Commentary

By not expanding rosters, owners will pay price in long run

The NFL recently spurned a chance to expand rosters. John Clayton argues that simply by expanding training camp roster limits, the NFL could have done itself a huge favor at little cost.

Originally Published: April 10, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Jason FergusonIcon SMIIn early April, NFL owners decided against expanding training-camp roster limits. Keeping the limit at 80 -- in the absence of the now-defunct NFL Europa development league -- might put a strain on the game.

At the annual owners meeting last week in Palm Beach, Fla., NFL owners made a mistake. They didn't expand offseason rosters beyond 80 players. Worse, they didn't even really consider the move.

Several proposals were presented. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted rosters expanded to a 90-player maximum. The league's management council recommended an 86-player limit. But owners said no to both ideas. Concerned about the tight profit margin created by a 2006 collective bargaining extension that favors the players, owners decided 80 players in training camp is enough.

But 80 isn't enough.

Having at least 86 players in training camp before the cuts down to the 53-man regular-season limit (which does not include the eight-man practice squads teams maintain) would help teams better prepare for inevitable injuries.

"That's the only thing I've really been interested in -- how many guys we are going to have to go to training camp," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.

"When you practice twice a day, what kind of practices are you going to have? You have four or five quarterbacks, but they aren't going to get hit. You have three or four kickers, and they aren't going to want to get hit. You'll have seven or eight guys who are unable to practice because of injuries, and you'll have six or seven guys on once-a-day status. Now, you're talking about 53 guys out there twice a day with a 115-degree heat index."

The 80-man roster is an issue because the league folded NFL Europa this past summer. Teams were losing close to $1 million a year each on a development league that wasn't developing many NFL players. The league's demise was long overdue.

[+] EnlargeJon Gruden
AP Photo/Reinhold MatayBuccaneers coach Jon Gruden (left) wants to see training camp rosters expanded.

However, coaches and general managers liked NFL Europa because of the roster exemptions given to players they allocated to the league. With those exemptions, teams could bring extra players to camp. Now, they don't have those roster exemptions.

To go cold turkey is short-sighted and wrong.

Under the 80-man roster formula, the numbers don't work. If you include the number of draft choices assigned to teams, there are 2,388 players in the league. Currently, only five teams have room enough on the 80-man roster to bring in more than 10 undrafted players, and four teams have 80 or more players on their rosters. Including draft choices, the Denver Broncos already are at 88.

It also makes the cut down to 75 players a silly idea. Coaches will be scrambling in the final week of the preseason to find enough healthy players. More first- and second-string players will be at risk of injuries.

The cost of bringing six more players to camp isn't much. During the preseason, rookies make only $1,000 a week. That cost of training those rookies isn't as much as the cost of making injury settlements to veterans or carrying players on the roster who get injured in camp.

The NFL is dismissing development by not bringing another 192 players to camp. Last season, 348 players finished the season on the injured reserve list. The 53-man rosters eat up 1,696 spots, and the eight-man practice squads eat up another 256 jobs.

In other words, the NFL needed 2,300 players to get through the 2007 season. It is bringing 2,560 to camp. That's how thin the replacement pool will be. Teams could use the extra players and prepare them for practice squads in case of injuries.

The effect this season could be huge. Any team losing a starter to injury will have virtually no hope of finding a replacement. The quality of the practice squads isn't going to be as good. Training camps might have to have less contact, making them less productive.

"I don't think you are going to do training camps like you did five or 10 years ago," Gruden said. "That's because fewer players are going to have more reps, and other players are going to have to take up the slack."

The lack of foresight in making this decision also does not make sense. Owners probably are going to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement in November. Some owners are talking as if they don't need a salary cap (another dumb idea). But let's consider the notion that the owners can make more profits in a non-capped league.

By not expanding the rosters by six players each and developing the young prospects, the owners are costing themselves lots of money. Those six extra players for each team won't reach free agency until 2014 (it will take six full seasons to become a free agent if the league goes uncapped), and the NFL will be losing 192 players it could have nurtured.

To find replacements, teams will have to look to the Arena Football League, the Canadian Football League -- or, they'll have to sign players who haven't been in a training camp. The NFL needs to find some development system for the players who are on the streets during the fall. Injuries happen, and it would help to have a regular-season camp of players being coached by NFL professionals and getting ready for the call to a roster.

Owners didn't think through these equations.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer