The process of reducing a roster is not about having the most talented 53 players on opening day. It's about having the best combination of "game day" players. It's about keeping players like Sean Morey, who will hardly ever see the field at wide receiver but is one of Pittsburgh's top contributors on special teams, and Philadelphia's Mike Bartrum, who spent most of his career as a deep snapper but has proven to be a clutch receiver as an emergency tight end.
Ask any NFL head coach or general manager and he will tell you the back end of the roster makes the difference in having a good nucleus with a team's high-paid talent. Reliable depth also keeps a team in the playoff hunt come Week 10, 11 or 12 after losing a pair of key performers to injury.
The players that go unnoticed but perform tasks such as "wedge buster," "gunner" or even "personal protector" can create the same gray hairs or lost hours of sleep for a talent evaluator if he's unable to find versatile, dedicated athletes willing to perform the underappreciated tasks that allow the $10 million running back and franchise quarterback to shine in late fourth-quarter comebacks.
Below is a quick glance at a few players on each NFC roster who could be surprise faces come opening day. It will also give you an idea of the potential sore spots on a team's depth chart. In fact, with each team having to make at least 30 to 35 cuts in order to get down to its final roster, you may also see a few names that later become available on the open market. Those final few cuts usually come down to a control issue between a special teams or line coach pushing for an inexperienced backup that has shown raw talent in practice and a front office preferring to keep an over-priced veteran free agent.
Washington Redskins – Signed as an undrafted free-agent offensive lineman, Jasper Harvey will gain most of his reps at the center position. He also has experience at guard, so he could shift to that spot during preseason games so they can judge if he will be a reliable backup in-season. He caught the eye of offensive line coach Joe Bugel during the team's rookie camps and minicamps, but he will have to fight it out with veterans Tyson Walter, Mike Pucillo and journeyman Jim Jones for one of two likely backup positions. … Safety Reed Doughty was a sixth-round pick in this past April's draft, but he brings a lot of intangibles. He's a very bright, dedicated kid with the potential to make an impact on special teams this season, and he plays faster than he times in the 40-yard dash. Always around the ball in college, Doughty is an overachiever that has the intelligence and aggressiveness to earn additional playing time from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams earlier than most will expect. … Signed as a free agent, cornerback Chris Hawkins has very good speed, and some even considered him to have a late-round grade for the draft. Hawkins will be fighting guys like Dimitri Patterson, Kenny Wright and Christian Morton. If he shows any type of coverage skills in the preseason, Hawkins, who has 4.4 speed, will earn a place on the practice squad. … Fullback/H-back Manuel White returns after missing last season with a broken leg. He has a good combination of size, hands and the ability to gain yardage after contact. White had a tendency to run a little upright at times while at UCLA, but he has the skill level to be successful behind Chris Cooley and Mike Sellers.
Dallas Cowboys – Cornerback Lenny Williams spent time on Tampa Bay's and Dallas' practice squads before landing a starting job in NFL Europe with eventual league champion Frankfurt Galaxy earlier this spring. The Cowboys are looking for a playmaker on returns, but Williams could also find his way onto the field in nickel and dime situations if he has a big camp. … Offensive guard D'Anthony Batiste gained experience in the CFL/AFL over the past few years. He's a big-body run blocker that needs to work on his game, but he has the size and power to battle guys like Cory Procter and Stephen Peterman for a reserve guard spot. … Safety Justin Beriault was on the verge of being a contributor as a rookie last summer when a torn MCL ended his season. The Cowboys have added depth at the safety position with the signing of Marcus Coleman and the drafting of Pat Watkins, but this kid has a nose for the ball and plays with the type of reckless abandon that coach Bill Parcells craves. … Kicker Shaun Suisham recorded 31 touchbacks during his college career at Bowling Green. The Cowboys said they have no need for a kickoff specialist after signing Mike Vanderjagt, but once Parcells sees Suisham pound three to four kickoffs out of bounds or drop between the 10- and 20-yard lines, the second-year pro could have new life. … Linebacker Oliver Hoyte is a perfect Parcells-type linebacker, with size (6-foot-1, 250 pounds), smarts and versatility. He's capable of playing inside or strong-side and is a very bright kid with leadership skills. He's a strong-willed kid that will find a place in the NFL, but he must fight off fellow undrafted rookie Kai Parham, Ryan Fowler and Scott Shanle for one of the team's final reserve spots.
New York Giants – Anthony Mix, a wide receiver/H-back from Auburn, needs to be more competitive at times when the ball is in the air, but at 6-4 and 235 pounds, he has the physical tools to develop behind Plaxico Burress. Injury-prone speedster Tim Carter, along with special teamers like David Tyree, Triandos Luke, Willie Ponder and Michael Jennings (who is coming off a big campaign in NFL Europe), are the remaining candidates to fill out the receiving corps. The Giants are likely to keep six receivers, so just three of the five names mentioned will earn roster spots. … Defensive tackle Jonas Seawright is a wide-body run stuffer who has made a lot of strides, both on and off the field since last year. He has gotten himself into much better shape and impressed coaches and veterans with his play during recent minicamps. Seawright shied from contact as he had several scrapes before the pads even went on, but the heat and competition of training camp will be the telltale sign if he can earn a place in the team's defensive line rotation. His tremendous wingspan could also allow him to block a few extra points or field goals along the way. … Cornerback Gerrick McPhearson could be the fastest guy in camp as he ran 4.21 in the 40 last spring for NFL scouts. The Giants have lined him up at right cornerback behind veteran All-Pro Sam Madison. McPhearson's speed will be used on coverage units and he could also be tried on a few returns. … Linebacker Nick McNeil, a former defensive end, has the road block of special teams ace Chase Blackburn standing in his way, but he could earn a backup role if veterans Brandon Short or Reggie Torbor struggle. McNeil, who spent the past two years making the conversion to linebacker, has some situational pass rush potential. … Undrafted offensive tackle Na'Shan Goddard would benefit from a strong start in camp since veteran swingman Lewis Kelly is currently on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list. He has long arms and good footwork for a 6-5, 320-pound blocker. Getting a look at right tackle, Goddard could earn a practice squad spot or better with a solid camp, but his upper-body strength must improve before he can contribute at the NFL level.
Philadelphia Eagles – Tight end Andy Thorn would need to earn a place on special teams, as the Eagles will also keep a third tight end as their primary deep snapper (Mike Bartrum). But Ryan Grigson, the man responsible for signing Thorn a few years ago and now the team's new director of college scouting, believes in Thorn's skills. That could help Thorn earn a roster spot. … Undrafted fullback Jason Davis has very good hands and loves contact. He has been injury-prone, so he'll probably have a better shot making the active roster on special teams. A broken bone in Davis' hand might allow the Eagles to keep both he and his main competition, Thomas Tapeh, since Davis could go on the PUP list. … Initially signed as an undrafted free agent by Pittsburgh two years ago, linebacker Dedrick Roper played special teams in mid-November and averaged two special teams tackles per game. He has good size and has shown the necessary toughness to make plays and create turnovers. If he fails to stick here, a team using a 3-4 base defense would do well to review his tapes at Northwood College in Michigan. He has "make it" skills for the NFL. … Wide receiver Billy Sampy, undrafted out of Louisiana-Lafayette, has limited special teams experience, but he could be tried on punt returns. His chief competition for the final receiver spot or practice squad job could come from Michael Gasperson. … Defensive back Brandon Pinderhughes, a former Division II standout at Nebraska-Omaha, is a good athlete who has better straight-line speed than most realize. He also plays the game aggressively as a defender and has experience at both cornerback and free safety.
Chicago Bears – They're looking for more production from the tight end position. Cooper Wallace, undrafted out of Auburn, has better hands than reserve John Gilmore, and that could be the difference in winning the final spot. … Cornerback Dion Bynum, an undrafted cornerback who led the MAC with six interceptions during his senior year at Ohio University, has good size (5-11, 190 pounds). He has a chance to earn the final cornerback spot, but if he doesn't, the Bears will look to add him to their practice squad.
Detroit Lions – Running back Arlen Harris made a name for himself filling in for Marshall Faulk the past few years in St. Louis, so offensive coordinator Mike Martz knows his value off the bench. Harris is also helped by the fact that he rejoined his former position coach, Wilbert Montgomery, by signing with the Lions. He can catch, run between the tackles and has flashed some return skills, too. If Kevin Jones lacks consistency or gets hurt, Harris could become a household name in Motown. … The Lions hope highly successful offensive line coach Larry Beightol can finally bring out the natural ability of tackle Courtney Van Buren, a former third-round choice of the Chargers. Van Buren is a 360-pound blocker with the footwork of a player 75 pounds lighter, but he has had injury, weight and consistency issues. If he can put those behind him, he could earn a backup job. … Defensive tackle Damian Gregory spent time in Tampa Bay the past two years, so new head coach Rod Marinelli is well aware of his skills. Gregory has been slowed in his career by knee injuries, so this might be the 29-year-old's last shot at the NFL.
Green Bay Packers – Cornerback Michael Hawkins played for the Dallas Desperados in the Arena League before being drafted two years ago in the fifth round. He has bulked up and improved his technique, and he now has a chance to become a vital part of the Packers' nickel and dime defense. … Signed off the Steelers' practice squad late last season when Green Bay had a rash of injuries, running back Noah Herron has improved his standing with the team with an impressive set of minicamp practices. The backfield is crowded again with the healthy return of Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Samkon Gado, but Herron could be used in a variety of roles, including special teams and maybe some reps at fullback. … Zac Alcorn had some of the best hands and production of any tight end available in last year's draft, but his NAIA pedigree caused him to go undrafted. He reminds me a lot of Casey Fitzsimmons, who has carved out a niche with the Lions after a similarly productive career at the NAIA level. Alcorn's athleticism and pass-catching skills could earn him at least a place on the practice squad.
Minnesota Vikings – A 2002 draft choice by New Orleans, quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan flashed some of the same intangibles and skills that finally allowed Jake Delhomme to earn a starting job in Carolina. Insiders in New Orleans felt he could duplicate Delhomme's feat if he was given the chance. O'Sullivan is very confident in his ability and still young enough to develop, but he has moved around a lot. He's already been coached by the Vikings' new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, who spent time with O'Sullivan in Green Bay. … Defensive tackle Spencer Johnson sat out last season due to a knee injury, but he had made his way into the team's defensive line rotation after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2004. With Pat Williams currently sidelined, Johnson is earning back his playing time and could become Minnesota's primary backup interior lineman. … Wide receiver Chris Jones has the chance to become a vertical threat and a special teamer after spending most of last season on the practice squad. A lot of teams are watching to see if the Vikings keep six receivers. Jones would have to be productive in the preseason to beat out veterans like Kevin Kasper and Dez White.
Atlanta Falcons – With special teams ace Kevin McCadam's departure via free agency (to Carolina), there is a need for a young, athletic safety to fill that void and back up veteran Lawyer Milloy. That man could be safety Cam Newton, who has very good straight-line speed, good ball skills and the willingness to play on all coverage units. … Offensive tackle Garrick Jones, who has gained experience on the practice squads of both Houston and Kansas City the past three years, has the body type and footwork to back up at either tackle spot. The Falcons lack ideal depth behind their veteran starters, and left tackle Wayne Gandy is not getting any younger. Look for Atlanta's staff to take a long look at both Jones and second-year pro Frank Omiyale. … Defensive tackle Darrell Shropshire, a seventh-round choice in 2005, could see extended playing time since he is ideal for the Falcons' nose tackle spot. He has shown good quickness off the ball and even recorded a pair of sacks in limited action last season. Atlanta may try to rotate two to three players during the preseason, but Shropshire ended his rookie season on the upswing. He was also one of the team's most dedicated performers in their offseason workout program.
Carolina Panthers – A former All-Arena League defender that led the league with 10 interceptions, defensive back Billy Parker was signed to Carolina's practice squad late last season. He could challenge for a backup and special teams role thanks to his ball skills and natural instincts. … Linebacker Adam Seward, a fifth-round choice in 2005, missed most of last season after breaking his foot. He has sideline-to-sideline speed, but the Panthers have added a lot of depth via free agency and the draft, so a productive preseason is necessary in order to earn a backup spot. … Defensive lineman Tony Brown re-signed this offseason for his second tour of duty with Carolina. He earned NFL Europe's co-Defensive Player of the Year award this past spring while playing for Amsterdam. Versatile enough to become the Panthers' chief backup at end or tackle, Brown could provide them with a good pass rusher off the bench. He started four games for the 49ers in 2004.
New Orleans Saints – Linebacker Tommy Polley has been a starter with both the Rams and Ravens, but he seemed to lose a step the past two years. He has quickly gained the attention of the Saints' new defensive coaching staff as he has been flying to the ball and showing the past attributes that allowed him to be taken in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft. Polley looks to have the inside track on one of the outside linebacker jobs and could revive what has been an average-at-best group of linebackers the past five years. … One of the team's seventh-round picks this past April, wide receiver Marques Colston earned praise from the coaching staff after minicamp. He has excellent size (6-4, 228) and ran in the 4.5 range for scouts. He also has the potential to learn both receiver positions and be used in the slot and special teams as well. The team lacks receivers with his type of size, and that should give Colston a leg up on the competition for the fifth and sixth wide receiver positions. … Undrafted out of Michigan, cornerback Grant Mason has good size (6-1, 190) and has been making plays in camp. The Saints, who lost feisty backup defender Fakhir Brown to the Rams in free agency, have been trying to develop cornerbacks for what seems to be the last 10 years. Mason could earn the final spot in the secondary if he keeps up his current pace through the preseason. … With Drew Brees in the fold, the offensive staff has been given permission to find unique ways to get Adrian McPherson's speed and athleticism on the field. He has run a few routes and caught some punts; the team has even tinkered with the idea of using him some on coverage units. Don't be surprised if the Saints employ McPherson in the "Slash" role to keep him on the active roster.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – A former Division III All-American at Bridgewater (Va.) College, linebacker Jermaine Taylor has a chance to impress in the preseason as a member of all the coverage units. He has spent time on the practice squad of Green Bay and he could provide the Bucs with a role player and special teams ace that is similar to a guy like Detroit's Paris Lenon. … Wide receiver Edell Shepherd has grown up in the organization since being signed three years ago. He has vertical speed and could potentially be used as the team's primary kickoff return man. … Defensive tackle Jon Bradley has made steady improvements since being signed to the practice squad in 2004. He has played in a reserve role in 19 games since then, but he could now be asked to participate as one of the team's primary interior defenders behind starter Anthony McFarland. … A high-character player with an even higher motor, defensive end DeWayne White will go from purely a backup performer to being a pass-rushing threat off the bench. The Bucs are trying to get him re-signed before he hits the open market next year, but they may not be able to pay the dollars a young defensive end like White could command if he produced eight to 10 sacks this season.
Arizona Cardinals – Safety Aaron Francisco's willingness to spend extra time in the classroom and weight room has put him in position to be Arizona's primary backup at both safety spots. The undrafted free agent from BYU lacks ideal speed, but he makes up for it with his instincts and attention to detail. Francisco will also play a key role on the Cardinals' special teams units. … Offensive guard Rolando Cantu became the first non-kicker of Mexican decent to play in a regular-season NFL game last season. He now battles for real playing time as one of the team's backup guards. Cantu is still learning how to use his terrific strength on the field and too often fails to control his man past initial contact. … One of the most productive Division I-AA defenders in recent times, defensive back Jay McCareins had 18 interceptions and 40 pass breakups during his Princeton career. He's also a dangerous return man. His older brother, Justin, has played wide receiver in the NFL with both the Titans and Jets. … Linebacker Mark Brown signed as a free agent after playing 11 games with the Jets last season. He will provide Arizona with quality depth and a guy that should be a solid special teams contributor. He's versatile enough to back up at middle or strong-side linebacker.
St. Louis Rams – Built along the same way as current teammates Kevin Curtis and Dane Looker, wide receiver Brad Pyatt has shown flashes of promise primarily as a return man during his brief NFL career, which started with the Colts. The Rams have strong depth at receiver, so his shot will come as a return specialist. A few big returns will be needed in the preseason for him to challenge for a roster spot. … Fullback Paul Smith has seen some action as a possible short-yardage back in early practice sessions. He was mainly signed to be one of the team's chief special team demons. A little injury-prone in the past, the six-year veteran could have a breakout campaign if the coaching staff gets him more involved in the offense. … Defensive back DeAndre Eiland has played all over the secondary at both the college and pro levels. He spent time in both Minnesota and Miami, so new head coach Scott Linehan knows him well. The Rams have several young options when searching for reserve defensive backs, so Eiland's versatility could help give him an edge. … A seventh-round pick out of Minnesota last April, offensive lineman Mark Setterstrom has improved his chances of moving up the depth chart by retaining information quickly and playing well in minicamp. He's listed at left guard, but he could also see some action at center. Setterstrom is a smart, strong, experienced blocker that is capable of being a valued reserve for years to come.
San Francisco 49ers – Linebacker Jim Maxwell, a former Division I-AA standout at Gardner-Webb, initially earned his stripes by making the Giants' roster in 2004 as an undrafted free agent. He has become a strong special teams player and could see more playing time with the 49ers since defensive coordinator Billy Davis was his position coach during his rookie year in New York. … Defensive tackle Ronald Fields played only four games as a rookie, but he has the body type that the defensive staff would like to see working inside at the nose tackle position. He can play between 325 and 330 pounds, which is nearly 30 pounds heavier than current starter Anthony Adams. Fields should work his way into getting 25 to 30 snaps per game this season. … With the healthy return of safety Tony Parrish and the recent signing of safety Mark Roman, Mike Adams is a versatile defender who'll have to challenge for playing time at cornerback. He had a team-high four interceptions last season and plays with the aggressiveness and speed coach Mike Nolan needs outside at corner if he is going to blitz more this year. … Wide receiver Bryan Gilmore has seen game action the past few years with both Miami and Arizona. He joins a 49ers team that has very little experienced depth in the receiving corps. Gilmore has played under receivers coach Jerry Sullivan at all three of his NFL stops. This opportunity could provide him the chance to play as the team's No. 3 or No. 4 receiver and on special teams.
Seattle Seahawks – Defensive back Jordan Babineaux, a former Division II standout, has become one of the team's most versatile defenders. He finished second on the team with 75 tackles last season and has played both cornerback and safety the past two years. If Michael Boulware or Ken Hamlin are slow to return from injury, Babineaux could find himself in a starting role come September. … Cornerback Kevin Hobbs, who went undrafted out of Auburn, wowed scouts with his pro-day performance after serving mostly as a reserve during his college career. He has good size (6-foot, 195 pounds) and with improved technique, he could beat out a handful of journeymen that are also in camp fighting for the last cornerback spot. … Fullback Leonard Weaver converted from under-sized Division II tight end to fullback and caught the eye of many teams two years ago with his fine preseason performance. He has a little wiggle to his running style and has also shown good hands out of the backfield, but he's caught between veteran starter Mack Strong and rookie David Kirtman. His ball skills and special teams awareness could keep him on the roster. … One of only a few areas of concern for the Seahawks is their overall depth on the defensive line, especially inside. Defensive tackle Craig Terrill has flashed some pass-rush ability, but he needs to make a push towards increasing his playing time. Marcus Tubbs has been injury-prone, so outside of free agent Russell Davis, the team would do well to give this former Purdue defender increased reps in the preseason.
Coming Tuesday: AFC rosters.