The fight for roster spots on an NFL squad happens right after draft weekend. Teams draft their allotment of players and add undrafted free agents to round out the roster. There’s a rookie minicamp, the offseason program, a veteran minicamp, and then training camp. After all of that, 53 players make the active roster, with 10 making a practice squad.
Rookie minicamps are scattered throughout May, but they will start up this weekend. Here’s what it’ll take to make the roster, especially for the late-round picks and UDFAs.
There aren’t that many openings on the roster.
Not all draft picks are created equal. The first-round picks are guaranteed to make the team, most often for years to come. The second- and third-round picks get a long leash. They make the team and get the benefit of doubt for a few years, even if they aren’t successful.
Once you get into the Day 3 picks, the situation starts to change. Picks drafted in the fourth and fifth rounds should make the team out of camp unless they play truly awful. Players drafted in the sixth and especially the seventh round, and those undrafted free agents, have nothing guaranteed to them and must fight each day to make the roster out of camp.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s not as much competition as you’re led to believe. Entering training camp, the front office and coaching staff have around 46 players penciled in on the 53-man roster. If not exact players, they know the numbers for some positions they might keep. For example, two quarterbacks and three specialists. You have the starting 22 (or 21 since we counted the QB already). Those are almost always set before camp. If there’s a position battle, most often the loser of that battle still stays on the squad.
Get my point? There just aren’t as many open spots as one thinks.
I was drafted in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft, and I know firsthand the battle to make the roster. I was on the practice squad my first season, then made the roster out of camp my second season and the next six seasons for eight total. I’ve been in the locker room as the new crop of players comes into the facility trying to make the roster each offseason. I know exactly what it takes to do it.
So what are the keys to making the roster if you’re a late-round pick or UDFA?
The simplest key is being a difference maker out there and giving all the effort you have. The latter goes without saying. To accomplish the former, you have to stand out and make the “wow” plays. Those are when coaches are watching film after practice, they are all marveling at your ability on a certain play.
That’s how you start getting noticed and coaches will want to see you do more on the first or second unit. The best way to do that is knowing your assignments. This brings me to the most important key to making the roster.
Knowing your playbook.
When you know what you’re doing, you play faster, and thus can make the “wow” plays. As a rookie, there’s going to be so much information thrown your way about the playbook. On offense, you might be huddling for the first time in years. It might be the first play call you’ve heard with three or more words in it. It’s a big shock to the system when your coaches install five runs, three protections, and 12 formations on the first day.
You must find a way to soak in all the information. I have some tips on how to do that.
TAKE HANDWRITTEN NOTES!
That’s in caps because that art is lost. With technology now, we don’t write anything down. Playbooks are now on iPad so players take notes on the iPad. It’s not the same. Studies have shown you retain more information if you write it down. I have multiple notebooks in my closet right now from each season. I wrote everything down: the play, the notes from the coach, and I took the time to draw the play up myself.
Do it, young guys. Write things down.
Don’t be shy. Questions aren’t a bad thing. Remember, coaches love to coach. They want players who are engaged in the process and if you have a question, ask it. More often than not, someone else in the room had the same question. The older I got, I’d ask ones I knew the answer to so younger players could hear the answer themselves. I knew they were thinking about it, because I’ve been in their shoes.
Find a mentor.
About 99 percent of older players want to help a young player make the team. It’s a myth that you can’t find a mentor on the team because they will purposely sabotage you. That’s in the movies and not in real life. Jordan Gross was my mentor and he helped with any questions I had, from simple ones (how to manage your body during camp) to more complex ones (fixing my stance or who to block vs. a certain pressure).
Stand by your position coach on the field.
When you’re not on the field for a rep, find your position coach and stand right near him. This way you can hear every play call and also hear what the coach is saying to players on the field. You can even ask a quick question before the snap
Learn more than your position.
This one is tough and doesn’t happen quickly and might not happen for a few years. Learn your position and the others around you. If you play right tackle, learn the tight end who might line up next to you and the left guard. Know who the quarterback is going to point as the Mike linebacker. Is the formation a 2x2 or 3x1 (which matters for blitz recognition)?
Spend the extra time learning all these little nuances of your side of the ball.
When you know your playbook and know what everyone else is doing, you play faster. Playing faster means splash plays. Making splash plays means coaches wanting to see more of you.
And when coaches elevate a young player up a team in practice, you better know what the heck you’re doing. The quickest way to get bumped back down a unit is a mental mistake. Coaches can live with physical errors, but not mental. Mental you can control. Mental mistakes can get players hurt. Mental mistakes are the quickest way to get shipped out of town. NFL coaches don’t want to be embarrassed if they put you into the first or second unit and you screw up a play by not knowing your assignment.
So make splash plays, but only if you know your assignment first. Ask questions, take notes, and show effort. Good luck out there.