NFL teams carry a 53 man roster into the start of every season. But it is a violent game, and injuries are a part of it. As injuries pile up during the season, some players will wind up going on injured reserve, which will mean that teams have to find others to replace them. There is also just a certain amount of churn that happens at the bottom of the roster, as the team decides that it can get more out of a different player than one they already have.
This means that for many players, especially free agents signed with little or no guaranteed money, there is no security in making the roster. They know that they can be cut from the team at any moment, no matter how hard they work. They usually have few chances to prove themselves in games, being buried deep on the depth chart. But that churn also means that other players stand to get a chance to make the roster, being called up from the twilight world of the practice squad, or even off the street. It may be a brief sojourn in the big time, but that is something the vast majority of the world can only fantasize about.
While players like Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray are contemplating just how much money they might be able to make on huge, success-driven second contracts, and Tony Romo and Tyron Smith already have contracts that could potentially pay them nine figures - think about just how much money that is for a moment - most of the free agents sign for the league minimum. When you are not on the 53 man roster for the entire season, you are paid for each week you are. With a current rookie minimum of $420,000, that makes each week worth at least $24,705 (based on paying out 17 weeks to include the bye) for a first-year UDFA trying to get a toehold in the league. Some players who don't quite make the active roster are signed to practice squads, which gives them a clear advantage in getting known by the coaching staff and learning the system, and pays a minimum salary of $6,300 a week. Of course, players can be cut from the PS just as readily as they can from the 53 man roster. It is a life of true uncertainty, where you do your best and just hope and pray that it is enough to get you to the next week.
One Dallas Cowboys player that has experienced more of the ups and downs of being a fringe NFL player than most is linebacker Keith Smith. This week, he is being signed to the 53 man roster from the Cowboys' practice squad - for the fourth time this season. We are just entering week 13 of the season, remember. The longest stretch that Smith has been on the team so far this year is for four games, and he has only been on the 53 man roster for six games all year. He will be called up to provide depth because of injuries to other linebackers, and then when the other players get better, Smith will be cut and, so far at least, signed back to the practice squad where he started to the season. He may have a chance to stay this time, since there are only five more games left and his spot was opened up when defensive end Jack Crawford went on injured reserve with a broken thumb. However, the reason he is back on the roster is to fill in for linebacker Dekoda Watson, who has a hamstring issue he is expected to recover from shortly. When Watson gets back, the staff may decide they can get better use out of Smith's slot, and back into the cycle he will go.
It has to be somewhat disorienting to not know your status week to week, and there has to be some sense of disappointment when you basically get told you are not good enough to hang on to your roster spot, but for a large slice of the players in the league, this is day to day reality. Smith did get some idea of what he was facing from his brother, former Indianapolis Colts cornerback Jason David. David is a player who has made a "bust" list or two, but who managed to eke out a five-year career in the league. He helped Smith be somewhat prepared to weather what was coming.
"A lot of people don't understand the process so every week that I get released and put back on the practice squad everybody is giving me the sympathy texts here and there, like, ‘Oh, it's going to be OK,' and, ‘It's OK. Just keep your faith.' I've had to go through it every time. That part gets kind of old, but I mean it is what it is. Not everybody knows what's going on."
Players like Smith may not be stars or often make a significant play in a game, but they are important cogs for the NFL. Sometimes, these marginal players may come in for a week or two and then vanish, like some of the endless parade of defensive linemen that Dallas went through in 2013, but others find at least a short-term niche like Smith has, where he is not quite good enough to stay on the roster all the time, but he is too valuable to let go. It is an odd life, and it is probably best that these are usually among the youngest players. At that age, certainty in life is not quite as important as it becomes to us old codgers. Smith is one of the players willing to take a chance, get paid a decent but not really life-changing amount of money, and maybe prove himself down the road. If not, he at least gets to state honestly that he once was an NFL player. Getting to wear the Star, well, hopefully that makes it mean just a little better.