Training camp fans in 2012
Training camp fans in 2012 Credit: KEITH ALLISON/FLICKR

The NFL changed the roster cutdown rules this preseason, eliminating the initial cut from 90 to 75, and instead allowing teams to cut straight from 90 to 53 after the final preseason game. This matters mainly to those longshot players who will now get an extra preseason game on tape, and also for those non-longshots who can now sit out the entire final preseason game entirely.

It also matters to the NFL media, as it makes the 53-man roster projection an all-or-nothing bet. No more 90 to 75 to 53. Now it’s a straight cliff-dive from 90, which, according to Rich Tandler of NBC Sports Washington, makes “no difference. [I] never had any of those guys who were gone in the first cut anyway.”

Like many of his fellow beat writers (and podcasters, and TV personalities, and radio yappers), Tandler uses the cutdown column as a reliable click-grab during preseason, but he’s particularly committed to the bit: he does them “once after free agency, again after the draft, after minicamp, one after about a week of [training] camp and 1-2 more during camp.” (He then adds, unprompted, “Yeah, that’s a lot.”)

I’m baffled by the popularity of this type of column, which stands to reason because I’m also baffled by the popularity of mock drafts, radio row at the Super Bowl, and the entire concept of sports news “scoops”. But really, what’s the point of this exercise?

Tandler says that, for him, it helps initially to focus his own attention during camp on the positions in flux, but he also freely acknowledges that it gets great audience traction, driving discussion and argument in the comments and on social media.

But why? Any fan knows for absolutely certain about 40 of the players who will make the eventual 53 before camp even starts. (Tandler puts it at 42 locks, minimum, or 47 more liberally, for this year’s Washington squad.) Given that eight players are inactive on gameday, this debate amounts to throwing darts to see who will fill out the bottom five spots on a gameday roster—and doing it with little real idea what the coaches are thinking.

(The media may have more insight into coaches’ plans than the average fan, but they often can’t let on if they do if they want to be trusted with such sacred information in the future. So they have to pretend to be guessing just as blindly as anyone else.)

And it’s an exercise that will inevitably be rendered pointless on September 1, when the waveform collapses and 37 of Schroedinger’s football players turn on to be dead cats.

To save everyone all the tedium of this once and for all, I present here the evergreen 53-man roster cutdown.

The three specialists. Sure, maybe there’s a battle for the punter spot or the team is testing out a new long snapper, but there’s going to be a K, a P, and an LS on the team. Lock it in.

The offseason’s big free agent signings. They’re not going anywhere.

Any draft picks from the top three or four rounds. There will be talk about sliding some of these guys through to the practice squad. Ignore it.

Then there are the below, assuming they don’t overlap with the previous categories:

The starting QB. You know who this is going to be, even if the team is pretending they don’t.

The backup QB. You know who this is, too, and if you don’t, it’s the other guy the team is pretending might be the starting QB.

The best all-around RB, and the best pass-catching RB. Usually pretty clear.

One more RB. Here’s a chance to stake out some territory! Pick the unheralded young kid instead of the stolid veteran! Predict a trade

Another RB. This is probably some guy that was on the team last year.

The good WRs. There are probably two. Three if you stretch.

Another WR or two. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong, so why not pick a random training camp star? That seven-foot rookie out of Mount St. Mary’s is your guy!

The best receiving TE, the best blocking TE, and some backup TE. Also usually clear.

The starting offensive line. Maybe there’s a position battle at one spot, but the big debate is about how many extras the team will carry. (The answer is always “one fewer than they’ll need.”)

Over on defense, you’ve definitely got the eight guys who are going to play nearly every down if possible. They are usually former members of the high-draft-pick or big-ticket-free-agent categories.

The boring veterans who will keep their spots for being “leaders” and “reliable” and “uninteresting” despite the presence of some random kid who seems promising in preseason.

The training camp phenom. This is it. This is the one call that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile. (“I had fan-favorite Lache Seastrunk getting cut a few years ago,” Tandler says. “Was told I was crazy.”) If you get him wrong, no one will really care or even notice. The regular season is the only thing that matters by then. But if you get it right, you’ve justified doing 53-man roster projections for as many preseasons as you want.

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.