Players brace for 'nerve-wracking' wait
Jayrone Elliott promised his family they’d be the first to know whether he’d made the Green Bay Packers’ 53-man roster last summer.
The undrafted outside linebacker was right. He just wasn't the one delivering the news.
“They eventually found out via Twitter and Instagram before me,” said Elliott, one of two undrafted rookies to make last year’s initial 53. “When I got out of meetings, my phone was kind of going crazy.”
Cutdown weekend is all about agony and ecstasy. Players across the NFL will wait anxiously to hear whether they’ve made an NFL roster. It’s a high-stakes game for both undrafted players trying to make NFL rosters and many veterans trying to hold onto their spot.
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Financially, there’s a lot on the line. An undrafted rookie who’s on the active roster will earn $25,588.24 in Week 1. Those released but asked back to the practice squad make $6,600 per week. The rest get a handshake and one-way flight to wherever they call home.
The Packers must trim their roster by at least 20 by 3 p.m. CT on Saturday. Approximately 40 of the 75 players on the current roster are good bets to still have a job on Monday. The rest will spend the weekend distracting themselves and hoping their phone doesn’t ring.
“It stinks because that’s your job and people forget that’s where your house is, that’s where your friends are,” said backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was released by San Diego and San Francisco before arriving in Green Bay in 2013.
“The worst thing about being released — I’ve been there twice — is just having to start over from scratch with where you’re living, a new playbook, a new coaching staff, a new group of players. But it’s also part of the business. You’re thankful to have a job and have a chance.”
Elliott, an unheralded college free agent out of Toledo, was a strong bet to make the roster after recording five sacks in last year’s preseason. It’s a good possibility he will remain on the 53 this season given his potential as a pass-rusher and the niche he has carved out on special teams.
Like last year, he plans to spend Saturday watching college football with a few of his teammates. Most players aren't tipped off about their job status until they’re summoned for special-teams meetings. Coach Mike McCarthy typically brings up a slide congratulating the 53 players who made the roster.
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As much as it meant to Elliott to make last year’s team, it didn’t hit him until after the conclusion of the 2014 season.
“I had some money in my pocket, so I could actually relax and go take some vacations and whatnot,” Elliott said. “As I’m on vacation, I realized none of this is possible without working hard in football. It kind of hit me then. Then to see my mom happy and my family proud at games, it makes you want to go harder and continue to do what you’re doing.”
Safety Chris Banjo has been on both sides of the equation. He was the Cinderella story of camp two years ago after making the 53-man roster despite not signing with the Packers until after camp already began.
Last year, he spent the entire offseason with the Packers and was among their final cuts. The creation of the veterans exemption allowed him to return on the practice squad, but he wasn’t re-activated to the 53-man roster until December. The Packers are deep at safety, but Banjo hopes to parlay his contributions on special teams into full-time employment.
One thing he isn’t going to do is worry.
“I’m going to do the same exact thing I always do,” Banjo said. “Kick back, watch a movie and just chill. I’ll stay to myself a little bit. These days can be nerve-racking, but whatever is going to happen is going to happen regardless. I just pray and leave it up in God’s hands.”
One of the most cluttered positions on the roster is at receiver. The Packers have more prospects than positions despite the loss of Jordy Nelson to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Jared Abbrederis joined the conversation after getting cleared to play in Thursday night’s finale against New Orleans after missing a month due to a concussion.
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If only one spot is available, they will have to weigh his potential against Myles White, the third longest-tenured receiver on the roster who led the Packers in receiving during the preseason (16 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns).
White has been among the Packers’ final cuts in each of the past two years. He played seven games in place of an injured Randall Cobb in 2013, but spent all of last season on the team’s practice squad. He plans to wait out the cuts watching movies and playing video games.
“Just relax. … Try to take your mind off it because it will drive you crazy,” White said. “I wanted to make sure this camp I did everything without having any regrets. I think I did that. I feel like I had a good camp. I put an exclamation point with this last game. Whatever happens, happens.”
Like White, first-year running back Rajion Neal is vying to make the leap from the practice squad. He played well early in camp last year before tearing his medial collateral ligament, which required an injury settlement. Neal spent the summer fending off rookies Alonzo Harris and John Crockett for third-string snaps at running back.
He compiled a solid resume — 155 total yards in four games — but it’s not guaranteed the Packers will keep three running backs. Neal won't trouble himself over those conversations. Until a decision is made, he plans to spend the weekend with his family.
Once it’s over, Neal hopes to send them off rather than join them on their way back to Georgia.
“It’s just hard to really say,” said Neal when asked if he’s done enough to make the team. “But at the end of the day, I feel good with the things I did and what I left out there. Is it enough? Only time will tell.”
McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson agree this is their least favorite time of the football season. You build relationships. Countless hours are invested into developing players. Thompson reiterates ad nauseum he’d like to keep them all.
The reality is the Packers cannot. At least 20 players will be given a pink slip this weekend and it’s up to Thompson to ultimately decide who survives. That responsibility isn't lost on the coaching staff or personnel department.
Neither is the fact the organization must field the best 53-man roster possible once the regular season begins Sept. 13.
“Really, the next 48 hours is what's most important,” McCarthy said. “Make sure we get our 53 set and get our practice squad set and we'll get going on Chicago on Monday.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
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