Roster spots in the NFL are precious commodities. With injuries creating so much week-to-week uncertainty, every one of the 53 roster spots teams have must be devoted with a specific purpose in mind -- and sometimes with more than one purpose. The more versatile a player, after all, the more value a team can pump out of his roster spot.
"When you look at all the things that have to be done on your football team – offense, defense, special teams, goal line to multiple receivers and multiple defensive back groups, nickels, and dimes, and three receivers and four receivers and all that — you’ve got to have a team that can do the things you want it to do, in terms of personnel groupings, and has some depth on that," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said during a press conference in early September. "(You) also have to be able to handle all the responsibilities in the kicking game, from gunners, to inside coverage people, to wedge blockers, to guys that can play on the wing in the punt team and all that. You look at a lot of people doing different things in training camp to kind of evaluate your depth, and then when you come down to getting your roster, you have to make sure that all those spots are covered. It’s really a mosaic of all of that.
"It’s not a third-down running back versus another third-down running back. It’s all the things that come into play that those players would do, or the other value that they would bring to your roster that, if they do them, then you don’t need somebody else somewhere else to do them. Or if they don’t do them, then you do need somebody somewhere else or somehow you’ve got to those things filled.
"It’s a very inexact science. With 53 players, which is really only 45, you just can’t have the depth that every coach would like to have. Some positions you have it. At other positions, you don’t. I don’t think there’s really any way to ever have the kind of depth that all the NFL coaches would like to have on their roster. It’s just not possible."
To wit: The Patriots traded a conditional draft choice to the Ravens for linebacker Prescott Burgess in order to create a little depth in the aftermath of the injury to Jerod Mayo. Less than a week later, Vince Wilfork went down with an ankle injury and the Patriots signed defensive tackle Terdell Sands -- waiving Burgess to make room. If Burgess didn't remaining practice-squad eligibility, the Patriots would have lost him.
But there are ways to be flexible.
The Patriots right now have just two true quarterbacks on their roster: Future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and untested rookie Brian Hoyer. Isaiah Stanback, a wide receiver originally drafted by the Dallas Cowboys who was a quarterback in college at Washington, is listed as a quarterback on the Patriots' practice squad. But he's not even on the active roster -- let alone eligible to play in case of an emergency.
The NFL instituted the third-quarterback rule in 1991 to give teams a chance to have an extra quarterback handy just in case both other quarterbacks somehow were injured in the same game. The third quarterback is the 46th man on a 45-man active roster. If he appears in a game before the fourth quarter, both of the other two quarterbacks become ineligible to appear in the game under any circumstances.
In some ways, it's a free roster spot -- and that's true, if you're just looking at the 45-man roster each team brings with it into Sunday games.
But in the context of a 53-man roster, a third quarterback is something of a waste. Here's why:
1. If the third quarterback is needed in a game, that game probably is already lost. Few teams can afford to carry two top-notch NFL quarterbacks, let alone three, and it's unlikely that the third quarterback would do any better than a running back with a little Wildcat training.
2. Mediocre quarterbacks are available all over the free-agent wire. Andrew Walter is still out there. Jeff Garcia and Patrick Ramsey are free agents, and quarterbacks like Brooks Bollinger, J.P. Losman and Tim Rattay popular the rosters of the upstart UFL. (No, really.) If a quarterback gets injured on Sunday, a newly acquired quarterback can be at practice on Monday.
3. As detailed above, with special teams an important consideration, roster spots are precious.
Carrying just two quarterbacks isn't unique to the Patriots. Five other NFL teams have just two active quarterbacks on their roster -- Chicago, Green Bay, Jacksonville, the New York Giants and Tennessee.
Three teams actually have four quarterbacks on their active roster -- Carolina, Miami and the New York Jets. But one of those teams is dealing with an injured quarterback, and another is dealing with a terrible quarterback. There's a little method to the madness there.
To make a two-quarterback roster work, though, a team has to have someone they'd be willing to throw back there in case of an emergency. You can't just forfeit, and you probably can't run the old Wing-T with Kevin Faulk or Fred Taylor for a quarter or two.
That's where Julian Edelman comes into play for the Patriots. Edelman spent most of his life playing quarterback and only switched to wide receiver at the conclusion of his college career, aware that his NFL prospects were better as an athlete than as a signal-caller. If Brady and Hoyer both got hurt in the same game, there's no question Edelman could get back into the pocket and run around and throw a few passes and generally not embarrass himself.
The more versatile a player is, the more a team can do with its available roster spots. Without Edelman, it's likely the Patriots would have hung onto Walter just in case of emergency. Now, though, Edelman can serve as the team's third receiver and punt returner and No. 3 quarterback -- and that means the Patriots were able to shore up their depth on the defensive side of the ball with acquisitions like Prescott Burgess and Terdell Sands.