Roster building's costs, benefits
Stars remain unsigned because of many practical reasons
It is hardly as significant, in the big picture, as nation building, the philosophy so often associated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor is it quite the same as team building, the critical harmony-related priority discussed by NFC West blogger Mike Sando in a weekend offering on ESPN.com.
But roster building, the equivalent to addressing a jigsaw puzzle that is fashioned out of human components instead of wildly shaped cardboard pieces, is still significant. And it helps explain, at least in part, why skill position players such as wide receiver Terrell Owens and tailback Brian Westbrook, and even a few free-agent linemen, aren't yet employed as clubs begin to report for training camp.
How a player fits into a locker room, the manner in which his demeanor and ego is tolerated by those around him and how it affects the collective good is key in this league. So is the way in which a veteran fits into a team's 53-man roster, particularly on game day.
Suggested one AFC general manager: "There's got to be a [niche]. That's especially true in filling out [an active] list for games."
For most fans, physical talent is the barometer. Those willing to somehow overlook Owens' turbulent history might feel that signing a player with more than 1,000 catches and whose 144 receiving touchdowns rank third in NFL history is a no-brainer.
While Owens' 55 receptions with Buffalo in 2009 were his fewest for an entire season (not including 2005, when he played only seven games while under suspension in Philadelphia) since his 1996 rookie campaign, they were still better than the top wide receivers managed for seven other NFL franchises. But rebuffing the temptation to add the 14-year veteran, despite the fact that he is better than some of the other wide receivers in camp, is a prime example of Roster Building 101.
Coaches typically sweat oceans in determining the makeup of a game-day, 45-player active list. Players out of uniform on Sunday afternoons often are more physically talented than those who are issued game jerseys. A team's No. 5 wide receiver, for instance, might have a pedigree relatively superior to that of the No. 6 linebacker. But the linebacker probably plays on special teams, and the wide receiver might not, and that is frequently the determinant.
There are a lot of reasons -- financial expectations, off-field indiscretions, the usual attrition -- why some players are still without contracts. But include roster building as one of the legitimate excuses, as well.
Most of us are guilty of ignoring the nuances of roster building, or the reality of rationing spots to players who are sometimes less talented.
In a very roundabout way, this brings us to Owens.
At age 36, the six-time Pro Bowl performer's skills might be almost as much in decline as his shrinking salary expectations. At best, Owens will be a No. 3 receiver for some teams, a No. 4 or No. 5 option for many. The crux: There aren't many fourth or fifth players on the wide receiver totem poles of most franchises who can occupy a roster space without playing on some special-teams units. And that special-teams component could diminish Owens' game-day significance.
Owens hasn't returned a kickoff, according to NFL records, since 1997, his sophomore season in the league. His otherwise impressive résumé includes zero punt runbacks. And when is the last time you saw Owens tearing down the field as a wedge-buster, or sprinting down the sidelines as a gunner, to cover a punt?
The likelihood is that Owens, entering his NFL dotage, won't do any of those things.
Westbrook is slightly more versatile. After all, the former Philadelphia Eagles star returned four punts as recently as 2007. But the eight-year veteran is 30 years old, rocking-chair age for most tailbacks, and will turn 31 before the season starts. He is coming off a 2009 season limited to eight games (seven starts) by a pair of concussions. And even in 2008, his last full regular season, Westbrook's numbers were down.
His 936 rushing yards and 4.0-yard average both represented his worst figures since 2005. After averaging 75.3 receptions in seasons spanning 2004-2007, and grabbing 90 passes in the last year of that stretch, Westbrook fell off to 55 receptions in 2008.
Again, his impressive background aside, Westbrook is probably a third tailback for most franchises in the league. And there are not many No. 3 tailbacks drawing an NFL paycheck without contributing on special teams.
Skill position players aren't the only veterans who fall prey to the league's roster building philosophy. Eight-time Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae still can play. But the popular perception that Mawae is not on a roster because he is president of the NFL Players Association is probably secondary to roster building. If Mawae isn't among a team's top eight offensive linemen, a team's normal active complement for game day, is it worthwhile to sign him, even as an insurance policy?
Likewise defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, who has 130 starts, or proven pass-rushers such as Leonard Little or Adewale Ogunleye. Griffin has to fit into a tackle rotation. Ogunleye and Little must be viewed as better options than a team's current situational rush men. Otherwise, such veteran performers are merely taking roster spots from younger guys, or players who might be more serviceable overall.
If those veterans are limited to the positions they play, or they are not regarded as knowledgeable tutors for younger players, their value in terms of roster building is certainly affected.
Of course, there are always exceptions.
For whatever reason, perhaps because of his character or maybe out of curiosity, Westbrook is still being pursued by three or four clubs. Agent Drew Rosenhaus, an adroit huckster who could peddle ice cubes to an Eskimo, has created some interest in Owens as a receiver.
The Bengals, one of the teams reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter as being interested in Owens, apparently feel he can produce better than some of the receivers currently on the roster. And the defending AFC North champions, who have never won consecutive division titles, have a history of risk taking, even with some incorrigible veterans.
The New York Jets reportedly have debated the idea of bringing the high-profile wide receiver to training camp.
Another team, St. Louis, has one of the thinnest wide receiver corps in the league. The Rams, who on Monday chose not to make Owens a contract offer, have 10 wide receivers on the roster, and the seven who are not rookies have combined for only 271 receptions, 3,023 yards and 13 touchdowns in their careers. As astute as general manager Billy Devaney is, and as familiar as he might be with building a roster, he still needs someone to catch the ball, so he apparently was tempted.
Adding Owens to such a nondescript assemblage as they have in St. Louis, though, wouldn't have been roster building. It would have been more like desperation.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.