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It’s an uphill battle for late-round draft picks trying to make an NFL team

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Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz knows how hard it can be, so he shares his tips for what these fringe players can do now to earn a roster spot.

This week at SB Nation, we’re shining the spotlight on the NFL’s most underappreciated — from our favorite underdog stories to the most overlooked players and teams. Now’s the time to give them their due.

NFL training camps don’t begin in earnest until the pads are on. That’s when players can start to set themselves apart and the march to the season — and to making the roster — truly begins.

There are plenty of cliches that get thrown around during training camp, like “best shape of my life” and “X player has never looked better/tearing it up.” We all know them by now. One phrase — or better yet, one word — that gets used more than any other is “competition.” There are 53 active roster spots on a NFL team. In theory, and according to every coach who speaks on the manner, all of these are up for grabs when camp starts.

In reality, that’s not close to being true, especially for players who were late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents.

There aren’t many open roster spots to begin with

When camp kicks off, 46-48 of those roster spots have been penciled, or more likely, Sharpied into the depth chart. We know who the starters are on the team. Most of the time, they are the most talented at their position compared to the other players on the roster, or they are locked into the position because of salary. Either way, they are making the team.

Then, for lack of a better term, you have “quality role players.” That only includes a handful of players — the team trusts them, they can line up at multiple positions, and they play special teams.

The rest of the spots are actually up for competition, and they normally come down to the younger players against some veterans.

The “young guys” are comprised of all the rookies, whether they were draft picks or UDFAs. There are second-year players, some of them drafted by the team last season, and even the rare case of third-year guys who’ve been on practice squads and/or gotten some game reps.

There are veterans typically ahead of them, but if the younger guy is better, or the potential is there, a team will gladly cut the veteran to keep the still-developing (and cheaper) player. If he isn’t ready, then the veteran keeps his job. (It’s exactly what happened with me during my final year in Detroit. I was signed as insurance for the young fellas. I knew this, as do most veterans in my position.)

There’s another factor when it comes to roster decisions: where a player is drafted always matters. If you’re a high draft pick, you make the team as a rookie. Duh. Your draft status will continue to give you the opportunity for jobs long after your rookie season. We see first-round picks, who are clearly busts, keep getting jobs because teams believe they can “fix” the talent. It’s frustrating, but that’s the game.

So, if you’re drafted in the first five rounds, and probably even in the sixth, you’re on the roster as a rookie. The staff invested a draft pick in you, so they will want to see your growth. It can be that simple.

If you’re a late-round draft pick or undrafted player, your road to making the roster is a tough one — and one that I understand now but didn’t at the time.

I was drafted near the back end of the seventh round in 2008 by the Carolina Panthers. I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to make the team, but I did land on the practice squad that season as the team was continuing to work on my development.

How younger, less heralded players can make the team

We often look at training camp depth charts, and while it’s a handy tool for getting familiarized with the roster, it’s not always an accurate description of the competition. For that, we need to look which players are getting the reps on each team (first, second, or third).

The higher draft picks are getting reps with the second team, or even the first, because they are expected to make the roster and could play. Late-round draft picks and/or undrafted free agents begin training camp on the third team.

With less practice time now, the reps are given to the ones to get them ready to play, which isn’t surprising. When these third-team players get their reps, they must count. No wasted reps.

The first way to succeed with these reps is to know what you’re doing. Plain and simple. That means ZERO mental mistakes. Otherwise, that’s the quickest way to see fewer reps. Coaches can understand physical mistakes. They happen to the best of us. But mental mistakes aren’t acceptable. We are expected to know the plays. And when we know the plays, we play faster and with more confidence. That combination should lead to better results on the field.

With the limited amount of reps, players MUST make splash plays. Then, when the coaches are watching film, their reaction is, “who the heck is that guy? We need to get him more reps. We need to get him up with the second team.”

Coaches want to see if those guys can make the same plays with the second team. But, just like being on the third team, the reps on the second team can be limited and these limited reps have to catch a coach’s eye. Coaches look bad if they move a player up a team for practice, and that player screws up a play but not knowing his assignment. Effort, physicality and continuing to show the coaches you’re a playmaker will earn more second-team reps, as your potential could outweigh a veteran’s.

This same thought process goes into the preseason games. If younger players earn more reps with the second team, they have to “wow” their coaches and prove they belong. Also, being good on special teams is a must.

Injuries to teammates could also result in more reps for a young player who’s trying to earn the roster spot. In that case, you’re getting tons of reps and have the best opportunity to show what you’re made of.

Late-round draft picks and/or undrafted free agents have an uphill battle in training camp to make the roster. They get fewer opportunities for practice reps, so mistakes must be limited and their reps must stand out. It’s rough, but it can be done.

I’m proof of that.