NFL: How Valuable Is Depth-Chart Competition?

Dan HopeContributor IIIJune 4, 2012

Tim Tebow (left) and Mark Sanchez, who could end up in a competition for the New York Jets' starting quarterback position at some point this season.
Tim Tebow (left) and Mark Sanchez, who could end up in a competition for the New York Jets' starting quarterback position at some point this season.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Building an NFL roster takes much more than finding the right 11 players to start on offense and another 11 to start on defense. Rosters consist of 53 players, and over the course of a 16-game regular season, every roster spot can become very important.

Football is a collision-contact sport where any player on the field can be injured on any play, meaning that at any time during a game, any player among the 46 active for that game could become the “next man up” and end up becoming an integral player in the game.

For that reason, NFL teams should never define a player as a set reserve. Additionally, as all 32 teams pare down their 90-man offseason rosters to 53 players for the regular season, nearly every player will have a legitimate chance of making their team’s final roster.

Depth-chart competition is important to NFL teams, and it is a necessity.

When NFL coaches require their players to compete to keep their starting spot or even their roster spot, it encourages every player, from established veterans to unproven rookies, to work their hardest every day toward getting better and proving themselves to earn the spot they covet.

Bringing in a player who puts the incumbent starter on a hot seat often results in the incumbent player’s game improving significantly. Two major examples of this scenario at the quarterback position came with the San Diego Chargers in 2004-05 and with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011.

The Chargers had a dismally poor season in 2003, finishing with a 4-12 record, and their lack of success was in large part due to the poor play of quarterback Drew Brees.

Brees completed only 57.6 percent of his passes and threw 15 interceptions that season, while only passing for 2,108 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was replaced as starting quarterback for the final five games by veteran Doug Flutie.

Before Drew Brees became a legend for the New Orleans Saints, he was fending off Philip Rivers for two seasons trying to maintain a starting quarterback position for the Chargers.
Before Drew Brees became a legend for the New Orleans Saints, he was fending off Philip Rivers for two seasons trying to maintain a starting quarterback position for the Chargers.Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

The Chargers had the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft, with which they drafted quarterback Eli Manning, but eventually ended up trading Manning to the New York Giants and received another quarterback, Philip Rivers, as part of the return package.

Rivers was brought in as the heir apparent at quarterback, and Brees was forced to step up his game to remain an NFL starting quarterback.

Brees’ numbers improved significantly in 2004, as he threw for 3,159 yards and 27 touchdowns while completing 65.5 percent and only throwing 7 interceptions. That said, Brees still had Rivers breathing down his neck for the starting job in 2005, and he had another strong season, throwing for a career-best 3,576 yards.

The depth-chart competition in San Diego helped spark Brees to the career he has had since with the New Orleans Saints, which includes a Super Bowl victory along with breaking the single-season passing yards record in 2011 with 5,476 passing yards.

In the 2011 NFL draft, the 49ers drafted Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick as an expected replacement for incumbent starter Alex Smith, who had a disappointing first six seasons with the team after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

Smith, who became a free agent following the 2010 season, was re-signed for the 2011 season, but was forced to compete with Kaepernick for his starting spot.

The competition seemed to fuel and inspire Smith, who had the best season of his NFL career. He threw for a career-best 3,144 passing yards, completed a career-best 61.3 percent of his passes and had a very strong ratio of 17 touchdowns to only five interceptions, all while leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record and a spot in the NFC Championship Game.

While there may have been other factors in Brees’ and Smith’s improved performances, the competition coming from behind them appeared to be a source of inspiration for each of them to take their game to the next level. However, depth-chart competition is not only important for starting spots, but for filling out the entirety of a 53-man roster.

The NFL is a league heavy in attrition, where many careers are cut short due to injuries and many players leave their teams as free agents after only four seasons, so it is always important to bring in young players who can fill the holes of a roster.

There are always players whose performances decline from one season to the next, or who never live up to the level of play that is expected to them when they come into the league.

By bringing in well over 53 players who have the talent to be capable of making it in the National Football League, it makes every player better and helps teams complete the best roster full of players capable of stepping on the field at any time.

While teams typically have 22 starters, football is no longer a game where the same 11 players are on the field until a player gets injured. In a professional football game that is played faster and is more scheme-diverse than ever before, it is important for NFL teams to be able to rotate players in and out of their lineups.

By increasing depth-chart competition, teams can fill the second and third lines of their depth charts with more players who can be valuable assets in a rotation and help their teams when they receive playing time.

Additionally, injuries do not only happen to starters. It is important for teams to have more than 53 players competing for spots on a depth chart, because as players are placed on injured reserve with season-ending injuries each week, new players can earn the opportunity to make a roster that they may have been released from initially.

When teams are evaluating their 90-man offseason rosters to build their final 53-man roster, it is important to consider players who could be brought back later in the case of injury, in the case that said player has not been signed by another team in the meantime.

For many reasons, NFL depth-chart competition is very important and will take place during the training camps and preseasons of all 32 NFL teams this season. The competitions will lead to some surprises, as players emerge from being little-known reserves to starters, while well-known veterans could lose their starting spots or even be cut loose.

The competition, however, is necessary for every team to field a complete and hopefully improved roster.

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