Thursday, August 16, 2012

Roster Strategy: Getting to 53

The series of obligatory 53-man roster projections is coming. Most will be written in a couple of weeks. It fills space, and attracts readers, but there's something obnoxious about it. The guys making the decisions on these players do not know where they will land on those choices. The names may change thirty times between when those stories get written and when the roster is finalized. Veterans will come free from other teams that could flip things upside down. What matters more than the names on that roster are the questions the front office must ask itself that will guide their decisions.

PUP
Two players are seemingly locks to be on the Seahawks Physically Unable To Perform (PUP) list heading into the season. Walter Thurmond III and James Carpenter sit on the list right now, and are likely to remain their for the first six weeks of the season. Both players are starting caliber talents when healthy. Thurmond was playing fantastic corner before he was injured last season. He can play on the outside, or in the slot, but seemed to excel out on the edge. He is walking around camp without a limp or any supportive gear on his leg. Being ready to come back and help mid-season appears to be a good bet. Assume that means the front office is expecting to get a starting caliber cornerback on the roster mid-season without having to count him against the 53-man roster in the interim. The front office could very well decide to carry fewer corners than last season out of the gates. The gamble makes sense since teams generally keep depth to guard against injury. Crossing your fingers that enough guys stay healthy through six weeks at the CB position in order to save a roster spot for a less settled position makes a lot of sense.

There are some questions about whether Carpenter will be ready to come off the PUP this season at all. He started doing light drills about a week ago, and is working hard on his diet to keep his weight down. The season starts in three weeks. The question is whether Carpenter can be ready to play in 9-10 weeks. He tore his ACL in November of 2011. He would have to come off the PUP in October. Returning from an ACL injury in less than a year seems aggressive. Those types of injuries generally take 12-18 months for recovery. Carpenter is going to come back as a guard, which does require a little less agility than a receiver or running, but still calls for pulling and driving. The team could decide he will be ready within a few weeks of  PUP eligibility, and just keep him inactive until that time without losing him for the whole season. They will tip their hand about their confidence in Carpenter's return based on how many lineman they keep, and specifically, how many guards. The most prudent thing to do is keep a full compliment of lineman and guards, assuming Carpenter will not return, and then have the flexibility to drop one of them if Carpenter returns.

Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Eric Williams roster analysis tells us the Seahawks kept six receivers and three tight ends last season. They also had Deon Butler and Cameron Morrah stowed away on the PUP.  Six receivers is considered a luxury on most rosters. Only four players will get meaningful snaps in this offense. There a few reasons to keep six on this roster. Sidney Rice is the top player at the position, and has not proven he can be relied upon to stay healthy for a full season. There is not a clear-cut starting split end that can stretch the field, be a reliable possession receiver, and be a factor in the red zone. The front office appears to be assembling a roster of specialists at the receiver position. If one player cannot do it all, find a combination that will meet the team needs, and sub them in at times they can make the most impact. Ricardo Lockette may be fading in production during practice lately, but he's the only player on the roster that can reliably win over the top of a defense. Braylon Edwards is a great red zone threat and possession receiver. He is the odds-on favorite to win the starting split-end position. Doug Baldwin is the most dependable receiver with the most upside this season because he is consistent, smart, and talented. There is not a logical slot receiver to fill-in should he get hurt. Golden Tate has played some slot in the past, but he played exclusively at split end through camp. Deon Butler is the back-up slot receiver, but is not the necessarily the next-best receiver. Ben Obomanu can play all three receiver spots, but probably will not start at any of them. Terrell Owens is the best option to sub for an injured Rice at flanker, but he is not a slot receiver and would be an unlikely choice to sit as a back-up. So many questions. The best way to attack these questions is stock the cupboard at receiver, giving the coaching staff maximum flexibility in case of Rice injury and varying individual performance. Call it an extended six week tryout because when Thurmond comes off the PUP, this could be the position that trims down to make space.

That is not the only place Seattle will think about carrying an extra player. Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow Jr. are locks to break camp with the team. Anthony McCoy is the only viable alternative to Miller as a blocking tight end for both short yardage, two tight-end situations, and as an injury replacement for Miller.  That makes three. Cameron Morrah has been one of the best players in camp, and is a good replacement for Winslow if he goes down. Winslow has been good about playing in games, but betting on those knees for 16 games would make most coaches and general managers sweat. Morrah has earned a spot. Going to four players at tight end, to go along with six receivers would be a stretch. Going with less than that seems like a significant, and unnecessary, risk.

Cross-Training
Coaches are no fools. They know that the more ways a player on the roster can help them, the more resilient the team can be when injuries strike. Roy Lewis has been practicing at safety and slot corner. Phillip Adams is getting work at slot corner and outside. Heath Farwell is a special teams ace that is also making an impact at middle linebacker. Tom Cable makes all of his lineman work in at various positions on the line. John Moffitt is a starting guard and back-up center. Lemuel Juanpierre can play guard and center. Paul McQuistan played both guard spots and left tackle last year. That allows the front office to look at depth at those positions differently. Gone are the days when a general manager had to keep a backup left tackle, right tackle, and both guard positions. Given the questions about Carpenter, they may not look at that position as a place to steal a roster spot for the receivers and tight ends. Given the certainty around Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Roy Lewis, the rest of that secondary, and Thurmond's impending return, stealing a roster spot from that group makes sense. Seattle kept six corners and five safeties last season. Look for them to keep five corners and four safeties this year.

Quarterback
Another place the front office could choose to steal a roster spot from is quarterback. Many NFL teams are starting to carry just two quarterbacks. Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson are locks. Tarvaris Jackson will not break camp with the team. That leaves a decision on Josh Portis. Portis shows promise, and John Schneider clearly is fond of his potential. Attempting to stash him on the practice squad seems risky, and outright releasing him appears unlikely. It is something the front office may consider.

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