This is a tough week for NFL coaches and personnel departments. Having the luxury of carrying 80 players on your active roster comes to an end, as of 4 p.m. Eastern, for the Patriots, as they must make five transactions to get down to the 75-player, league-mandated limit.
On Saturday, that number is reduced to the regular season, 53-man limit, with eight extra spaces for practice squad members.
As of 4:25 p.m., the Patriots hadn't officially announced what moves they'd made. Nevertheless, factors for whom to keep and whom to let go run the gamut, and it's safe to say, special teams contributors are among the toughest choices.
"You look at a player's overall value to your team. Not just his value," head coach Bill Belichickexplained, "but also all the other people that you use to comprise that roster and then put together the most competitive team that you can. Just about everybody has more than one responsibility. Very few guys just do one thing, whether in the kicking game or not, depending on what that role is.
"Sometimes it can be, for example, offense and defensive linemen, who maybe don't have as big a role in the kicking game, have to play different positions on the line and that type of thing. Almost everybody really has some kind of multiple responsibilities, whether it extends onto special teams or whether it's at different positions on their side of the ball [or] sometimes a combination of both. It's hard really to say one guy just does one thing unless he's a true specialist or there are a few players that do that, but not many. The majority of them don't."
Between today's cut-down and Saturday's, the Patriots will play their final exhibition game, in New Meadowlands Stadium Thursday night versus the New York Giants. While mostly every player on the roster will see action, the expected starters on opening day will likely make cameo appearances at best. This fourth preseason game is typically when players who are "on the bubble" to make the roster get their last opportunity to showcase themselves.
"I remember my rookie year, becoming friends with Gary Guytonand the stress he was going through, wondering," linebacker Jerod Mayorecalled. He had little to worry about as a rookie, being a first-round draft pick and all.
"We were together the whole day," he continued, referring again to Guyton, a rookie free agent who wound up making the team and becoming a starter last season. "I kind of feel for those [bubble] guys. Hopefully, everyone finds a place to play and it'll work out."
For players who are expected to make the team in a reserve role, like backup QB Brian Hoyer, the fourth preseason game could be the last chance he has to play significant minutes, barring a catastrophe. So, he's seizing the opportunity, not only for himself, but for many of the so-called bubble players with whom he'll be paired on offense.
"Anytime you get an opportunity to play, you have to be excited about it. Just be prepared and have fun and do the best you can.
"You can be more of a leader in the huddle. You can help guys out, the younger guys who don't really know what's going on," Hoyer pointed out. "You can take charge in the huddle, look into those guys' eyes, and say, 'Let's get this. Let's pound the ball. Let's protect the front. Let's go make a play.' And that's something you can't do as a rookie."
But the sad fact, for many players, is that this could be their final week as professional football players. Or, at the very least, their final week in New England. How do some deal with that kind of pressure?
"Same thing I've been doing since I was nine," said linebacker Tyrone McKenzie. "Just play ball … and have fun, no matter how many reps you get."
O-Line holding its own
Despite the self-imposed exile of Logan Mankinsand the injury-forced absence of Nick Kaczur, two staples of New England's offensive line the past several years, the Patriots o-line has remained solid so far this summer with veterans Dan Connollyin place of Mankins at left guard and second-year man Sebastian Vollmertaking over for Kaczur at right tackle.
"We're working hard. We're not where we need to be, but we have more time," right guard Stephen Nealsaid Tuesday. "We have today, hopefully, we'll have a good day on Thursday [night against the Giants].
"The bottom line is, it doesn't matter who's out there. We've got to get the job done. We're working together and all doing our best, and, hopefully, it'll be good enough."
*Tuesday Practice Notes *
Near-record-high temperatures and sunny skies favored the Patriots again on Tuesday as the team held its full-pads practice outdoors on their training camp practice fields. The squad was originally going to practice inside the Gillette Stadium bowl, but at the last minute, Belichick reversed course. "We just need a little more room here [for] kickers," the head coach explained. "We were going to go in there but just felt we'd be better off to go outside."
An even longer list of players were not in uniform today. Like Monday, wide receiver Julian Edelman, cornerbacks Terrence Wheatley, Kyle Arrington, and Leigh Bodden, defensive back Bret Lockett, safety Brandon McGowan, rookie defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick, offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, defensive linemen Ron Braceand Darryl Richard, and rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham. Running back Chris Taylorwas added to the absentee list. Mankins remains unsigned.
The only returning player was defensive lineman Myron Pryor.
Four players were in attendance in shorts and t-shirts, but quickly retreated to the Dana-Farber Field House to work on their rehab activities. Brace, Cunningham, and Hernandez were among those spotted.
This marks the final padded practice of the preseason. New England will hold a walkthrough on Wednesday before departing for New Jersey to face the Giants Thursday night.