NFL Veterans Fighting for Roster Relevance Midway Through Training Camp
Except for a lucky few players in the league, NFL veterans fight for roster spots and key roles alongside rookies every year during training camp. A demotion can be just as bad as losing a job in the NFL because it limits a player’s ability to audition for other teams.
Veterans often come with higher price tags, and if their performance doesn’t justify the cost, it’s often easy for NFL clubs to move on. It’s easier for teams to demote veterans who are relatively cheap or those who would be cost prohibitive to release for salary-cap reasons.
Athleticism substitutes for experience in the NFL to some extent, so veterans can have a hard time using their savvy to fend off younger players at their position once they hit a certain age. As soon as a veteran’s physical skills start to decline, he has to work harder every year.
Here’s a list of players who are fighting for a significant spot on the roster midway through training camp.
People have been predicting the demise of Antonio Gates for years, but he rebounded from one of the worst seasons of his career in 2012 to catch 77 passes for 872 yards in 2013 for the San Diego Chargers. Gates isn’t one of the players on this list at risk of losing his job, but a significant reduction in snaps for the 34-year-old tight end would make sense.
The presence of a young tight end like Ladarius Green is part of the reason Gates could see his playing time cut. Green caught just 17 passes in 2013, but he gained a whopping 376 yards and had three touchdowns, which was just one less than Gates. At age 24, Green is a decade younger than Gates.
Gates may still have the trust of his quarterback, Philip Rivers, for now, but it doesn’t take much for that to change. Gates’ performance last year was good from a numbers perspective, but there were a few alarming indicators that prove he’s not the player he once was.
First, the usually sure-handed Gates was second in the NFL in dropped passes at the tight end position last year with seven, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Per Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com, the Chargers led the league in completion percentage to running backs and wide receivers but were eighth throwing to tight ends in 2013.
In the playoffs last year, Gates took a back seat to Green. It was Green with five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown, while Gates had just three receptions for 15 yards in two postseason contests. Expect a more even split between Gates and Green in 2014 at the very least.
At one point, Denarius Moore was considered a steal in the fifth round of the 2011 draft for the Oakland Raiders. Moore had a good rookie season with 33 receptions for 618 yards and five touchdowns in 13 games. Moore improved slightly in 2012, but it wasn’t the big jump everyone was expecting.
In 2013, Moore regressed instead of breaking out, and head coach Dennis Allen has openly questioned the young receiver’s consistency for over a year. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson cited Moore’s character, work ethic and maturity last August as the reasons for that inconsistency, per the Bay Area News Group's Jerry McDonald.
Then Andre Holmes came on strong at the end of last season, and Moore didn’t regain his starting spot over the final three weeks of the season. Moore was recently listed third behind Holmes and James Jones on the Raiders’ first depth chart of training camp.
Training camp depth charts are notoriously inaccurate. Depth charts are written in pencil at this stage, but Allen said Monday it’s still a good barometer of where the players are right now.
"Yeah, I think when you look at the depth chart, that’s kind of about where we are right now, but some of those competitions are pretty tight, so a lot of that is still to be determined," Allen said.
Moore may be one of the players fighting for a roster spot instead of a starting job in 2014. If there is good news for Moore, it’s that it seems like he’s responded to the challenge. Moore has been much more consistent in practice, and the media and Allen have taken notice.
"I’ve seen a lot of improvement out of him," Allen said Monday. "I think one of the big topics has kind of been a little bit of the inconsistency in the past, but I think he’s been a lot better in this camp.
"I do think Denarius is getting better as a football player, and he has in this camp."
Whether Moore has improved enough to save his roster spot is yet to be determined.
"The Law Firm" of BenJarvus Green-Ellis might be out of business. One of the best nicknames this side of 1985 might be looking for work in just a few short weeks.
Second-year running back Giovani Bernard’s speed, Pokemon skills and Elvish heritage have put him ahead of Green-Ellis in the running back pecking order in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s offense. Green-Ellis is now hoping his roster spot won’t be taken by rookie Jeremy Hill.
Both Bernard and Hill were drafted in the second round, so the Cincinnati Bengals have incentive to use their talented young running backs together. Green-Ellis is naturally the odd man out.
There’s also the salary that the 29-year-old running back is due to make in 2014. According to Over the Cap, Green-Ellis has a cap hit of $3 million in 2014 with just $500,000 in dead money if the Bengals release him. That means the Bengals would save $2.5 million by releasing a player who may end up being a third-stringer by midseason or sooner.
Everything is working against Green-Ellis making the team. Age, ability, contract, two highly drafted young players pushing for playing time and even a new offensive coordinator all make it unlikely we will see Green-Ellis in orange and black stripes in 2014.
Jacquizz Rodgers/Steven Jackson
The Atlanta Falcons drafted running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft, but he should have an immediate role on an offense looking to replace Tony Gonzalez's production from a year ago. Per Chris Vivlamore of the Albany Herald, coach Mike Smith said Freeman is on the "fast track" to playing a big role with the team in 2014. Steven Jackson is out with a hamstring issue, leaving Freeman to get extra reps in practice.
If the veteran is out too long, Freeman’s play could make him expendable just over a year after the Falcons signed Jackson to be their workhorse running back. If Jackson does make it back, the Falcons might part ways with Jacquizz Rodgers instead.
Rodgers has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry during his three-year career and hasn’t been a great receiving threat despite plenty of opportunities. Jackson averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in 12 games last season at age 30—a magical age when running back production often falls off a cliff.
With Freeman around, the Falcons don’t need both Jackson and Rodgers. According to Over the Cap, the Falcons would save $1.4 million by cutting Rodgers and $1.8 million by cutting Jackson. It’s not a lot of money, but both are among the biggest savings the Falcons can get by cutting a player in 2014.
Maybe the Falcons will keep all three running backs, but it makes much more sense to roll with Antone Smith, who makes about half of what Rodgers makes. Like Rodgers, Smith is a smaller running back at 5’9” and 192 pounds. In very limited action last season, Smith was an effective runner.
The Bengals could save $3.6 million in 2014 by cutting tight end Jermaine Gresham, according to Over the Cap. With second-year tight end Tyler Eifert’s role expanding, according to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, the Bengals could have no further need for Gresham at that price.
Gresham finished last season with 46 receptions for 458 yards and four touchdowns—a regression from his 64 catches for 737 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. A big part of that was Eifert eating into his opportunities with 39 receptions for 445 yards and two touchdowns.
Some people will look at Gresham and Eifert as a good combination, but if 2013 was evidence, all that happens is that one eats into the other’s production. If the Bengals are choosing between the two, they should opt to feed their 2013 draft pick over a player who will be a free agent in 2015.
Despite solid receiving numbers, Gresham may not be worth his salary in the first place. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he graded out as the worst tight end in the league, regardless of playing time.
A big part of the negative grade was Gresham’s league-leading 10 penalties at the tight end position and a run-blocking grade that ranked him 127th out of 134 tight ends in that category. Gresham also had three fumbles, one more than any other tight end last season.
Even if Gresham sticks, he’s likely to see his role reduced in Hue Jackson’s offense. Jackson rarely used two tight ends in the passing game when he was in charge of Oakland’s offense from 2010 to 2011. With other weapons like wide receiver A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard on offense, it’s hard to imagine Jackson will find enough opportunities for Gresham to thrive in 2014.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.