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The realities and myths behind making NFL rosters

It’s another place where the deck is really stacked in favor of some.

NFL: DEC 13 Cowboys at Bengals
UDFAs like Brandon Knight getting a starting job are the exception, not the rule.
Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With OTAs about to start for the Dallas Cowboys, the long process of getting from 90 players down to the 53-man roster and a practice squad is beginning. The most important work will happen in training camp and the preseason games. That means battles will begin for players, especially UDFA rookies and fringe players. They go in hoping that good enough play will earn them a spot based on the meritocracy of the NFL.

That’s the story, at least. And like with so many stories, there is a whole lot of myth involved.

We all love the story of a plucky UDFA who comes in, hangs onto a roster spot, and eventually becomes a starter or even a star. After all, the Cowboys have many of those in their history, most famously probably being Tony Romo. It keeps us looking for pet cats and unexpected risers in camp. We all expect the team to focus on getting the best players on the roster and on the field, no matter how they get there.

But there are other factors involved. Coaches have their favorites. More importantly, contracts matter. While NFL teams have proven that the salary cap can be manipulated and worked around almost to the point that they can do whatever they need to, dead money is still an issue that must be addressed, and when possible, teams seek to minimize it.

Our OCC just composed an article looking at three different 53 man roster projections for the Cowboys to illustrate how few actual open competitions there are this year, and it is something that is largely true every season, for every team.

This is something that first came to my attention several years ago, courtesy of a couple of BTB alums, @McCoolBCB and @rabblerousr. They sat down one day in a motel room at Oxnard in the middle of camp and looked at a likely 53-man roster for Dallas, and realized that something like 48 of the spots were pretty much locked up at that point. It held up, and that has been the case every year since. Only a handful of spots, mostly for depth, are really open competitions. There are several reasons.

Returning veterans

Even as early as the beginning of OTAs, most of the players that were on the roster last year basically are secure in having a roster spots. The decision on them was made back in January. Those the team did not want to keep have already moved on. Some were not kept because the staff was dissatisfied with their performance last year, and others, such as Chidobe Awuzie, were cap casualties in the sense that the team was not prepared to match what they could get on the open market as free agents. Dak Prescott is the obvious example of a player for whom the cost was immaterial as the team understood that they had to find a price his side would accept.

Whoever remained was clearly in their plans for this year. There are at times cases like Antwaun Woods. As a restricted free agent, they had control, and tendered him as an insurance plan prior to the draft. Once they drafted the rookies they thought they needed in Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna, they released Woods at no cost to themselves. It is an example of the harsh side of business in the NFL.

A couple of other players illustrate some other aspects of the decision process. Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch both had a disappointing season last year, but to move on from either now would represent big dead money hits with no cap savings. Their starting jobs may not be very safe, but their roster spots are. A decision on both has been deferred until 2022. Not picking up the fifth-year option on Vander Esch means he can just be allowed to go into free agency, while Smith could be released for a net gain of $8.4 million in cap space.

Of the other veterans still on the roster, few face any real threat in making the roster. The only one who seems to be caught in a bit of a numbers crunch is second-year defensive end Bradlee Anae, who never really saw the field in 2020. The team may try and get him onto the practice squad if he winds up the odd man out in a very crowded room. There is always the risk he might get poached by another team, but that is part of the game.

There are two returning starters from last season who are in a tenuous situation, offensive tackles Brandon Knight and Terrence Steele. But they are special cases, because they were only thrust into starting because of the injuries to Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Cameron Erving.

Free agent signings

Most teams are loathe to move on from a big money free agent they acquired. The Cowboys rather notoriously do not do those, which makes it easier to admit a mistake and part ways. That was illustrated last year when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix did not even make it out of camp and Dontari Poe was released mid-season once Neville Gallimore began to develop.

This year, Carlos Watkins seems the free agent most likely to wind up being cut. He always seemed like something of an insurance pickup.

But most of the free agents will be around this fall. One exception may be swing tackle candidate Ty Nsekhe. He is in what may be a real competition at that spot with Knight and Steele. Given what happened last year, the team may elect to keep two of the three, most likely Nsekhe and Knight.

Draftees

Any player taken by the end of the fifth round is going to get every chance to make the roster. Sixth- and seventh-rounders are less secure, but the staff seems to have definite plans for both of the sixth-round selections this year, Bohanna and Israel Mukuamu. Even the last player taken this year, OL Matt Farniok, may have a real shot if the team goes deep on the line. He played all five spots during his college career, and that is a valuable trait if it carries over into the pros.

UDFAs

These are the guys that steal our hearts in camp and preseason, only for the most part just to break them. With the unusually big draft class and all the vets involved, there seems little chance for any of this year’s crop barring one thing that we will get to shortly. The reality is that most of them are really working for a shot at the practice squad, either here or with another team. That keeps them in the league while they hope for a chance to get moved up to the game day roster. And that does happen, usually because of one thing.

Injuries

Once again, Knight and Steele are excellent examples of this. With the offensive tackle position basically wiped out by week three, they were subjected to a true trial by fire. By the end of the season, they had both shown a lot of growth, which is why you can’t really write either completely off.

Injuries are arguably the worst part of the NFL. Depth is vital. When a long-shot does get his chance, it is almost always because someone ahead of him is hurt, not because of a performance that forces the team to find a spot. We lived through how key injuries can absolutely ruin a season last year. Now, the Cowboys seem to have done a very good job building depth to try and survive the inevitable. We just have to hope things are not as dire as last fall.

Coaches’ favorites

While the front office, meaning in Dallas the Jones family, has significant input, the coaches have the biggest say. And in some cases, they like players better than the on-field performance would seem to justify.

One clear example of a coach having almost complete control over who makes the roster is the specialists. ST coordinator John Fassel really, really likes to have players who he has worked with before, and he already has a couple of his old hands in place in LS Jake McQuaide and K Greg Zuerlein. Now we have what should be a real competition for punter between Hunter Niswander, who came in and did an excellent job when Chris Jones was hurt, and free agent Bryan Anger. But Anger is another of Fassel’s old charges, and may have a real inside track now.

Other cases are not as obvious, but if, for instance, fifth-round pick WR Simi Fahoko is someone Kellen Moore really wants to have on the team, they will find a way to get him on the roster. That kind of thing happens, often behind the scenes. It is not always the best direction to go from what we observe, but it is another thing we just have to accept.