The last few years NFL teams have opened training camp with up to the 90-player limit. All 32 teams have a mandatory deadline for roster cuts that the clubs have prepared for. The first deadline for trimming the fat to a 75 players has come and gone.
With the last preseason games set for this evening, teams now focus on their next deadline in preparing for the cut to 53. The following information courtesy of NFL Communications
September 5th prior to 4:00 p.m., New York time, clubs must reduce rosters to a maximum of 53 players on the Active/Inactive List. Simultaneously with the cut-down to 53, clubs that have players in the categories of Active/Physically Unable to Perform or Active/Non-Football Injury or Illness must select one of the following options: place player on Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform or Reserve/NonFootball Injury or Illness, whichever is applicable; request waivers; terminate contract; trade contract; or continue to count the player on the Active List.
September 6th is equally important as well. Claiming period for players placed on waivers at the final roster reduction will expire at 12:00 noon, New York time. Upon receipt of the Personnel Notice at approximately 1:00 p.m., New York time, clubs may establish a Practice Squad of 10 players. No club, including the player’s prior club, will be permitted to sign a player to a Practice Player Contract until all clubs have received simultaneous notification via the above Personnel Notice that such player’s prior NFL player contract has been terminated via the waiver system. After 4:00 p.m., New York time, a club is permitted to place a player on Reserve/Injured as “Designated for Return.”
When you take a look at the big picture of building a 53 man roster it starts with the Head Coach and general manager’s philosophy. A good personnel department begins the roster analysis in January. Street free agents are signed, and these free agents are called “futures.” Teams take a chance on these players to fill “hot spots” and create competitiveness within the depth, to build up the back end of the roster.
The college scouting departments are in charge of gearing up for the annual NFL Draft. The first order of business, as far as the draft is concerned, is the combine held in Indianapolis in February. Pro scouting departments prep the coaching staffs for the free-agency period and which prospects to evaluate in the month of March. Once the draft has concluded, rookie mini-camps and offseason workout programs get underway. This period is called OTA’s (organized team activities). These team activities involve coaching sessions, conditioning drills, preparing the team for mini-camp, training camp and the upcoming preseason.
The complete process of trimming a team to the 53 man roster limit is governed by the NFL player personnel department. First, players are waived, meaning they no longer have a contractual agreement with that current team, allowing them to seek employment with another club once they clear waivers.
A lot goes into the building of a NFL roster, but the process of cutting a team from 90 to 53 is really an art that takes a keen eye for talent. It also takes input from coaches and scouts. The one voice making the final call on who stays and who goes must be a great listener. It starts with the evaluation of practice sessions, OTA’s, mini-camps and preseason games to find the players that are a true scheme fit. There are long staff meetings with coaches and the personnel department that are fighting for players in a lot of organizations.
Most teams break down the roster by groupings, with the amount of players within the group needed to form the 53-man roster. While these numbers are not cut in stone, the personnel movement is based on scheme for example Offense: QB 3, RB 3, FB 1, TE 4, WO 6, OL 9 (for a total of 26). Defense: DL 8, LB 7, DB 9 (for a total of 24); Special Teams: Kicker, Punter, Snapper (total of 3). Add it all up and you get the 53-man limit. It is really a numbers game, and every team has different reasons for keeping players like a third-down back, blocking fullback, or to go heavy on receivers in three or four receiver sets. On defense, sub packages are weighted heavier with defensive backs to defend multiple receiver sets or gear up to stop the run with more linebackers and defensive linemen, depending on competition within the division.
In 11 of my 15 years as a front office executive, the formula I was taught was rather simple. I rank the team from 1-60, from the best player to the worst, blue to green. Blue players are difference makers with high production. Red players are starters and heavy contributors. Orange Players are backups and special teamers with limited production and green players are a high percentage of free agents that won’t make the team. I pick the starting 11 on offense and defense; that’s 22 players. Add the second-string players and you get to 44. I then add a kicker, punter and snapper to bring the total to 47. Once I get to 47, I then choose six players that I must have on the roster to bring the total to 53.
For NFL personnel departments, it comes down to evaluating talent in OTA’s, mini-camp and preseason. Look for some exciting football tonight from rookies, second year players and bubble veterans fighting their way onto a roster spot. While the fourth and last preseason games drum up excitement for the NFL fan base that the season is a week away, it drives high anxiety for the players that have been working towards their dream of becoming a NFL player since they were youngsters.