NFL rosters are about to shrink.
As the league and its players discuss COVID-related changes to their game, word is the number of athletes on each training camp roster will go from 90 down to 80. It could happen before teams hold a single practice. It could happen soon after clubs have their players report.
Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis
The general consensus is, though, that rosters will drop 10 employees before those employees have much of a chance to show what they can do on the field.
Teams have already missed spring evaluation periods like rookie minicamp, OTAs and mandatory minicamp. Now as they get into what Bill Belichick refers to as “competition camp,” bubble players and long shots have a nearly impossible task at hand: Beat out players in which teams have invested more significantly.
We pointed out the “winners” and “losers” on the Patriots after the NFL eliminated preseason games.
The “losers” included undrafted rookies, who’ll in all likelihood face much longer odds than their teammates who were drafted in the spring. Second or third-year players looking to make their mark for the first time — their career prospects perhaps hinging on making a roster this summer — could lose out on opportunities to vets whose experience make them better options in an almost nonexistent preseason.
Odds are, though, that league-wise it’s the undrafted rookies who suffer most.
How can they get up to speed quickly enough to have a legitimate shot to make a regular-season roster? How can they possibly put enough on tape for a coach to make an argument for that player over someone who has a year of experience on a practice squad, for instance, or a player who has positive reps of NFL game tape to his name? Why keep them around when they’re generally guaranteed so little in terms of salary?
If the Patriots don’t have an undrafted player make their initial active roster, it’ll end their 16-year streak — one of the longest in the NFL.
Looping off 10 players before they even touch a field, of it happens, won’t help that streak survive. Maybe that end-of-the-depth-chart corner is the next Malcolm Butler or Jonathan Jones. Maybe the 10th or 11th offensive lineman who doesn’t survive the first cut is the next David Andrews. Maybe that receiver, considered little more than a camp body at the moment, is the next Jakobi Meyers or Gunner Olszewski.
The Patriots don’t have to miss out on running their streak to 17. The 10 players they lose don’t all have to come from the undrafted ranks.
In fact, there may be players on the roster currently whose NFL experience works against them. Haven’t shown promise in a year or two if kicking around the league? You may get passed over for someone like undrafted Patriots wideouts Will Hastings or Jeff Thomas, both of whom hail from big-time programs (Auburn and Miami, respectfully) and have physical gifts that give them the ever-coveted “upside” team-builders value.
But how can Belichick and Nick Caserio even properly gauge upside in a special-teamer — the next Brandon King, for example — when there are no live special teams reps prior to the start of the regular season because preseason games have been eliminated?
What about quarterbacks like J’Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke, both undrafted rookies? Do they go in the first 10 releases because they have no path to reps in a preseason where reps will be harder to come by than ever before?
Practice squads have already expanded with the new CBA from 10 to 12 players, and they may grow again as the NFL and the NFLPA iron out COVID-era details. That means more opportunities for these undrafted rookies with zero track record to stick. But even there, the rules allow for more vets to hang on as p-squanders. Even there, the balance between experience versus potential, a high “floor” versus a high “ceiling” will come into play.
The Patriots streak of undrafted rookies to make the roster doesn’t have to end this year. But excising 10 — several of whom could very well be UDFAs — right off the bat decreases their odds of adding another underdog success story to a roster loaded with them.