Scott Pioli has decades of experience when it comes to building NFL teams. He made five trips to the Super Bowl as an executive, winning three championships as a member of the New England Patriots' front office. This background makes him the perfect teacher when it comes to significant NFL undertakings.
In this educational series presented via Q&A format, the five-time NFL Executive of the Year will shed light on hot topics and trends throughout the calendar year. With training camps in full swing, Pioli addresses how NFL teams construct their rosters in the weeks leading up to the start of the regular season.
1) How much of the 53-man roster is realistically in place heading into training camp?
Much of that depends on the state of the program. Coaching or front office changes can greatly impact the complexion of a roster, trust in relationships and player fits in a system or culture. On the flip side, a large percentage of the anticipated roster is usually in place for an established program. I've been on both sides of this. Coming into New England as a new staff in 2000, we had a strong idea of about 35 players (roughly 65 percent) of the 53-man roster. It might sound crazy now, but we weren't even sure if we inherited enough cap space to have a 53-man roster or full practice squad. In fact, there was a part of the season when we only carried 51 players on our roster and fewer players on our practice squad than the league max.
The 2015 Atlanta Falcons are another good example of the impact significant change at the top of the organization can have on the roster. The season prior, head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan preferred bigger players up front for their system. So when Dan Quinn arrived from Seattle in 2015, we had to overhaul the defense at almost every position to fit his system, bringing in smaller, faster players, many of whom became cornerstones during the team's run to Super Bowl LI.
Our 2007 Patriots team went into training camp with a very strong sense that about 50 of the final 53 slots were essentially locked in. We were absolutely loaded that year, a rare exception.
Obviously, roster construction differs across organizations -- and I can only speak to what I know -- but decision-makers must always be open-minded enough to keep good players or prospects around. For instance, there were three quarterbacks ahead of 2000 sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady on the depth chart, but we were willing to keep him as a fourth QB on the 53-man roster -- unheard of at the time -- because we saw something special in him and didn't want another team to get his talents. At the end of the day, you have to retain the players who give you the best chance to win while keeping an eye on the future and player development. You must also be willing to acknowledge that your predetermined beliefs might be wrong. Keep in mind that there normally is constant turnover among the final 5-10 roster slots due to injury and the constant search for upgrades.
2) Who is most involved in roster-building decisions when it comes to practice reps, cuts, other transactions, etc.?
The process encompasses the entire offseason: minicamps, training camp and preseason games. Decisions involve input from coaches, player personnel, trainers, doctors and other key football operations members. A lot of tape review from the group goes into these evaluations; ideally, it's an organized process of conversation and input. This was essentially the approach taken at most of my early career stops -- with the Browns, Jets and Patriots -- then we used those same core values and general principles (with enhancements along the way, of course) when I was hired as general manager of the Chiefs.
Determining a player's practice or preseason reps is dependent on the structure of the organization and trust in the relationships of the leadership group and the experience of your assistant coaches. Again, in an ideal scenario, the group should be working collaboratively, engaging in daily conversations after watching tape and practices to determine future reps. If there is a discrepancy in the evaluation of a player, that individual will likely get more reps in practice or preseason to further help everyone come to a consensus.
Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, a fifth-round draft selection in 2015 by the Falcons, is a great example. Our leadership group went to Clemson that offseason with our primary purpose being to work out Vic Beasley. Jarrett, Beasley's teammate with the Tigers, was on our radar, but because of his short stature/arms in comparison to our prototypes, there was a discrepancy in multiple corners of the organization. Everyone loved his style of play, but he wasn't a conventional fit for Dan Quinn's defense. We ended up drafting Beasley in Round 1 and couldn't pass up Jarrett with the 137th overall pick in Round 5. He was given a ton of reps in camp and throughout the preseason because the leadership group was still divided on him. Soon enough, though, skeptics couldn't deny his talent. Jarrett played in 15 games and had two starts his rookie season.
It's important to note that one of the most important voices in finalizing the roster is the special teams coach. Special teams are such a crucial -- though sometimes overlooked -- aspect of the game, so there must be players who can perform at a high level in key roles on kickoffs, punts, field goals, etc. The final 5-10 spots on the roster are often made up of players who are core special teams contributors.
That said, the leadership groups I have worked with never really felt the final roster was final -- just like the practice squad roster was never final. Constant competition is always at the forefront.
3) How much are general managers in contact with one another about potential trades and player transactions?
This, like most NFL processes, differs from club to club, but generally speaking, there are ongoing conversations between general managers around the league. A great lesson I learned from Bill Parcells when I was with the New York Jets was that you can help others without hurting yourself when it comes to player transactions. He had a great working relationship with Green Bay Packers GM Ron Wolf, a trusted friend of Parcells who would come to our camp for two or three days. Then we would go to Packers camp to learn about some of their players on the roster bubble. It's important to have close working relationships with decision-makers from the other conference -- with the hope being that the two parties won't be in competition until the Super Bowl -- in an effort to continue upgrading your roster. However, you can only have so many of these types of relationships.
The GM and pro personnel department are also tasked with watching players from other teams -- via film study and/or public information -- and keeping the head coach and coaching staff abreast of potential opportunities to bring in other players. Remember, teams are always looking to get one player better, and one team's eighth- or ninth-best offensive lineman might be better than your sixth-best guy at the position. You have to look at every spot on your roster through that prism, as you're always trying to improve your team while facilitating and maintaining good chemistry.
A good example of this is Russ Hochstein, a 2001 fifth-round draft pick of the Buccaneers who spent his rookie season on the team's roster but was inactive for all 16 games. We, the Patriots, signed him to our practice squad after he was waived by the Bucs in September of 2002. We had studied him through training camp because we lacked depth on the interior O-line. Hochstein could play guard and center -- the ability to man multiple positions is a valuable trait in backup players. The 10th- or 11th-best guy for the Bucs was quickly elevated to our active roster and he played a ton for us from 2003 through '08, logging 91 games with 20 starts.
4) What do teams aim to get out of joint practices?
Joint practices can be extremely beneficial. Years ago, the Cheese League was made up of NFL teams that held their training camps and scrimmages in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The league reached its apex in 1995 with six teams. When I was part of the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s, we were exposed to the Cheese League as a Midwest outsider. We visited the Chicago Bears at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, spending a week there in advance of a preseason game between the two teams.
Joint practices were something we took part in at each one of my career stops. From a competition standpoint, players and coaches spend so much time going against each other in practices that they often learn their own intrasquad strengths, weaknesses and limitations. They also know the checks, calls and signals of their teammates. That's simply not the case when you compete against another team. Doing so helps decision-makers evaluate their players (and the opponent's) against play-callers and schemes that are unfamiliar to them. The heightened urgency in these circumstances also provides insight on how players and coaches might react in real game action.
By the time joint practices usually come around, decision-makers know the ability level and individual standards of each of their players. This competition gives you an idea of how your own players measure up in performance level and ability. This is also a chance to evaluate the other team's players in areas you can't get a feel for by watching film: work ethic, intelligence, behavior, etc. This can be a key scouting opportunity.
Lastly, joint practices are an opportunity to evaluate your own organization while also seeing how other clubs operate. They might have better ideas or processes that you will want to adopt. It's potentially a big learning experience.
5) What are the main stress points for a general manager between the start of training camp and final roster cuts?
I wish I could say the stress during training camp is minimal -- and it can be -- but there are so many uncontrollable factors that can rear their ugly heads. The first and perhaps most obvious stressor is injuries. You can take all the precautions in the world by limiting padded or full-contact practices, but sometimes fluky, non-contact injuries happen. Then decision-makers are forced to adjust based on the extent of the injury.
Other uncontrollable factors include contract issues (a player holdout) or if a player gets into trouble away from the facility. There are contract disputes nearly every year, and there's a fine line to toe to keep the player happy while doing what's best for the organization. Decision-makers must always keep the salary cap in mind when making contract decisions, cuts or signings during this time. It's important to remember that while we're in a hypothetical NFL bubble leading into the season, real life happens outside of the sport and many unplanned or unforeseen events can make an impact on a franchise.
Lastly, the toughest part of training camp and the preseason is releasing players. When that heart-wrenching job is done, it's important to compartmentalize and lead. The sadness of the moment is intertwined with the excitement of a new day, season and hope for the team, organization and fan base.