March 31, 2009
Building Rosters; Not the Same as it Was and Other Tidbits Down the Road
By:  Stan Jaksina
PatsFans.com Fan Columnist

Many are now upset that Vrabel was traded and that the team said goodbyes to Paxton, Evans, Izzo and others. I too was surprised and shocked by the trade, but things happen in that evaluation period and it's not at all like it's the first time there have been decisions like that made by the front office.

If we went back in time many years, it was easier to manage a roster. And the same went for fans as from year to year there were fewer changes in personnel. Growing up, there was a period of time I could name all twenty five baseball players on every major league team. It was the same with other sports as well, but with expansion and free agency, it's almost impossible to keep up with all the many moves a team makes year to year.

For football, there was more of a set way to build a top notch franchise . The team brought in solid players and built on that, knowing that the players would be around for awhile. Every year a few draft picks would be added, but the key positions would be set more or less. It was more like a house was built and then very slowly the rooms were redone, over many years. Now, it's different as rooms are being remodeled every year, with changes happening a lot quicker and with fewer positions set for five or six years.

That has been the case for some time now in the NFL and if one adds in the salary cap that too makes the roster a moving puzzle through time. With injuries and contracts and other things, it's more like every year is different and must be looked at like that, with eyes toward the future years. That is what this front office always has tried to do. Get the best team on the field for that current year, but not jeopardizing the teams of future years.

Looking at the last seven years, the team has averaged about twelve and a half new players each year, with a low of ten (04) and a high of 15 (03). In defining new players, those are players that were not on the team's fifty three, injured reserve, practice squad or other reserve lists at the end of a season. Note that I have used the starting point of as the roster of fifty three as of the first game as there are sometimes some adjustments after the roster is set and before the first game. That number has been pretty consistent over the last seven years. There have been an average of six rookies on the roster at the start of each year, draft picks and undrafted free agents. The high point was nine, (06) and the low three, (07). It seems that they sort of balances each other off with a really solid draft in 06 and a weak draft in 07. To balance that are the free agent and trade acquisitions that make the roster. On average, it's a bit more than six, closer to six and a half per year, so there's slightly more free agents that make the fifty three than rookies. The fewest that have made the team was four (04 and 06) but the highest was nine (03). What is odd that it's almost feast or famine with vets making the team.

As for acquisitions, 02 brought draftees tight end Graham, wide receivers Branch and Givens and defensive lineman JGreen as well as free agent tight end Fauria. In 03 the team had many additions. They traded for nose tackle Washington, drafted center Koppen, defensive end Warren and defensive backs Samuel and Wilson. They also added free agents, safety Harrison, linebacker Colvin and cornerback Poole. In 04, the big additions were running back Dillon via trade, tight end Watson and nose tackle WIlfork via the draft, defensive back Gay via being an undrafted free agent and punter Miller via free agency. In 06, it was the acquisition of offensive linemen Kaczur and Mankins, defensive backs Hobbs and Sanders and quarterback Cassel, through the draft, undrafted free agent Wright and a slew of free agents who did not have large impacts. 06 gave the team kicker Gostkowski, running back Maroney, tight end Thomas and defensive lineman LSmith through the draft, undrafted free agent Woods and the almost retired linebacker Seau through free agency. Things were a bit different in 07, when more veteran players were added than rookies. That year Moss and Welker came to the team by trade, linebacker Thomas, wideout Stallworth, running back Morris and punter Hansen by free agency and only safety Meriwether through the draft. This past year, it was the opposite with the draft yielding many players. Among the keepers were linebackers Mayo and Crable, defensive backs Wheatley and Wilhite and quarterback O'Connell. Also among the rooks was linebacker Guyton, an undrafted free agent. The only free agent of note special teamer/wide receiver Aiken.

But those were the players coming in with impact. What about those players not making the team and departing..Of the players who were on the team for the last game of one year and not on for the first game of the following year, there were about an average of eighteen players per year. The discrepancy between new faces on a team and players leaving is that some players who were not on the team's fifty three but on injured reserve or the practice squad one year on the team the next. This averages about five and a half players per year.

As far as players leaving from a team's roster, I have divided them into five distinct groups. The first is the group of players that were on the team's fifty three at the end of one season, not at the start of the next season, but still with the team in other capacities. These would be include PUP, IR, the Practice Squad and suspended or other reserve lists. The next group are players that were with the team but did not make it to the fifty three. Another grouping is miscellaneous, mostly of those who retired. There is another for players that were cut or traded, a team's choice, basically and the last one, of players moving on to another team with their free agency, a player's choice.

The first category, those who remained with the team, injured (PUP, IR), suspended or on the practice squad, averaged about two and a half players a year. The low was one (02 and 04, both 1 PUP) and a high of six, (07, 3 PUP, 1 sus, 1 IR, 1 PSqd). Another four and a half players on the average, returned to the team, but were beaten out for a position on the fifty three in training camp. The low was two (in 04) and a high of seven (05). In a miscellaneous category, which averaged about one player a year, that included retirees, players taken in expansion and other situations. Wilbert Brown played in the Super Bowl in 04 and never reported to camp later that year. Sadly, Marquise Hill lost his life in the 2007 offseason in Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. With cuts and trades, the average was three, with a high of five (02, 3 cut, 3 traded) and a low of one (04). Losing players in free agency averaged seven a year, with a low of four (07) and a high of 10 (04).

What also complicates departures was that some also leave from injured reserve, so the number of players was more than fifty three each year and comparing actual numbers from year to year changes. In that case, percentages were a better tool at looking at it. Practice squad players really are in transition and have a very small window, so in this case really should not be counted as losses. With these all compared, the percentages were a bit higher in total players lost, four percentage points or about two players on a roster of fifty three. One would be in the cut/trade category and the other in the group that did not make the team. For practical purposes it's been about a third of a total roster that disappears every year, which makes some sense.

One can also see the players that have gone from the team. In 02, the team lost quarterback Bledsoe, tight end Wiggins, offensive lineman GWilliams. and defensive backs Shaw and Stevens. In 03, it was fullback Edwards, offensive linemen Randall-Robinson and safeties, Milloy, TJones and VGreen. There was a large number of departures in 04 as backup quarterback Huard, running back ASmith, offensive lineman Woody, defensive linemen Pleasant, Hamilton and Lyle and nose tackle Washington, all departed. In 05, wide receiver Patton, offensive linemen Andruzzi and Klemm, nose tackle Traylor, linebackers Phifer and TJohnson and cornerback Law, were not on the team. The 06 season saw the departures of wide receivers Branch, Givens and BJohnson, tight end Fauria, offensive linemen Ashworth and Gorin, linebackers McGinest and Chatham and kicker Vinatieri. The 07 season saw running back Dillon, tight end Graham and defensive back Hawkins depart and sadly the death of defensive lineman Hill. This past year the team said good byes to wide receivers TBrown and Stallworth and defensive backs, Samuel, Wilson and Gay.

When does the roster really start to be formed? Usually in February, when the coaches have looked at film and front office people know what they have for salaries and such, they all gather and discuss the state of the team. It is these deep meetings where the decisions and options are looked at and made every year. Understanding your own players and their value, outlook and such is always the start of things. All of the team's evaluation must be done before free agency and the draft are even close. Adjustments can be found with strategies to what can be done to make them. The needs of a team and how players can be obtained that will fill those needs would also be part of it, but the concentration would be on the team as it was and what was needed to improve. What this all means is that each year, after evaluation, many decisions are made and personality and the fact that a player has been with a team for a number of years does not matter. It is all about a player's value at that time. It's a never ending process, changing with each year.

How easily though that many of the past departures have been forgotten? There have been numerous times that the tough decisions have been made and going forward, they will continue, to do what is needed to make this team better. Some will be controversial, as were those of the past, but fans need to look at how Patriot teams have been put together. It just seems that fans have short memories of what has been done as far the cuts and trades that the front office has made. This is a process that is far different than it was twenty or so years ago and the Patriots have shown their way is one of the best.

I think if one looks at the way the team played in a particular year, see the departures and arrivals, a lot of what the evaluation was can be deduced, especially when salaries are looked at. This year has been no different with major changes, especially the departures of some longtime players; Vrabel, Izzo, Cassel, Evans and others.

And it was after this period of free agency that the league meetings were held.and rule changes made. I understood the need for safety, but changing rules that would go against what a player has been taught for a decade or more does not make sense. As Rodney said, he played to the whistle, which it should be. There are safety issues and I understand the league wanting to cut down on them, but will any of these really do that? The kickoff and onside kick rules are puzzling in that way as well. I know that there have been serious injuries the last two years, but would these specific rules have prevented those serious injuries? I agree with Eagles President Lurie that some of these rules are taking away a very exciting part of the game and that does not help the NFL at all. And what about chop blocks? They are certainly a part of injuries and they are still allowed. The draft order does make better sense with the new way as many of these teams were getting higher picks than those teams who had a good record but did not make it to the post season. The Pats of this year came to mind about this, but it is much better that teams not in the playoffs have higher picks.

As interesting as the rule changes were, the best or worse it seemed was saved for last; the Goodell press conference. I know that the large controversy was about the extension of the season, but while that got all the play, few if any made comments about the reasoning for that from BadL . That was what I found most alarming; in what he said and how he dodged many of the questions.

Firstly, he kept mentioning about quality of the product a lot but then came up with this supposedly important and deep observation that preseason games were not up to the quality of regular season games. I mean, huh? Is that some unlocked secret from the NFL that they just realized this? Please! I mean anyone who in anyway was associated with any sport would know that preseason games would never be anything like regular games. But what Goodell was saying was that basically they should be. So quality should be there in preseason games as well. Is that correct Roger? A team should go all out to win those meaningless games as if they were as important as one two months later. Is that correct? If he truly believed that, he does not have a clue as to what these games are all about. That a leader of a sport would miss this entirely really shows why such a person should be far away from that sport. I guess if someone took his logic a step further, he'd be very happy to play twenty games with no preseason. In that way all would be quality games. This logic did not make any sense at all.

He proclaimed loudly that a team 'clearly' does not need four preseason games and I wondered how he knew this. Was he ever a coach or a player? What did he know first hand about any of that, or was he just parroting others. It was the arrogance that he showed mixed with only a bit of knowledge about the game and that was a combination that made me a bit ill..

Then there were questions. One that was about player health with the added two games, as the real games would be played with more intensity and speed. It was here that Goodell dropped the ball. He talked about 'safety' and those measures that were taken, but as for the health of the players with the added games, the wear and tear on them and how that was to be addressed, he basically sidestepped that question. Later when another questioner talked about the quality of the game being less at the end of the season, because of the longer play, he just mentioned teams would be playing in games that meant something. BadL got 'safety' mixed up with 'health' issues, and thought that 'meaningful' meant 'quality'. Yes, teams might be playing meaningful games at the end, but with players worn down by wear and tear, quality of play might be lowered. That was also sidestepped as was any comment on push back from the players. Instead, the 'it's a twenty game season' mantra was employed and spouted. Add in the push for international or neutral sight games and there was much more to it than just adding two. It was really shocking to me how he did not understand about what preseason games were all about.

There were also Coaches Fisher and McKay and they made the most sense of this. Obviously, the entire offseason would have to be looked at as with fewer preseason games, talent evaluation and development would be extremely reduced. There were thoughts about a spring league for those purposes, but no details about that. It also seemed like the push was on for eighteen, but these other things were more an afterthought, instead of going hand in hand with an extension of games. There was no talk of byes and where they would need to be, of roster expansion or of other things needed to make a lengthy season more palatable. Those would have to be looked at and implemented if was going to work. Goodell is hell bent on more than sixteen games and I hope he doesn't do this wrecklessly or there will be a great many problems with the changes he proposes.

More games does not equal better quality. The 'more equals better' philosophy misses the point of what real quality is. With that thinking twenty or more games would automatically be better and that is just silly. There is a point where the quality of play will be reduced and I think it is almost there now. When the teams that advance into the playoffs are more the teams that are injury free than the better teams, the breaking point is quite near. That is why I really think this extension of one or two games has to be looked at carefully. Remember, there was a time when twelve games made up a season and adding fifty percent more to this game is a large jump and may not be the best for the sport.

But as much as that was a hot topic, the underlying issue going forward will be the push for a new CBA and the ramifications if it is not done. With DeMaurice Smith as the head of the NFLPA, the race goes on to form a new CBA before the uncapped year so that all kinds of bad things will be avoided. What I have found interesting is that the poison pills do not seem all that bad and that many of the owners may welcome an uncapped year. It's not because they can spend a ton of money, but because it means 'no floor' and thusly a way to be more profitable. Sure, some teams will go the Steinbrenner route and try to get a Lombardi that way, but just as many will go cheap. It's not a pretty sight to think of and with the rookies trying to figure it out, I am quite a bit pessimistic. Already, the league has sent out a few trial balloons to try and have the union try to take back things that were already there. The whole 'put the draft before free agency' talk of two weeks ago was nothing more than one of them, as none of the owners or coaches had not heard a peep about that. With outside Smith and bozo Goodell, I think it will be folly to believe they will be able to hammer an agreement out. It took Upshaw and Tagliabue a long time to get it done and they had to have an extension of the free agency start to do that. What is on the table now not only is larger and more complex, but with rookies trying to figure it out, I tend to think the task will be too big for them. While I really wish to see them accomplish that and stabilize the game that so many enjoy, the thought of Goodell killing the golden goose and going down in flames is something that is appealing to me. Maybe that is how he will exit.

I was quite happy that the Patriots decided to honor owner Billy Sullivan with inducting him posthumously into the Patriot's Hall of Fame. Although he was not close to being a great owner, he did keep the team in New England, when times were tough. He did have some solid Patriot teams while he was the owner, but there were other things that always seemed to prevent a real franchise turn around. For all the pluses and minuses, he was a real character and the one who brought football to Boston. Without him, many in this area would probably be in New York Football Giant blue, something to me that would be a nightmare. Before the Patriots were in town, there was a large media hype with the Giants and that team was shoved down the throat of all sports fans in New England. It was the little engine that could that slowly changed that and Billy Sullivan was the driver. Thank you, Billy, for bringing football to the area and keeping this franchise alive!

RIP Lou Saban. It's sad to learn of the passing of this old time coach. Many people associate him with the Buffalo franchise as he coached the team in two eras, with some big time teams. Hardly anyone remembers that he was the Patriot's first coach, soon to be a rival coach for the Bills, as Mike Holovak took over here in Boston.

A special hello, to Scott Zolak and his wife, Amy, who I met at a nearby hospital a few days ago. Good luck with your new arrival.

 Stan Jaksina
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