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The importance* of all these NFL roster moves

By Zac

Some of them are obvious. The Browns might need a quarterback — or, even scarier, quarterbacks! — for Sunday’s season finale in Pittsburgh, so they’ve made moves this week involving placing players on injured-reserve, promoting them from the practice squad and bringing them off the emergency list.

The Browns are experienced in such scenarios, sadly, but it’s happening throughout the NFL.

Why do so many NFL teams make so many roster moves at this time of year, when less than half the league is actually playing for something? Partially because the remaining games still have to be played, but mostly because all 32 teams are coming back to play next year.

The Steelers put three players on IR Wednesday morning and added three to replace them, all of whom had spent time on the Steelers practice squad. Besides making sure they have 46 healthy bodies for Sunday’s game, the playing-for-nothing Steelers can get game experience for young players and make evaluations off that film that can’t be made otherwise.

In the case of now-on-IR cornerback Ike Taylor and Steelers, it seems the Steelers would have loved to have him back for a must-win game or certainly for a playoff game, but being eliminated last week made it easier to shut him down for the season.  The Steelers can use this week to evaluate more than a few guys who wouldn’t be playing if Sunday’s game had postseason meaning.

The situation is a little trickier with the Browns because we don’t know who’s going to be calling the shots in regards to the roster next week, let alone next season. But in the case of Nordonia High and Northwestern alum Jordan Mabin, signed to the practice squad Wednesday, it’s about more than three practices this week and one paycheck.

He can make an impression. So, too, can some players who will be in action in Heinz Field Sunday — guys who probably wouldn’t be if the Browns didn’t have both starting safeties on IR and didn’t have a bunch of other shuffling to do. What Mabin — an undrafted rookie who went to camp last summer with the Ravens — and the other practice squad players can hope for is a chance to be signed to a futures contract sometime in the next couple month, and get the (non-guaranteed) chance to go through a team’s offseason program that comes with it.

Pro free agency doesn’t start until March, but guys who are unsigned now or at the end of a season can be added at any time.  In some cases, teams make IR moves in late December and sign players to two-year contracts to ensure — again, there are no sure things in the NFL — they’ll get to have them on the initial offseason roster as depth is built at each position group.

Throughout the season, some practice squad players face decisions to sign with other teams on the active roster — often in an emergency/temporary situation — or stay with the teams they know, teams that know them, and take their chances. Some are looking for a quick buck, as active roster paychecks are much larger than practice squad checks. Some are looking for a long-term home and have to rely on coaches and personnel staffs who already know them, and vice-versa.

For another example, the Bengals were willing to place Dre Kirkpatrick on IR on Tuesday and claim Dane Sanzenbacher off waivers to get him in, let him learn their system and evaluate how he might fit for 2013. It’s hard to imagine Sanzenbacher helping the Bengals this season, even if they win a playoff game or two.

Teams used to focus more on getting players signed to futures contracts so they could be sent to NFL Europe in the spring, evaluated on game film and then come to training camp under roster exemptions. Those exemptions disappeared when NFL Europe did, but the training camp roster size is now back to 90.

To coaches and personnel folks, all 90 count. There are enough out-of-nowhere success stories to suggest that they really do count.

Way more often than not, life at the bottom of an NFL roster is short-lived. Players have to act accordingly and take the money and opportunity while they can. Teams — especially ones at the bottom of the talent food chain — have to try to maximize every opportunity they get.

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