Yardbarker Horiz

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Impatient Roster

The 53-man roster in the NFL basically contains an offense (11 men) a defense (another 11 players), a backup at each position (+22 more = the 44 man "2-deep" roster), and 9 "extras" which include specialists like kickers, punters, and special teams warriors among others.  This is half the story.

The draft has seven rounds per year for each team so it takes around 8 years to completely cycle an entire NFL 53-man roster.  This is the other half of the story. 

Together, this explains in general why 30 years old is a type of glass ceiling in the NFL -- a 22 year old graduates from college and goes 8 years in the NFL and then (statistically) it's time for the replacement to come along.

The struggle of the NFL General Manager is not the existence of this revolving door.  Instead, it is how to keep a competitive team on the field under the guise of once-every-8-years when injuries, misfits, traded picks, and opportunities for early replacement through better talent present themselves.  A roster can quickly get out of control when a series of draft picks are taken at the same position, when too few players drafted actually become part of the team, and when there is not a good rotation of selections among the positions on the field.

Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik has achieved balanced position charts for both offense and defense going into the 2010 season.  The Tampa Bay position charts are overflowing with young players as the Buccaneers move from rebuilding the roster into escalating the competitive talent on the team.  In the future you would not expect to see so many young players on these rosters.  A better approach is to keep the best talent on the charts from leaving Tampa Bay keeping their knowledge and experience on the team by signing them to free agent contracts ("promote-from-within").  This helps to keep the 8-year replacement cycle working and provides great value to the team by retaining the investment in time and resources in the person of an experienced player.  Constantly training a large number of new faces year after year is a drain on coaching resources -- and the time of a good coach is very, very valuable.

Going into the 2010 season, the Buccaneers lack in promote-from-within talent, which exaggerates the youth on the team.  Put another way, the young have to lead without substantial experience.  This can affect the competitiveness of the team regardless of the overall talent.  An experienced player reacts to situations reflexively and can think through situational football as they go.  A youthful player has to both think about assignment and situation.  This difference shows itself in timing -- which can be devastating in a game as fast as NFL football.

Unfortunately there is not much that can be done about a lack of experience except play football.  Bringing in free agents can set this process back in several ways -- they may take playing time from younger players slowing their rate of experience, they may be older or more experienced  players which may keep a young leader from developing those skills, and they may not fit the personality profile of the team which can become a distraction for younger players.  General Manger Mark Dominik seems to have committed to this idea by treading very lightly in the 2010 free agent market so far.  And why not?  There is a good mix of players at every position, including two positions rebuilt with youth mostly from the 2009 waiver wire alone (Defensive End and Wide Receiver).  Dominik has also shown unwavering commitment to allowing experience and leadership to develop among the young players by only adding free agents who generally match the experience level of those lost to free agency (see "Moving Forward").

The focus now shifts toward Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris and his staff.  The rebuilding process only works if the coaches and supporting staff can create a true player development process for players of all talents.  Morris is entering his second year and many of the assistant coaches have not been in their current position for a full season.  The jury will be out on Morris' player development process for at least three more seasons (to see if the draft picks develop into promote-from-within material).   Early indicators could be how Josh Freeman, Roy Miller, and Sammie Stroughter evolve in their second season.  Freeman is an emerging leader on this team according to the players themselves.  Roy Miller was the third most productive defensive lineman among rookies in 2009.  And Stroughter, a 7th rounder, has already staked his claim on the nickel/slot wide receiver position having contributed at least one catch in every game in in 2009.  The rest of the 2009 draft class was hampered by injury -- Kyle Moore for the first half of the season before coming on at the end and EJ Biggers and Xavier Fulton went to the injured reserve early.  There just won't be much to evaluate against after the 2010 season -- which is fair.  It is also fair to say the team started performing better down the stretch in 2009 (won two of last three), something which clearly had not happened in 2008 (lost the last 4 games of the season), 2007 (lost four of last five games including wildcard game) or 2006 (lost 8 of the last 10 games).

By no means am I trying to dampen the prospects for 2010.  On the contrary, this is a season which will help define the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the next five years.  And while there will be significant highs and lows with this much youth, there should be more weapons to help in finding a way to win more games than in 2009.  Maybe this team can even make a run at a wildcard position.  With all that youth, maybe they will find a way to achieve even more.

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