Football 101: Seattle Seahawks and Roster Position Allocation


Why don’t the Seahawks keep a third quarterback like they used to? Can they keep four tight ends this year? How many defensive ends is too many? Why do you think will make the roster over ?

These are a few of the questions I get every offseason as training camp approaches. The answer to all of them is related to roster limitations. There are only so many roster spots, and often times that leads to the Seahawks having to cut quality players they’d prefer to keep.

Position allocation on the 53 man roster is often a constant struggle between keeping guys who can help the team win now, and keeping guys with promising futures. Good teams walk that line carefully, while bad team frequently fall too far on one side or the other.

Hopefully this will help you understand some of the issues that teams deal with when setting their final rosters.

The Basics

The number 53 might seem random for roster sizes, but that number is deliberate. It equates to teams having 25 offensive players, 25 defensive players, and three specialists.

Teams will occasionally vary from that alignment, but not by more than one player. Typically this is done out of necessity and not because of some philosophical belief about roster construction.

For example, in 2013 the Seahawks kept an extra defensive player to start the season because of an outbreak of short-term injuries on the defensive line. Jordan Hill, Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril all missed Week 1’s game, while Brandon Mebane and Tony McDaniel were nursing injuries and weren’t likely to play their full complement of snaps.

These instances aren’t rare, but they they are typically short-lived variations in roster construction. It is extremely rare to see teams carry unbalanced rosters for long portions of the season. This is why extremely talented guys like Leon Washington have had a tough time sticking on NFL rosters. Few teams are willing to sacrifice depth elsewhere to carry a fourth specialist.

Defensive Allocation

How the 25 roster parts are divided up on defense depends on the scheme that the team plays. While all teams tend to keep nine defensive backs, the allotment at linebacker and defensive line can be drastically different.

Traditional 4-3 teams tend to keep nine defensive linemen and seven linebackers. Though this can also shift to 10 and six at times, that is uncommon since losing that extra linebacker can the team’s hurt special teams.

For 3-4 teams, those numbers are reversed. Seven defensive linemen are paired with nine linebackers. Occasionally you’ll see teams carry six DL and 10 LB as well, depending on the talent available.

For hybrid teams, like the Seahawks, these ratios can get messy. There is some overlap between the LEO defensive end spot (Cliff Avril’s position) and the strong-side linebacker position (Bruce Irvin’s position). While not completely interchangeable, there are backups that can play both positions.

A similar problem is created by the fact that the 5-tech defensive end spot in the current scheme (Michael Bennett and Flank Clark) is often asked to move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. The team can keep fewer defensive tackles than normal and will subsequently keep extra pass rushers.

Ultimately though, the Seahawks will still have to keep more linebackers when many fans realize to fill out the special teams coverage units. You’re not going to see defensive tackles or 5-tech defensive ends running the length of the field to cover kicks. They end up still being bound by the same constraints as teams that are less flexible defensive scheme.

Offensive Allocation

On offense, things are much more fluid than on defense. Teams regularly “borrow” a roster spot from one position augment another. There is some inherent flexibility there to help teams keep the best players, regardless of position.

The basic rule of thumb is that teams keep 10 offensive linemen, 7 backs (QB/RB/FB) and a combo of eight WRs and tight ends. Teams will alter that as needed, but rarely more than one spot in any group.

One interesting trend that we’ve seen around the league is the lack of a third quarterback on rosters. This can directly be traced to removal of the “emergency quarterback” rule. Before 2011, a team could have a player listed as an emergency quarterback on game days. That player didn’t count against the game-day roster, but if they entered the game the team’s top 2 quarterbacks were forbidden from returning to the field.

When the NFL removed that designation, teams began simply not having a third quarterback on the roster. While it used to be seen as extremely risky not to do so, very few teams carry three quarterbacks today.

The extra roster spot generated by the team carrying only two quarterbacks can be used anywhere. Seattle kept an extra running back for part of 2013, and carried an extra fullback down the stretch that year. At times last season they carried an extra wide receiver, and later went back to having a third quarterback (who ironically is now a wide receiver).

The Importance of Special Teams

Special teams complicates things in a way that many fans don’t completely understand. Keep in mind is that special teams will often dictate which players make the bottom end of the roster. Players who are not starters or key backups must be able to make an impact on special teams in order to make the roster.

In that sense, it isn’t always the best player at a position that wins a roster battle. Heath Farwell was never a better linebacker than the large number of linebackers the Seahawks have cut over the last few seasons. He has always been fairly awful on defense, but his special teams play was exceptional. The Seahawks kept him over promising young players like John Lotulelei entirely because of special teams contributions.

We see the same thing happen at wide receiver and defensive back. It is also why we occasionally see the Seahawks give up on promising young players like Benson Mayowa while simultaneously keeping low ceiling backups like Mike Morgan. Mayowa had a clearly brighter future, but Morgan was a far better special teamer.

Next: Wilson will likely finish out his rookie contract

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