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Insider Blog: Finding 53

Posted Jun 27, 2010

The search for 53 is already on as players attempt to diversify their game

The dog days of summer are officially here. Temperatures are soaring and football news is trickling in at a much slower pace. For NFL fans, this the worst part of the football calendar – the 30 days prior to training camp.

Football never ends, but there is time to kill right now. This is the time of year that predictions run rampant. Who’s going be good? Which team will disappoint? Who makes the final 53 for (insert team name here)?

Luckily there’s a cheat sheet for the latter. Exactly who will make the Chiefs Opening Day roster is impossible to perfectly predict. We can, however, catch a glimpse of the final roster shakedown a bit before each team is to make their final cuts on September 4th. The downer…you’ll have to wait until mid- August for the strongest clues.

Competition…competition…competition. Outside of conditioning and buy-in, competition has been one of the most talked about topics this off-season. The race for roster slots has already begun and with that the hustle for special teams opportunities becomes widely prevalent. When competition is abundant, players look for an edge. For many on the fringe, the difference between employment and unemployed often rests in the ability to contribute in some way, shape or form on special teams.

We’ve all heard Chiefs head coach Todd Haley talk often about the advantages of players who are able to contribute in more than one area of the game. When it comes to teams play, it’s “the more you can do” mantra that Haley has specifially referred to, particularly during the 2009 training camp.

It was in River Falls, Wisconsin that we saw a pair of unknowns, LBs Jovan Belcher and Pierre Walters (pictured), rise from undrafted status to part of the 53-man roster by way of their special teams play. Belcher would take that opportunity even further when pressed into reserve action following an injury situation during a game at Philadelphia in Week Three. One season later, Belcher is making a push for one of the starting inside linebacker roles.

Then there was Andy Studebaker, the player who Haley himself admitted to knowing very little about heading into last summer. Studebaker hadn’t seen much NFL action as a rookie and was making a position switch from defensive end to outside linebacker under a new regime. “Studie” was definitely on the fringe and was looking for a way to stand out.

During training camp, those watching soon realized that Studebaker was a safe bet to make the 53-man roster. The special teams depth charts acted a guide for the Chiefs future plans with Belcher. Like Belcher, Studebaker found himself in a much different scenario than a year ago. When Studebaker received an opportunity to fill-in for an injured Mike Vrabel vs. Pittsburgh last season, he made his stake for more defensive snaps. Everyone who follows the Chiefs now knows who Andy Studebaker is.

There’s also the case of 2009 unrestricted free agent LB Corey Mays. Staying on NFL rosters as a special teams player throughout his first few seasons in the league, most expected Mays to perform a similar role in Kansas City as well. Instead, Mays parlayed his special teams performances with impressive linebacking play to win one of the starting inside linebacker roles out of training camp.

The truth is that no position player strives to be solely just a special teams player. Everyone wants to be a starter and/or regular contributor, but you can’t become a starter if you don’t make a roster. Tomorrow’s starters are often times today’s young special teamers and the difference between making that first NFL roster can be razor thin.

Because of that small threshold, special team coach Steve Hoffman is one of the most sought after members of the coaching staff during the off-season. Both rookies and veterans peek over Hoffman’s shoulder when he posts depth charts for daily special teams drills in the locker room. More often times than not, Hoffman is stopped before he can reach the exit by a player who carries a question about coverage lanes, blocked assignments, etc.

Some of the specialists have even gotten into the act of becoming more resourceful. Last year, long snapper Thomas Gafford practiced throughout training camp as a reserve tight end in addition to his regular duties as long snapper. Gafford’s transition to the offensive side of the football never came to fruition, but at the time both he and Haley were looking at the potential of a specialist who could also serve as an emergency skill player on a gameday roster.

With only 45 players eligible to suit up on gamedays, coaches are always looking for a way to “save a roster spot.” If Gafford could serve as an emergency third tight end, then maybe an extra linebacker, wide receiver or defensive lineman could suit up rather than stay inactive. For this reason, rookie LB Cory Greenwood went to work on a second position as a long snapper, in addition to his primary position of inside linebacker, during off-season work.

“This spring, I practiced (long-snapping) a lot just training for the combines, because I wanted to come in and make myself as versatile as I could,” LB Cory Greenwood said. “If I could help the team by long-snapping, playing special teams and linebacker I would be that much more valuable to the team.”

Greenwood worked this past spring with Hoffman, Gafford and even Studebaker on long snapper skill sets after practices. The third overall pick in the 2010 CFL Draft, Greenwood had practiced as a long snapper at Concordia University (Canada) but never performed the duties on game day.

“It’s been coming along and you just keep working away at it,” Greenwood said. “It’s a skill that not too many other guys can do, so why not have that in your tool box. I’m working on it every day after practice and even after workouts if it’s not a practice day.”

Rookie free agent WR Rich Gunnell, out of Boston College, is another player that carries a past that involves seizing an opportunity to contribute on special teams. In addition to being the ACC’s active leader in receptions and receiving yards as a senior, Gunnell was also the conference’s active leader in punt return touchdowns.

Although Gunnell had always been a special teams contributor, returning punts was something that he practiced for quite a while without getting a chance to perform.

“When I first got to BC, I did all of the things besides the returns,” Gunnell explained. “I never thought I would get a shot to return, but they gave me an opportunity and I just tried to make the best of it. Hopefully I can contribute here as well.”

Once Gunnell was given an opportunity to return punts, he became the primary deep man at BC for his junior and senior seasons. All this, of course, in addition to becoming the Eagles second all-time leader in receptions (175), third all-time leader in receiving yards (2,329) and fourth all-time leader in touchdown catches (17).

Gunnell was one of many players who stayed late to rep returns on the jugs machines after OTAs this off-season. He’ll compete with a pair of draft picks for return duties, but the position is one that has no established player returning. Hypothetically speaking, if Gunnell is working as a gunner on punt coverage, running lanes on kick coverage and lining up deep on punt returns, it likely means his stock is going up. The same is said across the board on special teams for the somewhat unfamiliar names trying to catch a break on the Chiefs 2010 roster.

A cheat sheet for the 2010 edition of the Chiefs 53-man roster will begin to take shape in mid-August. Right now, a large number of players are trying to simply get their last names on file to become a staple on Hoffman’s white board.

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