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Discussing building a roster for training camp with former 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan

If there’s one person in the know...

Jacksonville Jaguars v San Francisco 49ers

With the 49ers amid training camp, I wanted to provide a behind-the-scenes look into the work that NFL front offices are doing prior to and throughout the duration of training camp when it comes to constructing a roster.

To get a better idea of how much training camp practices and preseason games factor into building the final 53-man roster, I spoke with former 49ers general manager Scot McCoughlan, who played a major role in building multiple championship rosters during a career that spanned over 20 years working in NFL front offices.

We talked at length about what the process is like for teams as they whittle down rosters, what it is they look for during training camp and preseason games, and a number of other topics.

To start, I asked McCloughan about the timetable of when front offices start to really take a close look at the players on the roster bubble and the kind of evaluations that are being made over the course of the months between the conclusion of the draft and the eventual roster cuts that occur at the beginning of September.

When it comes to piecing together the 90-man roster you will carry into the offseason, how soon do you begin to make your evaluations that will heavily weigh in your decision-making when cutting down to a final 53-man roster?

As soon as the draft is over, you’ve got your roster in front of you. You got the 90 guys, we’ve got this, this and this. So and so is probably going to go on PUP, because they had surgery in the offseason. But the good rosters, when you start camp with 90, the good rosters you already know 45 to 48 guys who are making the team. So it really comes down to three to five to seven spots that are going to be filled, hopefully by younger guys, but if not by guys that get cut after the first cut, or the 53 man cut that you pick up and bring on your 53.

But it starts right when the draft is over, you have your 90 and you go on vacation. You draft six, eight, ten guys, then all of a sudden we’ve got eight spots to fill still in college free agency. Okay we need two corners, so sign the two best corners on our board, and if not keep working down. But we need two corners for sure. So you might sign a corner thats not as good as a safety thats on your board, just because you need that spot for training camp to fill out your roster. There’s ways to manipulate it all the time, but you’re at 90 as soon as the draft is over. Your board is right in front of you on a big white board sitting with the owner and the head coach, saying “okay we need 15 offensive linemen for camp, okay we got 15, perfect, leave it alone let’s move to the wide receivers cause there’s a certain number you need to go through camp. Especially to get through preseason games.

I wanted more insight into the process of bringing in a player for workouts with the intent of signing them during training camp, something the 49ers have had to do during the last week following multiple injuries on the defensive line. What is the incentive for a player to sign to a talented roster that is so loaded at the position they play that their odds of making the final roster are slim to none?

I asked McCoughlan about the significance of these signings and how they impact the overall roster. I also asked if the motivation primarily revolved around the reps, they would receive during preseason games, where they would have the chance to showcase their abilities to teams around the league that may not have the same depth. Here was his answer.

100 percent. Oh 100 percent. Because they’re going to get reps. They’re going to be on tape, and everyone gets the tape and everyone watches it. But yeah the agents know it too, thats why you confer with the agent like “Look, listen I’ll promise you he will play the entire second half of the third game, so he will have tape out there”. And they go “Okay, we were going to send him here, but if you promise he will play the whole half I’ll send him to you”.

And you tell the coach and he’s like “that’s fine, I got no problem playing him the whole second half”. But again those kids are looking for jobs, and no one comes into a team thinking “we’ll i’m not going to make it for sure”, they all think there’s a chance. And there is, there’s been guys, undrafted college guys who end up being damn good players.

But it’s fun building a roster, it’s just hard to get down to the 53. And then you think “we got a pretty damn good roster”. Everybody at the 53 is like “that’s the best roster we’ve had in a while”, then you get to the season and your like “it’s not very good”.

McCloughan then touched on how the expanded practice squad has affected the process of constructing a 90-man roster.

The thing that’s cool too nowadays is you got 16 guys, when I was rolling as a GM you only got eight. So sixteen makes it great because the young guys you can keep around. Say you have a quarterback that’s a little bit nicked, no matter what carry one on the practice squad. So you’ll always have bodies, but you also want to hit on some of those bodies. And you will, if you do it right, you draft right, got the right scouts and they’re identifying the right characteristics about players, you’ll hit more than you miss.

But a hit could be a back up safety that’s a special teams player. You got him for free, you’re paying him x amount of dollars as a college free agent. He makes the 53 because of special teams value. That’s a hit, and everybody always wants to say well bust or not a bust or whatever, there’s rosters that have backup players that don’t play a lot, don’t have to because the starters are staying healthy. But are good depth guys, and can go in and finish a game, or play two weeks at safety, but it’s going to be lights out on special teams all year.

McCloughan then talked a bit about how important it is to extend your own players early, something that has significant relevance to the present given the lucrative extension superstar wide receiver Deebo Samuel signed in the last week with a year remaining on his rookie deal.

Teams that are really good at it, don’t overpay too much. They’ll draft well, identify the guys they drafted, and extend them before they get too expensive. Like I did with Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, Delanie Walker, Vernon Davis. I’d extend all those guys early, and everybody is like “you’re crazy”. I’m like no I’m not going to play in free agency. I drafted him, he’s in our building everyday, our coaches know him, everybody knows who he is and what he is. I’m going to take care of our own. Then you start doing that and the players around him are like “sweet they’ll take care of our own, that’s cool”.

As we continued our conversation, I asked McCloughan about what he is looking for in the players involved in battles for the last handful of spots on the final 53-man roster.

Sitting with the coaches, talking with the coaches on a daily basis, watching the practice tapes, watching the preseason games. If it’s close between a seventh year guy and a third year guy, we’re going to keep the third year guy. Even if he’s not as good as the seventh year guy, we’ll still keep him because he should be healthier because he is younger, and he’s cheaper. You pay attention to that stuff, because you always want to keep the younger guys. If you’re a good roster, like we’d go to camp in San Fran or Seattle, and we’d go to camp and I could tell you 45 guys that are making it, either because of their contract or because they’re good football players.

But you only have so many spots, and that’s when you start realizing we’re getting a little old at safety, let’s keep an eye on these young safeties and see if you guys see any upside. Is it worth taking a chance with them and cutting a vet. Well the coaches all want the vets, because they trust them, they played. I’ve had coaches tell me he’s probably one of the worst players athletically i’ve ever had start for me, but he’s also the smartest, and you can’t get him off the field. Guys like that you end up keeping, he’s an eighth year guy that’s making whatever, two and a half million, we’re cutting this college free agent that looks to have upside, much healthier, but the coach needs the veteran. The coaches want the veterans.

That’s when it gets tough, because it’s like their sons, they can’t let them go. And i’ll start off early.and once we get the draft over, i’ll get the coach one on one and say “listen, I know you love him, I do too. He’s a warrior, he’s loyal, and he’s tough, but we got to realize we have to get better there. At that point the coach is like “Yeah I agree, I agree”, then you get to final cuts and he’s like “I can’t lose him”. We already talked about this, we want to go younger, go cheaper, healthier, energetic. For those coaches it can be tough, and some places the coaches run the show. At certain times you’ve got to make tough decisions, sometimes people don’t like it, but it’s part of the business. There’s no way around it.

I followed this up by asking McCloughan how much roster politics affect the decisions being made when finalizing the roster. How much do these outside factors impact the equation rather than simply selecting the best 53 players for the roster.

You’re not taking the best 53, you’re not cutting a third rounder the first year unless he’s just pathetic. You’re keeping him for at least two to three years, because you did invest in him, and you did see something that you like and the coaches liked, and that’s why you made the pick. Sometimes it takes guys a year or two to adjust, you know it really does. I’ve cut players where it’s like “this one, he’s better, he’ll give us a better chance this year to win, but our young guy we drafted has got a chance to be better in two to three years than him” type of thing.

It’s the GM route to go with the young guy, the coaches run the show you’re going with the vet.

Draft picks play into it big time. It shouldn’t, because I always say if I screw up and I take a guy in the first round, we see no upside with him. Cut him. Let’s move, on we screwed up. Lot of people can’t do that, the egos. There’s politics involved, no doubt about it, 100%.

I then asked McCoughlan about the significance of joint practices with other teams during the preseason, and how much impact they have on the final decisions that get made when cutting down a roster.

I love them, because it breaks up camp, it’s different, you’re not banging on your own guys. You know with the niners, we would go up to Napa with the Raiders, and within 30 minutes of practice there’s fights. Seriously, there’s no ways around it, and the last thing you want to do is get somebody hurt in a fight. But I liked it, because the energy is built up, players see it as a different practice, and they see it as an opportunity to hit somebody other than their own guys. And I love it, I love it.

95 percent of it, doing the joint practice helped us. Helped us solidify certain players at certain positions, and also gave us more tape, like game tape, like regular game tape, preseason game tape. And we make a lot of decisions based off this, in a positive way, so it helped us.

I asked Scot if these sessions during the joint practices are the most important practices over the course of the season, to which he said

Yeah, oh yeah, Because it’s more game like. The young guys that step up you’re like “cool, this wasn’t to big for him. He went out there, played the third and fourth series with the number two’s, and fit right in. Awesome”. Or it’s vice versa, like he’s a long way away guys, this might be a guy we don’t want playing in the preseason. Just put him on the practice squad because he’s got a year to wait.

We then talked a bit about how much the performance in preseason games factor into these roster decisions, and what it is a front office is looking for in those games for players who are on the roster bubble fighting for a spot on the 53 or the practice squad.

You just want to see in the preseason game that he steps up to the moment, the lights aren’t too bright for him. Not meaning he’s going to make the 53 and come out and start for you week one. But he goes out there and he fits in. For a young guy, he’s got confidence, he’s not afraid. He’s making the right calls, he’s making the right reads, he’s getting guys lined up. It just solidifies what you see in practice.

Finally, I also wanted to hear how McCloughan approached the uncomfortable but necessary conversations that come when letting a player know they were being cut.

If I was doing it personally, or my pro guys were doing it, whoever was doing it, it would always be a personnel guy that did it. If they wanted to talk to the coach, they could talk to the coach after the fact. I’d be like “tough conversation here bud, I really appreciate your work out here for camp, but we’re going to go in a different direction. But before you say anything, I want to tell you I think you still have enough ability to be in this league. I have absolutely no problem talking with your agent, and calling other teams for you to try to help you get somewhere else.”

It is tough, but it is a part of the business. But you gotta do it professionally, you gotta be sincere and tell them “this is tough. It’s hard on me, it’s hard on you. I’m sure you see the writing on the wall, we got so and so in here, we drafted them in the third round and you know he’s making it, and the numbers are knocking you off.” It’s never easy, it’s never easy at all, but a lot of the guys, 90 percent of the guys know it’s coming. At least 90 percent. And there will be some coaches that are really cool, like “listen bring him to me once you cut him, I want to talk to him, he’s a great kid”. Maybe help him get into coaching or something, stuff like that which is really cool.

My intent with this article was to create something that can be utilized as a resource to help paint a better picture of how the roster likely unfolds as it cuts from 90 to 53 in the coming weeks. I hope this serves as a tool going forward for anyone interested in how the roster reaches its final stages of the evolution that begins immediately following the draft.