Before we even begin, I think it's important to note that special teams is a critical part of the game. Having an adept special teams unit can often be the difference between a win or a loss. This article isn't about devaluing special teams. Not in the least. However, I've heard quite a few people propagate the idea that the only way a fringe player can make the team is if he has special teams value. While that may be the norm, it is not always the case. Let's examine why.
Game Day Roster
Presumably, if you make the roster because you have special teams value, the intent is to use you on special teams. The only problem with that is the game day active roster. While NFL teams carry 53 players on their roster, they have to keep 7 inactive on game day. This is a competitive balance rule that tries to make sure teams each have the same number of "healthy" players from game to game. In theory, your 7 inactive players will be your injured or unable-to-play guys.
The problem is that teams are often sitting perfectly healthy players for a large portion of the season. These are guys that can't play at all on game day. So, no matter how much special teams value a player may have, if he can't play - it's not going to matter.
Case in point: last year Tyler Starr was put on the 53-man roster despite the fact that he struggled on special teams (as portrayed on Hard Knocks). Starr, however, was inactive for almost every single game. So why would they put him on the roster but never activate him?
While it's doubtful that your team is finding a future hall of fame player as an un-drafted free agent, it is pretty common that teams will stumble across a player that they think has future potential. If that player happens to play a high value position - such as quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback or pass rusher - there's a good chance the team will not want to risk losing that potential to another team. Building an NFL team isn't just about this season after all, it's about continually improving the roster every single year.
Also consider this: most NFL rosters have veterans who are in the final couple years of their time in the NFL. Or, you may have a player whose salary cap hit is going to spike in the next year or two. In these cases, finding developmental players that you can stash for a year or two gives you options once those players retire or become too expensive. That's why a player like Nick Williams is intriguing. He's not really a wide receiver option for 2015, but there may be a spot for him in 2016 with Devin Hester and Eric Weems as potential guys he could replace.
Practice Squad Danger
Considering everything above, you may be wondering why not just stick these guys on the practice squad? That's an absolutely valid point, but it's not without its own set of risks.
To begin with, in order to put a player on your practice squad, you have to cut them. This means that the cut player technically becomes a free agent again and can explore other options. While most cut players will gladly rejoin the practice squad of the team they worked with all summer, it's not uncommon for some players to join the squad of another team - especially if they feel they have a better chance of making the roster on that team.
Assuming you do get the player onto your practice squad, that is still no guarantee they will stick around. As the season progresses and injuries pile up, any other team can come around to the players on your practice squad and sign them away - so long as they are signed to the 53-man roster of that team. While this doesn't happen very often, it is still a risk and should be weighed against how much potential you see in each player.
Without a doubt, fringe players will always benefit from being special teams contributors. However, those who demonstrate good potential at a valuable position can still find their way onto the roster, even if it's only to sit on the bench during game day. This is something to keep in mind as we go into the final preseason games and the roster cut-downs begin.
Who do you think could surprise us all by making the 53-man roster while not being a special teams ace?