“How does your ninth offensive lineman get on the field?” This question was asked in regards to projecting the Buffalo Bills’ 53-man roster this summer, and how to allocate roster spots between various positions. The comments are now closed for that article, but this highlights something that warrants some discussion on its own.
The full comment stated:
The Bills ran with three safeties a lot last year. It’s about sub-packages, not just “starting spots”. Linebackers and safeties frequently are your core special teamers.
How does your ninth OL get on the field? He doesn’t. Is a fifth safety a better ST tackler than the sixth WR? Probably.
So how does a ninth offensive lineman get onto the field? My answer would be, the same way a fifth safety or sixth wide receiver gets onto the field—he doesn't. There are no special teams contributions, there are no sub-packages—such players are inactive for games, period. Their value to the roster is solely as a replacement, not as an additional contribution.
Which leads us to the follow-up questions: When putting together the back end of the roster, who should be kept? Do you keep the best 53 players? Do you keep those who would contribute most on a 53-player team, even though we only play with 46? Those seem to be the primary arguments when trying to justify a player’s roster spot or over-allocating slots to a particular position, but they’re off the mark. There are two primary factors to consider when filling out the back-end of the roster—potential, and ability to be replaced.
If a roster spot isn't expected to see the field this season, one consideration when filling it is the potential to contribute next season. I think this is pretty straightforward. Simply put, you don’t stash an aging, pending free agent veteran deep down the depth chart—you stash a young prospect you hope might be able to step up and replace an aging veteran on the field next season.
The other consideration is your ability to replace players during the season. When deciding between a ninth offensive lineman, fifth safety, and sixth wide receiver, which position are you best able to fill with a street free agent? In this regards, “special teams” is little more than a red herring, since special teams is by far the easiest role to bring in a new player and get an immediate contribution. Offensive linemen? Wide Receiver? Not so much, there’s a lot of playbook to learn and a lot of chemistry to build before most new players can be truly effective in a new system. I think it could also be argued that of all positions on the field, safety might be the easiest for a new player to learn and function within.
This is all to say that, while it may be more likely the team will need a fifth safety to play special teams instead of a ninth lineman to play guard (and that fifth safety might even be better at his job than other linemen or receivers), in most cases that wouldn't be a judicious use of the roster spot. A special-teams gunner who’s been on the roster for four days will be far more effective than an offensive guard who’s been on the roster for four days. The back end of the Buffalo Bills’ roster needs to be assembled with this in mind.