Three players whom the The MMQB has followed over the last year—Andre Williams, Zach Line and Austen Lane—experienced the NFL’s toughest weekend in three very different ways
The Giants issued a standard rule to their players: Be available between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday. On the day NFL rosters needed to be whittled down to 53, players needed to be ready to hand in their playbook tablets at a phone call’s notice.
Andre Williams didn’t have cause to worry. Over the course of the preseason, the fourth-round pick out of Boston College had established himself as the team’s No. 2 back, his hard running and maturity endearing him to his new Giants coaches. But rookies follow the rules, so Williams planned nothing but a few small errands during that window on Saturday: dropping off dry-cleaning, getting his car serviced, donating clothes to the Salvation Army. His one big weekend errand, he made sure to complete a day earlier.
Well, it was much more than an errand: On Friday, Williams married his college sweetheart, Carolyn Jay, at the town hall in Secaucus, N.J. It was just a quick civil ceremony with two witnesses (her mother, his sister), performed by the town mayor, whose salmon-colored polo peeked out from the black robe he threw on. The big family wedding will be next summer.
“Not much has changed,” Williams says, “but you’ve definitely stepped into something separate from where we were before.”
He was talking about entering married life, but the same applies to cut-down weekend, too—for the lucky ones. In the NFL, Labor Day weekend is the annual line of demarcation between those who advance with their current teams to the regular season, and those whose futures are suddenly uncertain. For three players whose careers we’ve followed on The MMQB, this year’s cut-down weekend went three very different ways.
Andre Williams got married. Zach Line, whose journey as an undrafted rookie we chronicled last season, waited out his second cut-down weekend in the Vikings’ training room, receiving treatment on the ankle he injured in the fourth preseason game. Austen Lane, the defensive end who wrote a first-person piece on what it was like to get cut by the Jaguars in 2013, spent most of Saturday in an Illinois hotel room wondering if he was about to have that same feeling again.
ANDRE WILLIAMS: A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER
Before the Giants’ preseason finale against the Patriots, Williams warned his family he probably wouldn’t play very much. They drove in for the game—his parents from Pennsylvania, his older sister, and Carolyn and her mother—with handmade signs and No. 44 gear. Williams played only two series and spent the second half chewing sunflower seeds on the sidelines with the veterans. Bad for his cheering section, but good news for his roster spot.
The Giants’ depth chart at running back has changed a bit since May, when Williams was drafted. David Wilson, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, was forced to retire because of a neck injury. At Wilson’s retirement press conference, he tearfully implored his teammates to make the most of their opportunities—and that’s what Williams has done. His first NFL touchdown was the first of the entire NFL preseason, a three-yard run on a dive play early in the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 3. Williams said it was the most fun he’s ever had playing football—at least so far.
His teammates expect more scores during the regular season; fellow running back Peyton Hillis even factored that in to the price Williams paid him for his collegiate No. 44. Williams was hesitant to fork over what he called a “good chunk of money,” so Hillis softened the blow by suggesting that Williams could earn some of the cash back each time he scores a touchdown this season. Williams agreed.
Williams, who’ll play behind starter Rashad Jennings, still has a lot to learn about the game. His prime area of focus is using his hands better: in catching passes, in pass protection and to shed blocks on special teams. But plays like his 38-yard run on a fourth-and-1 Thursday night—it was an inside zone run, and he made a nifty cut outside the block on the play-side linebacker—are a big reason this weekend wasn’t a nail-biter.
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He and Carolyn would not have planned to get married if it had been. “I wanted her to be around me, because we help each other be great,” Williams says, “so we decided to make it official.” After the ceremony in Secaucus they went into Manhattan and shopped for rings in the Diamond District, acted like kids at Dylan’s Candy Bar and ate dinner with Carolyn’s mom at Italian eatery Del Posto.
Williams already had one weekend this year when the wait seemed to go on forever. During the draft, the Heisman Trophy finalist sweated through three rounds and into the third day before hearing his name called. This was the opposite. Williams turned 22 on Thursday. He got word that his first patent, for an athletic shirt he designed with a stabilizing apparatus built into the shoulders, was officially filed. He got married. And he made an NFL team’s 53-man roster.
Sunday afternoon, while getting a massage at his Secaucus apartment, he reminded himself this was just the starting line.
“It was a really big weekend,” Williams says, “but I know now things are going to pick up from here. Everything counts, so it’s going to be a bigger responsibility that I am stepping into now. It’s going to be fun to actually be able to get into the game and get lathered up, and see what happens over the course of an entire game, rather than just one or two series. I feel like I have a groove that I can fit into very well, and I think the Giants feel the same way.”
ZACH LINE: SWEATING BEYOND SATURDAY
There might not be a best place to wait for news on cut-down weekend. But being at the team facility may be one of the worst places. Zach Line didn’t have a choice. He was at the Vikings’ Winter Park headquarters at 6:45 a.m. Saturday morning for treatment on his ankle. “It was a weird feeling in there,” Line says. “Very quiet. People just waiting for bad news, and walking around on thin ice.”
Line wasn’t sure what kind of news he would be getting. He had split reps with veteran fullback Jerome Felton through the preseason—Felton played the first halves of the first three preseason games, and Line played the second halves. Line got a chance to leave a good final impression in Thursday night’s preseason game (Felton sat out with the starters) until his ankle got rolled up while he was blocking a linebacker on a draw play and he had to leave the game. “My timing,” says Line, “was horrible.”
He was asking himself the same questions as his wife, McKenzie, and family members: Will this affect your roster spot? What do you think they’re going to do? He had no answers. As an undrafted rookie last year Line played a game of roster musical chairs—he had a seat on the full squad for the first three games of the season while Felton served a three-game suspension. But when Felton returned, a knee injury was reason enough for the Vikings to stash Line on season-ending injured reserve (he later had shoulder surgery on an old injury from college). Would the Vikings keep two fullbacks this year?
Line noticed early on that new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense had plenty of plays involving an athletic fullback who could block, catch and run. Line, once a record-setting running back at SMU, liked the sight of that. “I thought we were definitely going to use a fullback a lot,” Line says. “It was just a matter of who was going to be the fullback.” Vikings running backs coach Kirby Wilson told his players through camp that they were not competing within their position group for roster spots, but rather against the players in other rooms who were also battling for special teams roles. Line continued to learn from Felton, a more experienced (and more expensive) former Pro Bowler, and worked to climb the depth chart on each special-teams unit.
“You don’t see teams keep two fullbacks very often,” Line says, “but I think it is hard to get rid of two fullbacks who are doing well at their position and are also contributing on special teams.”
My timing was horrible,” says Line, who rolled his ankle in the final preseason game.
The Vikings agreed, but Line wasn’t sure of that until Sunday afternoon. There were two deadlines this weekend: The cuts down to 53 players Saturday afternoon, and a second round of waiver claims and cuts the next day at noon, when teams pick up players who failed to make rosters elsewhere but might fit a need, and must make room for them. Line was back at the facility for treatment on Sunday when the Vikings claimed a pair of players off waivers, one of them hybrid tight end/fullback MarQueis Gray, formerly of the Browns. Line was glad he didn’t hear about that move until after his agent gave him the news that he was safe again. Minnesosta waived linebacker Larry Dean and tackle Austin Wentworth to open the two roster spots.
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“It’s gut-wrenching,” Line says, “thinking, ‘OK, I made it today, but I might still get a phone call tomorrow or the next day.’ ” Last year his season ended three weeks later. Line says this ankle injury is not serious, but he’s eager to get back on the field—and stay there.
“When you make a roster, you feel like the team wants you, and you want to help the team win every single game you can,” he says. “I want to work to be one of those core guys that teams want to keep around; that are helping out, year to year. You can’t just sit on IR, you need to play.”
AUSTEN LANE: THAT FAMILIAR FEELING
Austen Lane had already had the feeling of sticking on an NFL roster through cut-down weekend—three times. And before this weekend, he had already had the feeling of being cut—three times.
The 26-year-old defensive end figured he could pass the time on Saturday by watching college football in his hotel room. But he was really watching the clock. The call he feared came around 2:30 p.m. Central, 30 minutes before cuts were due. His mom, visiting from Wisconsin, was with him.
“It’s funny, because this was my fourth time getting cut, and the feelings don’t really change,” Lane says. “I was down a little bit, I was sad, I was frustrated. But at the same time, I think if you are not sad or frustrated, there is something wrong. Because when you are sad or frustrated, that means it meant something to you.”
Lane’s most recent opportunity was with the Bears. And this one meant a lot. The previous year, 2013, had taken a few rough turns. After three seasons with the Jaguars, the former fifth-round pick was released in June of last year. Lane was claimed off waivers by the Chiefs, but let go in their cut to 53. He spent most of the 2013 regular season on the outside looking in, save for a three-week stint with the Lions in November. When the Bears called in February to sign him, they were the only NFL team interested.
And then the Bears restocked their defensive line, signing ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, and drafting a pair of defensive tackles, making theirs one of the deeper D-line units in the league. But Lane embraced the competition, and he maximized the resource of Joe Kim, the taekwondo black belt the Bears hired as a consultant to work with their pass-rushers. “He’s a hands specialist,” Lane says. “I am always going to be the physical, play-the-run player, and I’ve never had a problem with that, but adding what he taught me to my arsenal and learning how to be a better pass-rusher has only helped me.”
Every cut may feel the same, but the accompanying frustrations are different. And Lane was frustrated this time because out of all five of the training camps he’s completed, he thought this one was his best. By Sunday afternoon, he had hit the road, headed for his hometown of Iola, Wis., population 1,300. He’ll stay there for a few days, until he figures out the next step. It will involve football, he says.
“I’m definitely planning on still playing this game. I still think I have a lot to offer,” Lane says. “And from what I have been hearing from teams and my agents, I think there is going to be another shot for me. Without the Bears giving me a shot in the offseason, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Last fall, while he was out of the NFL, Lane wrote about the uncertainty of getting another chance. He wondered if he would know the right time to quit or move on. But during his two-and-half-hour drive north through rural Midwestern towns, he was confident that time is not now. Not yet. His love for the game can survive four cuts.