Managing roster depth is a daily job for NFL coaches and front office decision-makers.
Bill Belichick recently explained how having versatile players can go a long way in alleviating some of the angst when it comes to making sure you have a viable backup at every spot.
Using special teams as an example, the coach noted that 66 spots are needed — 11 each for kickoffs, kick return, punts, punt return, field goals, and field goal blocks — yet there are just 46 players on game-day rosters. And that number dwindles when you eliminate players who obviously can’t play multiple roles, including the quarterbacks, specialists, and some offensive linemen.
“When you get rid of those guys, you get your roster down to about 30 in a hurry,’’ said Belichick. “So, now you’re trying to back up 66 players with another 66 players. Forget about the offense and defense. That’s a whole other conversation. If you’ve got a guy like [Rex] Burkhead, who can play at least three spots on the kickoff team. If you can back up the entire kickoff team with two or three guys, that’s a good thing. You might not have to use them, but you don’t have to get 10 other guys ready for all that. You can do it with two or three guys. Same thing on punt return, punt team, things like that.’’
Belichick elaborated that much of the planning for emergency situations flies under the radar to most people until the unexpected happens.
“So, there’s a hidden effect there. Nobody knows, nobody even cares until you get an injury and then you get a punt blocked. I mean, then it’s a world crisis,’’ he said. “It can go in a hurry. Those kinds of players give you tremendous value [and] versatility. Guys like [Dont’a] Hightower and [Jamie] Collins. At the end of the year, they might not have a lot of plays on special teams. But to have them and know that they’re ready to go if we need them and they don’t need to have half of the reps in practice to be ready to go, gives you tremendous value as a team, and it allows you to use the players who are going to play to give them more reps to go through more things with them and help prepare them without having to spend time with those backups. So I would just say until you’ve been through that, which as a special teams coach I went through that for many years, I don’t know if you really appreciate how valuable those guys are. I certainly do.’’
Belichick called Burkhead “one of the most versatile players on our team,” and he’s off to a fast start, leading the Patriots in rushing yards (112) and tied for second with 13 receptions.
Burkhead came up big last Sunday when the Patriots were without James White. Burkhead had 47 rushing yards and 22 receiving yards against the Jets, playing 74 percent of the offensive snaps and 40 percent of the special teams plays.
“Rex has been a good player for us, everybody can improve and work on little things every year, but I’d say he’s been a pretty solid player for us,’’ said Belichick. “He plays on all four downs . . . can play on all big four in the kicking game, kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return.”
The Patriots’ defense has yet to let up a touchdown this season — a streak that goes all the way back and includes the Super Bowl — but it’s not something that’s talked about in the locker room.
“No. We can’t,’’ said safety Duron Harmon. “You [reporters] talk about it enough, so we see it, but it’s nothing that we think about because we have a lot of other things to worry about.’’
This week, the only talk has been about the undefeated Bills.
“We’re dealing with Josh Allen, John Brown, and explosive skill players all across the board,’’ said Harmon.
“So, we’ll leave the statistics to you guys, you can tell us weekly, and we’ll just keep playing good football on Sunday.’’
Julian Edelman, who is questionable for Sunday’s game because of a chest injury, traveled with the team, according to an NFL Media report . . . Josh Gordon was fined $10,527 for his facemask infraction in last week’s win . . . New England owns a 74-43-1 edge in the all-time series with Buffalo, including winning 33 of the last 38 games dating to 2000.