As all 32 NFL teams prepare for their third preseason game this week, most training camps have closed, and the serious business of getting ready for the regular season is front and center.
The third game is, of course, the one where starters are on the field for their most extensive time of the summer games, and jobs hang in the balance.
By next Tuesday, all teams will have reduced their rosters from 90 to 75 players. The final preseason games are all played two days later, and two days after that, on Saturday, Sept. 3, another 22 players will be trimmed from each active roster. That’s 1,184 players deleted from rosters, although 320 will return to practice squads.
Some teams won’t be able to fit the phenoms of summer on those tight rosters. Many other players, looked at as longshots when camps opened, will be living the dream when they don’t receive that dreaded knock on the door. At least for a while. It’s always wise not to get too excited, because one of the biggest misnomers in sports is calling the NFL roster reduction to 53 the “final” cut. There is nothing final to it.
Many a player has been jolted back to reality after believing he had made a roster and then being released the next day after his team claims a player on waivers.
NFL evaluators will never be perfect because the level of competition in college is always in question. Even among high-caliber athletes at marquee schools, many are matched up in games against players who will never be in a NFL training camp, much less a regular-season roster.
After all, who knew in 2014 that an unknown cornerback from Hinds Community College and West Alabama would not only stick on the New England Patriots’ roster, but make the game-saving interception in the Super Bowl five months later? The Malcolm Butlers of the world will always confound coaches and scouts.
As Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said, “It’s a tough projection. You evaluate the film. A lot of times they’re just better than the players they’re playing against. How would that compare when they play against higher competition? Sometimes you can see matchups at that level that are comparable. You evaluate their physical skills and see whether those are comparable to the players at your position.
“A guy might be a great player at another level, (but) when you look at him physically and you say, ‘Well, he’s well below what we have in terms of size, speed,’ whatever other measurements you have. Even though he’s a good player, once you put him up against other good players, it just might not be that competitive. So, I think those are all things you kind of look at, but it’s hard when you’re looking at one level trying to compare it to another. It’s definitely a challenge.”
The reality, Belichick added, is “we hit some, we miss some. There are guys we’ve looked at, at that level, and they’ve done better than we thought they would. We just keep trying to perfect our evaluations and the process, do the best that we can. It’s imperfect. There are a lot of factors that we can’t control, and then when you put a player into an environment like this that has a lot of unknowns, then sometimes they react positively or negatively or just differently. Not every player from those levels reacts the same when they come here to the things that we do. Some guys embrace it; some guys have a hard time with that, taking that next step. It’s definitely a little bit of an unpredictable situation.”
Having said all of that, this is a look at 15 players to keep tabs on this week in the third preseason game. Most notably, they are those undrafted or selected late in the draft, and some from lower-level football schools. The ones that will eventually, hopefully, play important roles on their team, which includes special teams.
Geronimo Allison, wide receiver, Packers (undrafted 2016, Illinois): In a crowded receiver group, Allison has size (6-foot-3, 202) and seems to make plays every day. Said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, “He offers something a little bit different with his size and his ability to catch the ball and use his body to shield defenders and make contested catches.”
Freddie Bishop, outside linebacker, Jets (undrafted 2013 Lions, Western Michigan): He had 11 sacks in Calgary of the CFL last season, and is making coaches think he could be a pass-rushing find.
Daniel Braverman, wide receiver, Bears (D7 2016, Western Michigan): Eddie Royal’s roster spot could be in jeopardy with Braverman and Marc Mariani competing. Braverman has been adept at playing in the slot.
Quan Bray, wide receiver, Colts (undrafted 2015, Auburn): In the hunt for a job as a kick returner, but it’s a close competition with two 2016 undrafted players Chester Rogers (Grambling) and Tevaun Smith (Iowa). The one who shows more promise as a receiver will likely win the job.
James Cowser, linebacker/defensive end, Raiders (undrafted 2016, Southern Utah): A classic ‘tweener (6-3, 247), he is forcing coaches to take a closer look because of his pass-rushing ability.
Matt Judon, outside linebacker, Ravens (D5 2016, Grand Valley State): Judon had 20 sacks last season, and can get after the passer at 6-3, 275 pounds. He has 3 sacks in the first two preseason games. Saturday against Detroit could be big for Judon. Head coach John Harbaugh said, “He’s a gamer, I guess. He’s playing pretty good in practice, but he’s playing really well in the games. What I’d like to do next week is put him in against some starting offensive tackles and see how he does.”
Daniel Lasco, running back, Saints (D7 2016, California): He’s battling 2015 seventh-round pick Marcus Murphy for a roster spot, and kick returns could be his ticket, especially since Murphy has fumbled a punt in each of the first two preseason games.
Peter Mortell, punter, Packers (undrafted 2016, Minnesota): A native of Green Bay, Mortell could bump Tim Masthay off the roster if he continues what he has done in the first two weeks with a 49.2-yard average and 48.8-yard net.
Tyvis Powell, defensive back, Seahawks (undrafted 2016, Ohio State): Special teams is his ticket, and he has made plays in the preseason games. Powell has also been on the field as a cornerback and safety.
Marcus Rush, outside linebacker, 49ers (CFA 2015, Michigan State): After spending last season on the practice squad, Rush has lived up to his name this summer. He had 3 sacks against Denver Saturday night, including one on quarterback Mark Sanchez that forced a fumble in the red zone and stopped a scoring drive.
Derron Smith, safety, Bengals (D6 2015, Fresno State): Smith played 16 games as a rookie, mostly on special teams, and is competing in a talented secondary for scrimmage time. Last Thursday against the Lions, he returned an interception 60 yards for a touchdown.
Nelson Spruce, wide receiver, Rams (undrafted 2016, Colorado): Went to high school in the L.A. area. Lacks speed and size, but runs great routes. A knee injury has to be overcome.
Ross Travis, tight end, Chiefs (undrafted 2015, Penn State): Don’t let the college fool you. Travis played basketball at Penn State, and hadn’t played football since his freshman year in high school until signing with Kansas City’s practice squad last season. He has been solid as a receiver and blocker, and appears headed for a roster spot.
Dwayne Washington, running back, Lions (D7 2016, Washington): Detroit is a good place for a running back with promise. All Washington has done in the first two weeks is return a kickoff for a touchdown, lead the team in rushing this past weekend and play like a demon on special teams.
Brandon Wilds, running back, Falcons (undrafted 2016, South Carolina): A 32-yard touchdown run last Thursday against Cleveland was something to see. With Terron Ward hampered by an ankle injury, Wilds has a shot at the No. 3 spot behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.