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Right way to build roster depth? Patriots, Steelers, Bears, Cowboys, Lions do it best

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Theoretically, Brian Hoyer could help the Pats survive a four-game stretch without Tom Brady. (Getty Images)  
Theoretically, Brian Hoyer could help the Pats survive a four-game stretch without Tom Brady. (Getty Images)  

There's no doubt to win in the NFL you need great players. Injuries can reduce a solid playoff contender to a mediocre team that can't put wins together.

Last year a lot of people felt the Rams were poised for a division title and a playoff run. Instead a rash of injuries crippled the team and everyone running the club was fired.

Roster depth is critical and some teams have done a better job of building up the back end of their roster in hopes of surviving the injuries and making a run in the postseason.

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As one GM I interviewed said, "It is impossible to have perfect roster depth and hit on all the critical areas. But to be a team ready for the 16-game season, it must really hit on most of the areas listed below."

1. A backup quarterback who can go at least 2-2 if he had to take over for a month straight.

2. A second running back who could be a 1,000-yard back if he had to take over or at least generate 75 yards of offense a week as a runner and receiver.

3. A third wide receiver who could go in for a starter down and generate 4-6 receptions a game as an X or a Z.

4. A second tight end who could be a legitimate threat as a blocker or receiver.

5. Two experienced backup offensive linemen. A swing tackle for either side and an inside player for the guards/center. Experience required because they will not get many reps in practice until injuries occur.

6. A third defensive tackle already in a rotation who could play a whole game well if a starter went down.

7. A pass-rush specialist who could play some run down situations if a starter went down.

8. A fourth cornerback who could bump up to the nickel corner if that player had to replace an injured starter.

9. A third safety who can start or provide a defense with an opportunity to play some 'Big Nickel' when needed.

10. Four core special-teams players who could help on offense or defense in a pinch. That is a total of 14 players not listed as starters that become the most important people on a roster when injuries take starters off the field. Which teams look the most ready to answer the challenge of roster depth?

So what teams did the best job meeting these criteria this offseason?

New England Patriots

The biggest question in Foxboro will always be what if Tom Brady goes down with an injury? It happened once before and Matt Cassel answered the bell. Teams around the league tell me Brian Hoyer and backup Ryan Mallett could keep this team running for a month. As for the other nine criteria, the Patriots did a masterful job in the offseason. Backups on this team include: WRs Deon Branch, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, OLs Robert Gallery, Marcus Cannon, RB Joseph Addai, TE Daniel Fells, DLs Jonathan Fanane, Ron Brace, Gerard Warren, LBs Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower, DBs Raz I Dowling and Will Allen, and core special teamers Julian Edelman, Tony Fiametta, Spencer Larson, and Danny Woodhead who can all play a position well.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers already proved they can go 3-1 without Ben Roethlisberger and they return Byron Leftwich and the ageless Charlie Batch. As for the rest of the backups: WRs Emmanuel Sanders, Jericho Cotchery, OLs Doug Legursky, Trai Essex, Jonathan Scott, TE Leonard Pope, RB Isaac Redman, DLs Cameron Heyward, Alamdea Ta'Amu, LBs Jason Worilds, Sylvester Stevenson, DBs Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen and Ryan Munday.

Chicago Bears

A bit of a surprise team but the Bears have been busy. Two key free agent signings in back up roles are QB Jason Campbell, and RB Michael Bush. Also WRs Earl Bennett, Devon Hester, OLs Chris Williams, Chilo Rachal, DLs Israel Idonije, Stephen Paea, Chauncy Davis, LB Geno Hayes and DB Kelvin Hayes have all upgraded the depth on this roster.

Dallas Cowboys

Kyle Orton may be the best backup quarterback in the NFL and Dallas always puts a premium on that position. Heck, the head coach was a Dallas backup quarterback. Orton alone has to put the Cowboys in the top five teams. Dallas doesn't have the depth of the Patriots, Steelers or Bears but they do have some key backups to go along with Orton. Felix Jones, Pat McQuistan, Marcus Spears, Dan Connor, Orlando Scandrick and Michael Jenkins are a solid group.

Detroit Lions

Even though there are off the field problems with three members of the draft class of 2011, the Lions have been building up a deep roster on the field. QB Shaun Hill, RB Kevin Smith, WRs Titus Young and Ryan Broyles, OT Riley Reiff, TE Tony Scheffler, and an outstanding second team defensive line with Lawrence Jackson, Nick Fairley, Sammie Lee Hill and Willie Young. In the secondary Jacob Lacey, Dwight Bentley and Eric Coleman aren't bad.

Honorable mention for roster depth goes to Buffalo, San Francisco, New York Giants and Houston. The Bills have a lot of ground to make up but are moving quickly to have great depth including Vince Young, Fred Jackson, David Nelson, defensive linemen Chris Kelsey, Dwan Edwards, Shawn Merriman, Alex Carrington, Torell Troupe and DBs Leodis McKelvin and Aaron Williams.

Ask yourself how many of the 10 criteria did your team meet to be ready for the 2012 season.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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