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Roster Depth Key To Winning Championships

From Pat Kirwan, CBS Sports: "Football is a game of attrition. Roster depth is the only real way to the playoffs and beyond". Last season, the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl, having had 11 players on IR, PUP, NFI, or under suspension. Seahawks starters missed a combined 35 games last season. Roster depth was undoubtedly a key factor in their run to the title.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent article for CBS Sports (link), Pat Kirwan addressed the importance of roster depth to a teams Super Bowl aspirations. Kirwan suggests there are 13 categories/questions that have to get a positive answer, for a team to qualify as having solid roster depth.

Kirwan conducted an analysis of all 32 NFL rosters, to determine which teams have the best roster depth. The Cincinnati Bengals came out on top, with 12 positive answers in the 13 categories. Seattle, Washington, Tampa Bay, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco all received honourable mention, as teams with at least 9 positive answers in the 13 categories. Kirwan concludes by noting none of the above-mentioned teams have had to pay big money to their starting quarterbacks. Colin Kaepernick's big contract with San Francisco is the first - among these teams with quality roster depth - where that issue is starting to emerge. The other teams mentioned aren't far behind in having to deal with burgeoning quarterback contracts in the near future.

August 4 update: The Cincinnati Bengals signed QB Andy Dalton to a 6-year, $115 million contract extension (link). His salary cap hit for 2014 - before signing the new contract - was $1.659 million.

From Anthony Stalter - 101 ESPN:

"Versatility and depth. Injuries can turn title contenders into .500 teams and .500 teams into cellar dwellers. It’s the teams that maximize their rosters by stocking them with young, promising talent and bargain free-agent signings that can withstand an onslaught of injuries. For the teams that don’t prepare themselves, they’ll be easily exposed for their lack of foresight."

The Rams - under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead - are in year three of a major rebuild of the team. Only 5 starters - James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Sam Bradford, and Rodger Saffold - remain from the pre-Fisher/Snead regimes. The Rams have focused on rebuilding through the draft, selecting 28 players in the past three years. As many as 23 of the 28 players should make the final 2014 53-man roster. The Rams have also added many free agents and UDFA's to enhance roster depth. Notable additions this year include: QB Shaun Hill, WR Kenny Britt, G Davin Joseph, DT Alex Carrington, and CB Greg Reid. The quality and depth of the Rams' roster has improved significantly under Fisher and Snead. Do the Rams have solid roster depth, using the categories suggested by Pat Kirwan? How does the roster depth compare to the other 31 NFL teams' roster depth?

Does your team have a capable backup QB, one that can go at least 2-2 in a four-game stretch?

The Rams upgraded the backup QB position in the offseason, signing veteran Shaun Hill to a one-year contract. He replaces Kellen Clemens, who signed with San Diego as a free agent. Hill is one of the better backup QB's in the NFL, with a 13-13 record as a starter [35-26 in all games played in during his career]. Career stats: 6381 yards passing, 61.9 completion %, 41 TD's, 23 INT's, and an 85.9 QB rating.

Answer: Yes

Does your team have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?

The Rams' starting offensive line is unique in its composition. Four tackles [Jake Long, Greg Robinson, Rodger Saffold, and Joe Barksdale] will be the season-opening starters at the guard and tackle positions. The versatility of Robinson and Saffold - the projected starting guards - more than compensates for the lack of a "real swing" offensive tackle on the depth chart. Saffold in particular has ample experience at both tackle positions.

Answer: Yes

Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or centre?

Barrett Jones exhibits the versatility to play all 5 positions on the offensive line. Selected in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, last season was the equivalent of a "redshirt" year for Jones. He spent the entire season recovering from a Lisfranc foot injury, and getting stronger - and into football shape - via the weight room. The Rams are expecting Jones to contribute versatility and depth to the interior offensive line this coming season, and are impressed with his progress to-date (link):

"Coach Jeff Fisher noted that Jones is in a much different place than he was last year at this time."

"Barrett was coming off the injury and really couldn't do much," Fisher said. "He spent a lot of time in the second half of the year and through the entire offseason in the weight room. He's changed his body, he's gotten much much more strength inside; his feet are moving a lot."

As Jones gains experience and receives playing time, the answer to this question will undoubtedly turn into a "yes". In the interim, the Rams will have to rely on two players - Davin Joseph and Tim Barnes - for depth on the interior line.

Answer: No

Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?

In back-to-back wins against Indianapolis and Chicago in 2013, Benny Cunningham rushed for a combined 181 yards on 20 attempts. Promising RB Tre Mason - chosen in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft - has the talent to challenge Zac Stacy for the starting role in the Rams backfield.

Answer: Yes

Is there a good second tight end on the roster?

Brandon Bate addressed this question in detail, in an article for TST in late May:

"The Rams have a fair mix of both [blocking and receiving], fielding Cook and Kendricks.  Essentially, one man’s strength is another man’s struggle.  Cook, who lead the team in receiving yards in 2013 [with 671 yards] has shown an ability to be lethal as a receiver.  He struggles, to say the least, with the responsibilities of blocking.  It’s quite the opposite for Kendricks.  A second round selection out of Wisconsin in 2011, Kendricks is entering the final year of his rookie deal.  He’s often praised for his blocking, but earned the moniker "Handbricks" early in his NFL career...for obvious reasons.  He’s since made adjustments and has more reliable hands.  Doubling back to the original point, the Rams have a good [not great] tandem at the position.  The team seems content with that."

Answer: Yes

Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter went down?

A better question to ask may be: Who are the Rams' starting WR's?. The recently released 2014 Training Camp Guide lists Tavon Austin and Chris Givens as "expected starters". Yesterday, the depth chart was updated, with Kenny Britt listed as a starter, ahead of Chris Givens (link)Brian Quick and Kenny Britt have impressed thus far in OTA's and training camp. With strong camps, they both could emerge as starters in three-WR sets. There are many question marks surrounding the receiving corps. Heading into the preseason, the unit has a lot of potential, potential that must be translated into results on the field. The question of quality depth cannot be answered positively until well into the 2014 season.

Answer: No

Does your team have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?

The Rams do not have a Von Miller/Bruce Irvin-type designated pass-rush specialist on the roster. The Rams don't necessarily need a designated pass-rush specialist, for they have many "un-designated" pass-rushers who are capable of generating sacks/quarterback pressures. The defence as a whole tallied 53 sacks in 2013 [3rd in the NFL, after leading the league in 2012]. The additions of Alex Carrington and Aaron Donald to the interior line - plus the hiring of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator - should have an immediate, positive impact on the pass-rush/sack totals.

Player 2013 Sacks
Robert Quinn 19.0
Chris Long 8.5
Michael Brockers 5.5
William Hayes 5.0
Kendall Langford 5.0
James Laurinaitis 3.5
Eugene Sims 2.0
Alec Ogletree 1.5
Matt Conrath 1.0

Answer: Yes

Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could play the whole game if need be?

The Rams were not satisfied with the rotational depth of the interior defensive line, behind starters Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers. Remedying this situation was a priority in the offseason. The Rams upgraded the interior line with the signing of Free Agent DT Alex Carrington, and the selection of DT Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Reserve DT Jermelle Cudjo was released. Third-year DT Matt Conrath will have a difficult time making the final roster. Carrington is a proven veteran, and Donald should have an immediate impact as a pass-rush specialist.

Answer: Yes

Is there a quality nickel corner on the roster, since most teams are at least 50% sub defences?

The Rams parted ways with CB Cortland Finnegan in the offseason, after two disappointing seasons with the team. The Rams spent considerable resources to upgrade the position during the offseason. Lamarcus Joyner was selected in the 2nd Round of the 2014 NFL Draft. E.J. Gaines was chosen in the 6th Round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Greg Reid was signed as a free agent. Marcus Roberson and Jarrid Bryant were UDFA signings. Joyner is expected to earn the nickel/slot corner position in his rookie season, over 2013 5th Round draft choice Brandon McGee. Joyner is a talented player, who will bring leadership and feisty-ness to the secondary. The biggest issue in this group is the lack of experience. McGee is the only player on the roster with experience - 1 year -  vying for the third corner position, and he still requires more development. A positive answer to this question cannot be considered until well into the 2014 season.

Answer: No

Is there a fourth corner for dime packages?

See previous question above. Again, a positive answer to this question cannot be considered until well into the 2014 season.

Answer: No

Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?

Veteran safeties Darian Stewart and Matt Giordano were not re-signed by the Rams during the offseason. Matt Daniels returns from an ankle injury suffered in Week 2, which ended his 2013 season. Injuries have hampered Daniels' progress since he signed with the Rams as a UDFA in 2012. Cody Davis is still a developmental project, heading into his second year with the team. The Rams drafted a pair of safeties in the 2014 NFL Draft: Maurice Alexander in the fourth round, and Christian Bryant in in the seventh round. Avery Cunningham was added as a UDFA in May. The Rams became a lot younger at the safety positions during the offseason. Although Davis, Alexander, and Daniels offer much potential, there's very little NFL experience behind starters Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald.

Answer: No

Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punt and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?

WR Tavon Austin will likely be a starter for the Rams this year. In 2013, he handled most of the punt return duties, while sharing kick returns with Benny Cunningham. Much is expected of Austin in his second season with the Rams. With his versatility and big-play explosiveness, Austin will be among the league leaders in all-purpose yards this coming season.

Answer: Yes

Does your team have a special-teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?

Both Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates played prominent roles - on special teams - last season, after being signed as UDFA's in 2013. Neither would be considered true inside linebackers, although both could fill the role if called upon to do so. Alec Ogletree would likely move to the middle if James Laurinaitis sustained an injury. Both Bates and Armstrong are expected to progress in their second years, provide quality depth at all three linebacker positions, and lead the special teams units. The answer here is yes...if only by a hair.

Answer: Yes

Rams Updated 90-Man Roster And Depth Chart - Tuesday, August 5

C Scott Wells Tim Barnes Demetrius Rhaney
RG Rodger Saffold Davin Joseph Travis Bond D.J. Morrell
LG Greg Robinson Barrett Jones Brandon Washington
RT Joe Barksdale Sean Hooey R.J. Dill
LT Jake Long Mike Person Mitchell Van Dyk
TE Jared Cook Justice Cunningham Alex Bayer
TE Lance Kendricks Cory Harkey Mason Brodine
WR Tavon Austin Stedman Bailey T.J. Moe Austin Franklin
WR Brian Quick Austin Pettis Emory Blake
WR Kenny Britt Chris Givens Justin Veltung Jordan Harris
RB Tre Mason Isaiah Pead Trey Watts Kadeem Jones
RB Zac Stacy Benny Cunningham Chase Reynolds
QB Sam Bradford Shaun Hill Austin Davis Garrett Gilbert
PK Greg Zuerlein
P John Hekker Bobby Cowan
LS Jake McQuaide Jorgen Hus
DT Kendall Langford Aaron Donald Deantre Harlan
DT Michael Brockers Alex Carrington Matt Conrath
DE Chris Long Eugene Sims Michael Sam Kourtnei Brown
DE Robert Quinn William Hayes Ethan Westbrooks
MLB James Laurinaitis Phillip Steward Aaron Hill Pat Schiller
OLB Alec Ogletree Daren Bates Etienne Sabino Johnny Millard
OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar Ray Ray Armstrong Sammy Brown Lawrence Wilson
CB Janoris Jenkins Brandon McGee Marcus Roberson
CB Trumaine Johnson Greg Reid Darren Woodard
CB Lamarcus Joyner E.J. Gaines Jarrid Bryant
S Rodney McLeod Maurice Alexander Christian Bryant Avery Cunningham
S T.J. McDonald Cody Davis Matt Daniels

Notes And Observations

The Rams have 8 positive/yes answers to the 13 questions/categories proposed by Pat Kirwan. This would place them in the top half of the league in terms of roster depth. The biggest issue affecting the quality of depth is inexperience. The Rams could conceivably be the youngest team in the NFL again this season.

On defense, the area of most concern is the secondary. It's possible the Rams will keep 5 CB's on the season-opening 53-man roster. Starters Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are entering their third seasons. The remaining three spots on the roster would likely be filled by two rookies, and second-year CB Brandon McGee. While talented and filled with promise, this units' inexperience could pose problems for the Rams if the injury bug hits. It's also possible the Rams will keep 5 safeties on the season-opening 53-man roster. Starters Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald are entering their third and second seasons, respectively. The remaining three spots on the roster would likely be filled by rookie Maurice Alexander, second-year S Cody Davis, and third-year S Matt Daniels. Collectively, the three backups have virtually zero game experience at their positions, a situation that again could pose problems for the defense if injuries are sustained.

The lack of experienced depth at linebacker is mildly concerning. An injury - for an extended period of time/games - to James Laurinaitis and/or Alec Ogletree could be problematic when the Rams aren't in a nickel package. Overall, the Rams' depth in their back-seven will be talented, but inexperienced, and lacking the veteran presence of Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano, Cortland Finnegan, and Will Witherspoon.

Given the recent injury histories of Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold, and Jake Long, having quality, experienced depth on the offensive line is imperative for the Rams. Injuries to the interior linemen may test the Rams' depth at these positions, as will injuries to Jake Long or Joe Barksdale [forcing the Rams to move Rodger Saffold or Greg Robinson outside]. Tim Barnes and Barrett Jones have limited experience. Davin Joseph is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, with injuries playing a role in the decline of his performance level. Tackle depth - Mike Person, Sean Hooey, Mitchell Van Dyk - is inexperienced and untested.

The Rams are developing/building one of the more talented and deeper rosters in the NFL. They've accomplished this despite having to pay bigger monies - a legacy contract from the old CBA - to QB Sam Bradford. This speaks volumes about the current regime's team-building abilities. The other teams mentioned in this article have only just begun - Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton being the first ones this year - to deal with the prospect of re-signing their quarterbacks to larger contracts.

The biggest question mark surrounding the Rams' roster depth is inexperience, primarily in the defensive back-seven and offensive line. Football is indeed a game of attrition, with injuries playing a critical role in a teams fortunes. A short Injured Reserve list - and continued development of this young roster - will be key to the Rams' playoff hopes and aspirations this coming season.