain a starter going forward.
When do coaches feel young players are ready? It’s a complicated process that includes meetings, practice and attention to detail. Coaches need to know two things about young players. The first is that they are mentally ready to play the game. They have to know and understand their assignments and be able to physically compete against other NFL players.
The physical part is easy; the coaches see that every day in practice as well as in the pre-season games. The mental part is different. Coaches observe how attentive a young player is in meetings. How good of a note-taker is he? How quickly can he learn and retain the scheme and then carry that out to the practice field or game? Coaches have to be able to trust a young player, and much of that trust comes with the mental part of the game. Until the player is up to speed with the playbook and the coach knows that he won’t have broken assignments, he won’t get a chance to play.
Late-round picks and undrafted free agents have to “make” the team. Yes, it is hoped that a good number of the later-round draft picks will play well enough to earn a roster spot, but it is no guarantee. They were drafted late or signed as a UDFA for a reason…they didn’t have the talent the high draft picks have.
It’s up to these young players to prove to the coaches and front office that they are capable of playing in the NFL. If a late-round pick or UDFA wants to impress a coach, he first has to do so mentally. If he knows his assignments, he will earn the coach's trust. Once camp opens, then he can show he’s physically ready to play.
Some may need time on the practice roster in order to be completely comfortable in the NFL. Ja’Tyre Carter is a perfect example. Coming from an HBCU school, he did not play against the quality of players that are in the NFL. HBCU schools are all FCS level, so it’s a huge jump from there to the NFL. Carter had the physical talent as far as size, strength and athleticism, but he lacked technique and had played in an offensive system that was not nearly as sophisticated as an NFL system. He needed to go through the growing pains.
It took him some time, but by the last third of the season, the coaches felt he was ready to be brought up to the varsity. This year, more is expected, and while he isn’t supposed to be a starter, it is expected that he can be a quality backup. Once camp opens, it will be interesting to see how he has developed since last year.