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A Numbers Game: Making An NFL Roster

08/28/2014 05:34 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2014
Jamie Squire via Getty Images

Making an NFL team's 53-man roster starts in training camp. According to NFL rules, each team can only have 90 players when training camp starts. The 90-man roster consists of players from the previous year, drafted and undrafted rookies and free agents from other teams. The process that all teams undergo to get from 90 to 53 can be difficult to understand. For players who are vying to make a team, it can be more stressful and challenging than playing the game itself.

So in an effort to educate many new and old fans of the NFL on what Michael Sam and other players are experiencing, I traveled to St. Louis and sat down with head coach Jeff Fisher, general manager Les Snead and two Rams players for a more detailed understanding of their process.

All eyes will be on the Rams this year because they drafted the NFL's first openly gay player. Though by all accounts Michael Sam is having a wonderful experience, he, like almost all other players, will be feeling the stress of cut-down day.

I spent two years with the Tennessee Titans under the leadership of coach Jeff Fisher, trying to make the Titans roster. Though I got called into his office twice to find out that I was being sent to NFL Europe (when it existed), understanding the entire process and his candor made all the difference.

When training camp starts, depending on the recent success of the team, the contract length of veteran players, salary-cap issues, and player health before and during training camp, many teams are already very confident that of the 53 available spots, 45 are filled by returning and early-round draft picks. That leaves room for only eight addition players, not including the 10 spots available for the practice squad.

So even those who aren't great with math, like me, understand that the odds aren't comforting for the other 45 guys on the team vying for only eight roster spots.

Second-year Rams linebacker Daren Bates knows it all too well. "You can't focus on the whens and ifs," he said. "You just have to keep balling and try your hardest to block everything else out."

To some, blocking everyone and everything out might seem easy, but everyone knows that the majority of rookies in training camp aren't going to make the team.

But, as Snead explained, "it's a number game that players understand."

Players understand that, but what about fans cheering hard for Michael Sam? Do they understand that most late-round and rookie free agents don't make the team, and that sometimes that means having to let a good player go?

Let's run the numbers again. Each team starts camp with a maximum of 90 players. That's 2,880 total players in the NFL. After the fourth pre-season game, each team is mandated to get down to 53. But Fisher noted, "Some teams will keep less than 53 players because they are eyeing other players and have an idea of which players that are going to be let go by another team but have the ability to make their roster."

So, at minimum, there will be 1,184 players released, maybe more, as teams shuffle their rosters before the regular season starts. The shuffling doesn't end there. Players are released, added, traded, or, if injured, placed under a reserved designation, depending on the severity of the injury.

The NFL has expanded the size of its "practice" or "developmental" roster from eight to 10 players. Even those players who are added to the practice squad must still be released or "cut" by their respective teams first and wait 24 hours in order for them to "clear waivers." This allows other teams the opportunity to sign released players to their 53-man roster before they can resign to a team's practice squad.

The complicated nature of making an NFL team can be tiresome. Now imagine being a first-year player whose dream is to play in the NFL, and you've just been told that you're being released. Snead understands the pressure and anxiety of that day. "It's not a good day, so we don't give pep talks," he said. "We try to walk players through what the next steps are in the process."

This is where LaRoi Glover, the Rams' director of player engagement, takes center stage. Glover's immediate goal is to ensure that released players understand what resources are available from the league and the Rams, and that players have the needed contact information moving forward.

Fisher has been involved in this process on some level for 20 years. "I personally speak to every released player, because I want him to know the truth," he said. "I want players to get all the answers they need before they walk out of the building."

Getting the answers is important, but as someone who was cut multiple times, I can attest that the answers rarely provide comfort. But Fisher's approach does have value. He tells players whether he believes they need a hundred or a thousand more snaps and reinforces the idea that they should continue their dream of playing in the NFL -- or sometimes he delivers more sobering news.

"Sometimes the conversation is, 'You're just not good enough to play in the NFL, and you may want to think about doing something else,'" Fisher explained. "Whether a player agrees isn't the question.... I want and feel that it's my responsibility to tell players the truth based on my own individual evaluation of them."

Though many NFL coaches, like Fisher, have individual conversations with players they are about to release, the stress that players feel is extremely real. After battling back from knee surgery to make the team's 53-man roster, second-year running back Benny Cunningham, who signed with the Rams out of college as an undrafted free agent, remembers sitting in a hotel room, hoping and praying that his hotel or cellphone wouldn't ring. "[I was] saying to myself, 'Please don't call me. Please don't call me,'" Cunningham said.

He added that even after battling to make the 53-man roster, "I didn't feel comfortable until week 12. That was when I finally thought I was on the team and they weren't going to cut me."

Being "cut" by a team isn't just about the feeling that your football career may be over before it starts. Many players feel it is like being separated from their family.

Going through training camp, players spend countless hours together, and many, especially the guys who play the same position, experience a great sense of loss when one of their brothers is released.

"I'm still very close friends with [ex-Rams running back] Darryl Richardson, and we talk if not every day, every other day," Cunningham said.

The NFL, for all its bravado and physicality, is, at its heart, a family. Friendships are created and ripped apart when teams have to release players. Everyone hurts, but everyone understands and respects the process.