This is one of the most anxious, difficult weeks on the NFL calendar.
For players, there's the anxiety of having to hope and pray that they've done enough to survive not one, but two rounds of cuts. For coaches, the difficulty comes in having to decide which players to let loose.
By rule, all clubs must reduce their rosters from 90 to 75 by 4 p.m. Tuesday, then down to the maximum 53 by Saturday at the same time. But most teams don't wait that long to begin the process.
"We have to make a number of roster moves by tomorrow at 4, so some of those may be made today," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged Monday. "We're in the process of working through some things. There are some moving parts. Some things play off other things, so whatever we have, we'll just give you at the end of the day once it's all finished for today. Then we'll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow."
Reportedly, New England has already released at least one player today: rookie tight end Jimmay Mundine. Several other players were not on the field at this morning's walkthrough practice, and while many were absent for health reasons, it's fair to assume that some of them had been cut as well.
"Oh, yeah, end of training camp is always the toughest time," said safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "Everyone's out here giving everything they have trying to be on this team, but the roster has to be cut, so, it's always tough. One of the best things is the friendships you make with some of the guys. It's always tough to see guys leave.
"It's always the tough part, seeing your friends, people working hard [being let] go, but it's the business side of football," observed tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose job is nowhere near in jeopardy. "What I have to do is focus on myself, get better as a player."
"It's a tough time. Tough decisions for all the coaches," remarked cornerback Malcolm Butler, who also is a sure bet to make the roster. That wasn't the case a year ago, however.
"Last year at this time," Butler added, "I had a little confidence that I'd make the team, but at the same time, still humbled myself and go out there like I'm not going to make it. Now, I'm more relaxed, more comfortable. I have a job, but I'm still working like I've got to keep this job."
Adding to the week's challenges is the truncated week of preparation for the home opener. Normally, teams finish the preseason on a Thursday and have 10 days to get ready for their regular season debuts. As Super Bowl champions, however, the Patriots have the honor of hosting the first game of the year at home next Thursday night, just one week after the preseason finale against the New York Giants.
"Yeah, it changes a lot," Belichick conceded. "In the normal situation, you go through your roster changes at the end of the week there, Saturday, Sunday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – whatever it is – set your practice squad on Sunday and then you play the following Sunday. Now, that will be in the middle of our preparation, so it will be into our Wednesday-type practice day. We don't have a practice squad until Sunday, so it's just different. It's the same for both teams, but it's different than 30 of the other teams in the league. [I'm] glad we're playing that game. There's a good reason for us playing it, so that's good, but it definitely complicates things on a number of levels. It's the way it is.
"We're just trying to balance a lot of things here at this time of year between roster, the Giants game, obviously the Pittsburgh opener, and a number of other things. Each coach, each player all is kind of in their own individual situation – whatever the circumstances are that surround it here in the next couple weeks – and we just have to try to work through it the best we can and try to get as much done as productively as possible. That's what we'll try to do."
Since players like Gronkowski, McCourty, and Butler have no worries about their jobs, they might be able to get a head-start on preparing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but as you might expect, the "Patriot Way" is not to admit to looking that far ahead.
"Right now we've got the game Thursday [against New York]," Gronkowski maintained, "so, we've got to prepare like any other week and get ready for the Giants. I never played a Thursday night game opening up. I feel like it won't change my preparation at all."
"In my situation," said Butler, "I'm going to take every game just like a game, preseason or not. I'm going to play ball. Any guys who get the chance to play, make the best of it, like I did last year. Just go out and give it your all."
"You just have to go out and play this last game, give it everything you have," echoed McCourty. "There's going to be a lot you can't control. The only thing you can control is your play. Just keep going at it. You're on one team, but there's still 31 other teams out there that could be interested, so, you want to play your best.
"One game at a time. It's still good to have some days and some time to work on ourselves and fix the things we need to fix. I think that's key to take advantage of that."
Brady back in court
QB Tom Brady was among the absentees from practice Monday, but he had an excused absence. He was in a New York City courtroom once again trying to get his four-game NFL suspension overturned.
Monday's session reportedly took less than five minutes, and Judge Richard Berman told Brady and the NFL that he would rule on TB12's suspension by this Friday at the latest, and possibly sooner.
Develin down, but is he out?
Fullback James Develin was also among the missing Monday, not surprisingly. He suffered what's believed to be a broken right leg Friday night against the Carolina Panthers.
The three-year veteran posted a Tweet Sunday thanking his family, friends, and fans for their support over the past few days. He also vowed to work as hard as he can to return and help the Patriots prepare for this upcoming season.
Develin's injury looked season-ending severe when he was carted off the field at Bank of America Stadium, but his social media post seemed to leave the door open for a possible return later this year. The Patriots have the option of placing Develin on the injured reserve/designated to return list within the next week. If that were to happen, by rule, Develin wouldn't be eligible to get back on the practice field until at least Week 6 or a game until Week 8.
"Oh, yeah, he's definitely going to be missed," Gronkowski declared. "He was our thumper. He was the guy who set the tone on our offense, made big hits, and cleared the holes out for the running back. He's a great guy, hard worker. I'm sure he'll be back in no time because he loves the game and always works hard."
"J.D. is probably one of the most team-oriented guys. He's irreplaceable," running back LeGarrette Blount asserted. "I feel like he's one of the better guys in the league at his position. That's a huge loss. Hate losing a guy like that."
Six Patriots did not dress for practice Monday for injury reasons: WR Brandon LaFell, rookie CB Darryl Roberts (wrist), LB Dane Fletcher, OL Chris Barker, C Bryan Stork, and DL Chris Jones. LaFell, Fletcher, and Jones were all seen in the locker room afterward, and LaFell looked like he'd been outside working out at some point.
In addition to Mundine, four other players were not seen on the practice field Monday: wide receiver josh Boyce, rookie WR Jonathan Krause (who sustained an injury against Carolina), linebacker Dekoda Watson, and defensive lineman Joe Vellano. One might deduce, therefore, that they've been released, but as yet there's been no official announcement from the Patriots. The club went into the week with 84 players on the roster.
OL Marcus Cannon, meanwhile, returned to practice for the first time being hurt at joint practices with the Saints in West Virginia.