No coach enjoys one aspect of this time of year -- the part where they, and those who work with them, have to tell scores of players that their NFL dreams are about to come to an end, at least in the short term. Final cuts can be brutal, as we've seen on several seasons of Hard Knocks, and all NFL teams must get their rosters down to 75 players by 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Aug. 26, and down to 53 by that same time on Saturday, Aug, 30.
Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, who will make those cuts as a head man for the first time this season, recently spoke about how hard it can be.
“You know, we’re still in that process," O'Brien said Monday. "Those things aren’t finalized yet. But just speaking on those terms in general, none of that is ever easy. Any guy that’s come through here that we’ve had to release over the last seven or eight months, that’s a very difficult part of the job for both myself and [Texans general manager] Rick Smith. Not to speak for Rick, but I know, we talk about this a lot because these guys have come in here and really worked hard. They’ve been professional, they’ve worked hard in the weight room, worked hard in conditioning, they’ve worked hard on the practice field, some of them played decently in the games, but at the end of the day, you have to whittle the roster down to 53 men and 10 practice squad guys. That’s just the way it works in this league, but it’s a tough process.”
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Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who has had to do many of these cuts over time, believes that the personal approach is the only way to go.
"I talk to every one of them. I really feel that it's my job to do that. I think I owe that to them," Carroll told ESPN Radio's Seattle affiliate. "For some guys, if it's the last time they ever play football, I want them to have the last experience with the head coach. ... I would hate to skirt that issue. There's a lot of guys that don't do that, I think. I just remember when I got cut my last time, the defensive coordinator cut me and I never got over it. I'm still pissed."
Tough calls or not, here are a few well-known players who could find themselves on the wrong side of final cuts, for a number of reasons.
Michael Sam, DE, St. Louis Rams
Sam was taken in the seventh round out of Missouri because he only flashed potential as a pass-rusher in college. Of course, that's not why he was such a big story this offseason -- the first active NFL player to make his homosexuality public knowledge has been somewhat productive in his first preseason, but he's on the bad end of a numbers game at this point. The Rams have the most stacked defensive line in the business, and undrafted free agent end Ethan Westbrooks has outpaced Sam in overall effect and productivity, amassing nine total pressures to Sam's six. It's possible that Westbrooks (who made our list of defensive draft sleepers) better fits the Jeff Fisher archetype -- purely in an on-field sense. Sam will get a shot somewhere if he does get cut -- he's a better than average run-stopping end, and he's shown solid burst off the edge.
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Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings
The selection of Ponder in the first round of the 2011 draft may well be the biggest blunder of Vikings general manager (and then-VP of player personnel) Rick Spielman's career. Through 36 games and 35 starts, Ponder hasn't been able to shake his limited arm and inability to keep things together under heavy pressure. New head coach Mike Zimmer has already named Matt Cassel the team's short-term starter, and 2014 first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater has already proven to have a stronger deep arm (much better for Norv Turner's offense) and better ability against the blitz. There are enough NFL teams with precarious quarterback situations (hello, Rams) that Ponder should get another shot if he is indeed cut.
Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots
Ridley has done some decent work for the Pats, scoring 19 rushing touchdowns overall in the past two seasons. But he hasn't been able to get out of Bill Belichick's doghouse (never a pleasant place to be) due to a fumbling problem that has seen him drop the ball eight times in the last two years, losing six. Ridley fumbled again in New England's preseason win over the Eagles, which left him with a rough film day.
"When I go back and watch the play, and the ball is out again, Week 2, it kind of sucks," Ridley told ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss. "But it's football, man, and I can't get down about it. I can't harp about it. That's why you have preseason. I'm just going to keep on working and keep on pushing."
He may be pushing elsewhere soon. It would be a bit of an upset if Belichick dropped the hammer on Ridley, but the coach preaches ball security and situational football above all, which could leave Ridley as the odd man out. Jonas Gray, who has had cups of coffee with the Dolphins and Patriots in the past, leads the team with 130 preseason rushing yards.
Brandon Meriweather, S, Washington Redskins
Yes, Washington's safety situation is precarious, but it's more than clear that the NFL has a bull's-eye on Meriweather's back. He was suspended two games after his hit on Ravens receiver Torrey Smith in Week 3 of the preseason, and that's his sixth violation of player safety rules. Yes, the NFL has become uber-touchy about on-field contact, but Meriwether is deservedly known as the wrong kind of head-hunter, and it's not as if his play makes up for it in a general sense. The Redskins may be better off cutting bait; he's only on a one-year, $1 million deal.
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On Tuesday's SI Now, The MMQB contributor Andrew Brandt and staff writer Jenny Vrentas discuss Brandon Meriweather's two-game suspension and why repeat offenders should get harsher penalties.
Steven Jackson, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Sadly, it may be near the end of the road for this longtime great player. In his prime with a series of sub-par Rams teams, Jackson was one of the best power backs in the league. But Jackson gained just 543 yards in his first season with Atlanta, and he's been nicked up with various injuries throughout the 2014 preseason. Jackson is due a $3 million base salary, and this is a case where economics could trump loyalty.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
At this point, cutting the troubled Blackmon would be a fait accompli -- he's suspended for at least the first half of the 2014 season after multiple run-ins with the law. The Jaguars haven't heard much from Blackmon, according to the Florida Times Union, and it's reasonable to expect that whatever Blackmon had in the tank from a talent perspective at one time is now gone. It's a sad story, but perhaps it's best for both parties to move on. The team doesn't have to worry about a roster spot for Blackmon until he's reinstated, which may have them waiting a bit.
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Brandon Graham, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Well, that's an ouch. In 2010, the Eagles took Graham out of Michigan with the 13th overall pick, leaving Texas safety Earl Thomas on the board. Thomas is now one of the league's best defensive players in Seattle (whose front office expressed disbelief at the time that Thomas was still there, thinking Philly would pull the trigger), and Graham now appears to be on the outs. He has just 11.5 sacks through four seasons
Dimitri Patterson, CB, New York Jets
Patterson actually had a really good season for the Dolphins in 2013 -- he allowed a 51.1 quarterback rating and intercepted four passes to just one touchdown allowed. The Jets signed Patterson to a one-year deal in March that included $1.5 million guaranteed and another $500,000 in in-game roster bonuses. He was thought to be in line for a starting spot given the Jets' depleted corps at the position, but he went AWOL for the Jets' game against the Giants last week, evidently unhappy about a dive down the depth chart, as injuries affected his play. Patterson has now been suspended indefinitely as the team investigates the particulars, and it may be need only that keeps Patterson on the team. This has been a bungle all the way around.