Nearly 500 NFL players were sent packing in the first round of cuts earlier this week. By Saturday evening, 700 more will lose jobs when rosters are reduced to the regular season limit of 53 players.
For many of those 700, tonight’s preseason finales throughout the league will mark the last time they play football. For many, such as Rams undrafted rookie safety Cody Davis, it’s a game they’ve been playing since elementary.
They have played in state championship games in high school; BCS bowl games or heated conference rivalries in college; and turned heads with their play at every level.
But on a personal level, when it’s “Bubble Bowl” time in the NFL, no game is more important. This is the biggest game of their lives.
“One more chance to show what I’ve got,” Davis said. “Then it’s up to the coaches. I’ve put in all the work, tried my hardest to be where I’m supposed to be, make plays, and put it all out there.
“The NFL is just about as unpredictable as it gets as far as your career goes. This could be my last game, or it could be the start of a long journey. So I’ve got to go out there and play like it’s my last — and leave it all out on the field.”
So while many fans and observers would love nothing more than to simply hit fast-forward past tonight’s Rams-Baltimore game, about 30 Rams are approaching it like there’s no tomorrow. Because there may not be.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” said wide receiver Emory Blake, undrafted out of Auburn. “I feel like I’ve played well throughout camp, and had a strong showing. But you never know.”
Any intrigue over starting jobs is all but over. Coach Jeff Fisher already has announced Daryl Richardson as the starting running back. Chris Williams appears to have a stranglehold on the left guard job. It will be Rodney McLeod at one of the safety spots on opening day unless Darian Stewart’s hamstring heals quickly.
But at the back end of the roster, there’s still plenty to be decided.
“It’s an accumulation of work,” Fisher said, including practice as one factor. “Through that accumulation you want to see improvement. It’s a total package thing as far as making the final decisions.”
Tonight’s 7 o’clock kickoff at the Edward Jones Dome marks the last chance to impress the head coach. Or “un-impress” him.
After the first round of cuts, the specialists are set in terms of punter, kicker and long snapper. The same probably holds true at quarterback, although it remains to be seen whether Austin Davis or Kellen Clemens is the No. 2 behind Sam Bradford. (Davis still appears to have the edge.)
In the backfield, will Chase Reynolds squeeze into the final 53 by virtue of special teams value after two years on the practice squad? Do the Rams keep Eric Stevens at fullback, or let some of the tight ends handle lead-blocking chores?
Speaking of tight end, the Rams may open the regular season with five because of Cory Harkey’s leg injury. If that’s the case, only one of the six tight ends still on the roster needs to go in the final cutdown, with Philip Lutzenkirchen, Zach Potter and perhaps Mike McNeill on the bubble.
At wide receiver, it’s down to Blake, Justin Veltung and Nick Johnson for the sixth spot. Assuming, that is, the Rams keep a sixth. Johnson has been down this road before. He was on the practice squad for the entire 2012 season and came close to earning a promotion to the active roster at the end of the year.
This year, he was slowed briefly by a hamstring issue but returned quickly and caught a touchdown pass against Green Bay.
On the offensive line, with 13 players still standing the Rams have four or five cuts to make. The fringe group there includes Sean Hooey (who has been slowed by an ankle injury but is on the mend), tackles Ty Nsekhe and D.J. Young, and one or two of the following trio: Tim Barnes, Shelley Smith and Brandon Washington.
Four or five of the team’s 13 defensive linemen must go, with tackle Garrett Goebel, tackle-end Mason Brodine, and ends R.J. Washington, Gerald Rivers and Sammy Brown in the most jeopardy. Brown (calf) has been injured almost the entire camp.
Conversely, there’s not much work left to do at linebacker. Only eight players remain there, and one of them — Jo-Lonn Dunbar — won’t count against the final 53 because of a four-game suspension. The Rams may enter the regular season with seven LBs. If they keep six, that means one has to go and Jonathan Stewart and Daren Bates sweat out the final cut.
And then there’s the logjam in the secondary, where 15 players still remain and only nine or 10 will make the final 53. Drew Thomas, Darren Woodard and St. Louisan Andre Martin are on the bubble at cornerback.
Safety is a little more complicated. Do the Rams decide enough is enough with the oft-injured Stewart? And what about veteran Matt Giordano, the free-agent pickup from Oakland who has missed all but a few days of camp and preseason with a calf injury?
If either one of those two goes, it could open the door for Matt Daniels, Rashard Hall, or Davis.
“I think I’ve done pretty well,” Davis said. “Not too pleased with how I played last game (in Denver). I was still in the right spots; just needed to finish better. So hopefully I can come into this game and finish those plays where I was in the right position but didn’t quite finish on the tackles.”