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A Scout’s Take: How an NFL Club decides the 53-man roster

Greg Gabriel gives us a peek behind the curtain on how a team figures out who will make the 53-man roster

Chicago Bears Training Camp Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Many fans believe that the coaching staff of an NFL club decides the 53-man roster that a club goes into the season. While the coaches have a say, in most cases, the GM has the final call on the roster's makeup. It can be a complicated process that actually starts back in OTAs and continues all the way through training camp.

Following free agency, the Draft and OTAs, both the coaching staff and player personnel staff have a rough idea of how the team will look at the end of training camp. Let's just say it's a very preliminary depth chart. That depth chart can change drastically once camp opens, as some players will get injured and some unexpected players will stand out.

During camp, players are evaluated literally on every play, every day. They are not only evaluated by what they do on the field but how they act in meetings, how quickly they learn and understand the playbook, and how they interact with other players.

The position coach isn't the only person watching his player group closely. There is usually a scout or a decision-maker also watching.

While the college scouts are only in camp for a short time, they usually are assigned a position group to watch while they are there and then write up reports on each player before they leave. The coaching and personnel staff usually meet one to two times a week during camp to go over each player. It's imperative that they get these valuations right.

When I was with the Chicago Bears, I always had both the offensive and defensive line to evaluate. Following each practice, I would watch the tape of that particular practice and take notes on every player. Needless to say, every rep counts, even during individual periods. In fact, most of the personnel department watches the tape of each practice session several times. If a person has six players to watch he could very well be watching each play on video six times.

With the young players, we look to see that there is improvement every day. Rookies will hit a plateau at some point, but it is important that after a few practices with no improvement, they bounce back and continue to improve again. They have to keep climbing the mountain, so to speak. If they hit a plateau and never re-start the climb, they are done. The player may not know that, but the decision-makers do.

It's a given that rookies and some young players will make mental mistakes because the pro game is so much different than what they did in college. Still, there has to be a time when they stop making the same mistakes and start moving forward. Coaches can tolerate physical mistakes as they can be fixed. When a player makes a mental mistake repeatedly, he can't be trusted to go into a game and not make those same mistakes. A coach is never going to play a player he doesn't trust.

As fans, when we watch practice, we don't have any idea what the player's actual assignment is. He may look good in a particular play, but in reality, he could be doing it totally wrong. As "outsiders," we will never know this as we don't know what he is being asked to do.

In the big picture, practice sessions are more important than preseason games. In a game, we get to see how physical a player can be as players go all out every play, unlike most practice settings. However, The problem with games is that many players only get limited reps in a particular game, making practice more important.

With the preseason having been cut down to three games a couple years ago, just about all the games are of equal value. Granted, the "star" players may see little or no action in that final game, but their roster spot has already been solidified.

In the personnel meeting leading up to the final cut-down, each player is carefully reviewed to ensure that the decision-makers are right with their evaluation. While the GM usually has the final say, he will rarely force a player on a coach that a particular coach doesn't want. Why? The relationship just won't work, but the coach better have darn good reasons why he doesn't want the player on the 53. In some cases, a compromise can be made, and while that player won't be on the 53, he can be kept on the practice squad. A GM rarely wants to cut loose a player who he feels has upside.

In those final meetings, it can get heated at times because coaches often gravitate to veteran players as they know the vet won't make mental mistakes. The personnel department looks more at the future and the upside of a player. In other words, "Who are we better off with?"

As fans, we can get frustrated because we see a young player make a couple of plays in a pre-season game, so we assume he will make the team. Then comes cut-down day, and that player gets released. Usually, that happens because the player has shown in practice that he isn't quite good enough to make the 53. He may be better off on the practice squad where he can still learn and develop. As we have seen over and over again, there are a number of practice squad players who are brought up to the varsity once the season begins and injuries happen. Just because a player gets cut at the end of camp doesn't mean he will not contribute in some way once the season starts. In some cases, they end up being very good professionals.

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