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The Importance of the NFL's Middle Class

Does the key to winning games lie more in star power or depth?

No you're right, he can't catch.
No you're right, he can't catch.
David Welker

An NFL roster is not an easy thing to construct. Strategies for building a contender come and go, some with better staying power than others, but very few actually stand the test of time. One thing that never goes out of style amongst NFL GM's is depth, and for very good reason. We all have seen that a star player can carry a team over small stretches. Larry Fitzgerald going bananas in the 2009 playoffs to bring the Cardinals to within seconds of a title, Joe Flacco's impeccable no turnover stretch this season that earned him that monster pay-day, and Michael Vick turning Philadelphia's season around in 2010 to cap off one of the biggest personal comebacks in the last decade all come to mind, but not every team is lucky enough to catch lightning in a bottle. Even if you're a GM of a team who happens to have one of these players who resides somewhere in the upper echelon, relying on star power is basically a game of Russian Roulette with the gun pointed straight at your job.

Injuries don't care how many yards you ran for last year. They don't care that your offensive coordinator bases his entire game plan around your ability to separate from defenders, and they sure as hell don't care what happens to your team if you happen to miss some time. Injuries are random but imminent, the great equalizer of the NFL. Because football is a violent game, it should come as no surprise that NFL players are nearly eight times as likely to miss time because of an injury than players in any other professional sports league, according to a 144 page Congressional report. According to an NFLPA report from 2010 entitled "Dangers of the Game", there were 3.7 injuries per team per week and that over 60% of NFL players would sustain at least one injury during the season. 37.7% of those players would merely miss games, 12.6% were placed on injured reserve. That adds up to 50.3% of NFL players who would miss at least one game due to injury in 2010. Now, not every single one of those players were number one on the depth chart, even fewer were "face of the franchise" type players, but last season the two finalists for the NFL's MVP were guys who had suffered severely debilitating injuries the year before. Peyton Manning's team suffered so badly without him that they wound up with the number one overall pick. Adrian Peterson's Vikings lost him near the end of the season, so his loss wasn't nearly as catastrophic as it could have been, but it just goes to show that anyone can go down hard on any given play. Building around a star is dangerous, but it doesn't have to be.

The San Francisco 49ers are both deep and star-studded. How many teams in the last thirty years can you name that lost their starting quarterback at some point during the season, especially a starting quarterback who was playing as well as Alex Smith was playing at that point, and managed to not skip a beat? Now how many of those teams got better and then went on to nearly win it all? Off the top of my head, Jeff Hostetler's Giants, Tom Brady's Patriots, and Colin Kaepernick's 49ers. While there may be more examples out there somewhere, it's a short list of teams that have rebounded from something like that. But with San Fran, it goes beyond quarterbacks. Their running back stable is loaded with the mainstay, Frank Gore, the third down back and potential star in the making, LaMichael James, and the bruiser, Anthony Dixon. The two latter backs didn't receive many carries last season, but I feel as though that may be more of a testament to Gore's durability, dependability, and versatility than it is a knock on their skills. If you feel the way that many do, that running back is an outdated position, then just look at the bevy of receiving options the team boasted last year. Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Randy Moss, and Ted Ginn Jr. made it easy for the 49ers two quarterbacks to find open targets last season. Although Randy Moss isn't scheduled to return, they fleeced the Baltimore Ravens for Anquan Boldin and don't look now, but Tavon Austin is scheduled to visit with 49ers coaches and San Fran has a glut of picks to possibly trade up with. A.J. Jenkins, the team's first round pick a year ago, was buried on the depth chart last year but should probably see more snaps this year as he continues to develop as a receiver.

The defensive side of the ball is loaded with talent, especially at linebacker. I'll take that a step further and say that they probably have both of the best inside linebackers in the game. Patrick Willis is the best ILB since Ray Lewis in his prime and NaVorro Bowman has both the range and tackling ability to challenge him. Despite his slow finish to the season, I think Aldon Smith makes up one of the best pass rushing tandems in the NFL with Ahmad Brooks at OLB, bringing the heat from both sides consistently. Brooks is good in coverage, but his backup, Parys Haralson, might be better. The team lost a lot of speed and coverage ability at that position when Manny Lawson left, but Haralson has stepped in and filled that role admirably.

There are plenty more examples that I could give: how the 2012 Ravens secondary kept it together and scrapped out a decent year after losing their number one corner, how the Packers and their passing game hardly stumbled at all without Greg Jennings because of James Jones and Jordy Nelson, and of course, how the Titans have the makings of one of the best defensive lines in football because of their fantastic proficiency for drafting talent at defensive tackle with Jurrell Casey, Mike Martin, and Karl Klug. The point remains consistent. Outside of having an elite starting quarterback, the most important thing in creating a successful NFL team is depth and lots of it. The best teams have it, the worst teams don't.

And that's what I really like about this offseason. The Titans have added a competent backup QB with tons of starting experience, a tight end who fits in at multiple spots on the offense and has a wide array of skills, a running back who does nothing but pick up tough yards, the best offensive guard on the market and a cheap backup for him should things go poorly with his health and created a legitimate position battle at one of the weakest spots on the depth chart by bringing in two of the better strong safeties in the league last year for pennies on the dollar. I don't know if any of the players the Titans brought in were necessarily "stars" (though a case could be made for Levitre), yet this was still considered one of the most successful off season periods in team history because of the amount of holes the front office was able to plug in such a short amount of time. They spent big, but they spent smart (with maybe an exception or two). Suddenly, players like Markelle Martin, a high upside safety prospect taken in last year's draft, won't be thrust into a starting role before he's ready but will still offer a strong option as the third strong safety with potential to break into a bigger role before the season ends. Chris Johnson will no longer be maligned as a terrible short yardage runner because he won't have to take those tough inside carries. The team can have two run stuffing behemoths on the field at the same time with Casey and Sammie Lee Hill. We no longer have to worry about Tim Shaw starting games at middle linebacker if/when Colin McCarthy goes down.

This is why the NFL's middle class is so important. Yes, good teams have stars leading the charge, but they still have to field a full team, so that leaves about eight or nine spots at best that need to be filled by guys who aren't total studs. You can rarely ever just move past the loss of a star to injury or free agency, but you can definitely soften the fall by adding quality depth. When you can do what San Francisco and other teams have done, sign and draft average players who are better than the other team's average player and prepare for injuries well by having a competent stable of backups waiting in the wings, you get a winning team. It's why we value draft picks so much: they're the holy grail, the building blocks of a good, deep, young, not to mention inexpensive, squad. I don't pretend to know what Ruston Webster's strategy is, but I think I have an idea. Look for him to continue to add talent at positions like defensive end and the offensive line in next month's draft.