Difficult Decisions Await as Cuts Begin
Coach Jeff Fisher and his staff are charged with the difficult task of trimming the roster from 90 to 75 and then to 53 in less than a week's time.
In his many years playing competitive football, Rams coach Jeff Fisher was never cut from a team.
Not in the NFL. Not in college. Not even from the varsity team at his high school a la Michael Jordan.
But just because Fisher never felt the pain of falling short of his dreams – he says he “retired” from the NFL without being released – doesn’t mean he feels no sympathy for the players he lets go as the man in charge of those decisions now.
That’s why, for the 16 seasons he’s served as a head coach in the NFL, Fisher has always made it a point to inform the player who is being let go of his fate in person.
“It’s not easy at all, but I have a conversation with each and every player,” Fisher said. “And I’ve always done it that way.”
Fisher began that process anew Sunday as the Rams and the rest of the league must trim their roster from 90 players to 75 by 5 p.m. Monday afternoon.
On the heels of Saturday night’s 20-19 loss in Dallas, Fisher and his coaching staff now have a full training camp and a three-game sample size with which to evaluate the players on the roster.
For the most part in this camp, the roster has been stable with few releases and additions along the way. In theory, the first round of cuts to be done by Monday is a bit easier than the final group in terms of who stays and who goes.
Teams have to cut to their final 53-man rosters by 9 p.m. Friday. It’s a process that’s hard on everyone, not just the coach or general manager informing the players of their release.
“It’s hard,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of guys this year - even more so now that we can bring 90 into camp - that aren’t going to be here when we go into Detroit. It’s tough. It’s part of the business, though. I think I’ve kind of learned to accept it. I’m just excited for everyone who’s going to be here and who’s going to be a part of this team and this year.”
Of course, even if a player is released, be it in the first round of cuts or the last, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the line. There are plenty of stories of players who haven’t made it on the first try and turned into quality NFL players, sometimes even stars.
In the Rams locker room right now is a perfect example in right guard Harvey Dahl.
Dahl was released in his first year out of Nevada, spent time bouncing around on practice squads and even in NFL Europe before finally getting his chance in Atlanta. He worked his way into becoming one of the league’s most physical guards and earned a lucrative contract from the Rams before the 2011 season.
“It's tough,” Dahl said. “It's a tough business, and I just hope they get an opportunity somewhere else. That's the thing about the NFL. There's 31 other teams watching film and evaluating, so there's always other opportunities out there.”
With those moves forthcoming, let’s take a quick spin around the positional roster at what some of the competitions that need to play out still look like:
- At quarterback, the decision seems to be whether the Rams will keep two or three quarterbacks. Bradford, Kellen Clemens and Austin Davis will be the three in consideration for those two or three spots.
- At running back, the Rams seem set on a top three tailbacks of Steven Jackson, Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson. Fullback is more interesting and it seems likely they’ll keep two fullbacks in Brit Miller and Ovie Mughelli.
- At receiver, the Rams will likely keep six on the final roster. With Austin Pettis not counting against the final 53 because of a two-game suspension he has to serve, that means the Rams will likely keep the group of Danny Amendola, Steve Smith, Brandon Gibson, Brian Quick, Chris Givens and Greg Salas until Pettis can return.
- At tight end, the Rams will likely keep four based on the style of grind it out running preferred by Fisher. Lance Kendricks and Matthew Mulligan seem set in their roles with Michael Hoomanawanui likely to land the third spot. A possible fourth spot would seem to come down to choosing a flavor amongst athletic DeAngelo Peterson, mauling blocker Cory Harkey and local product Mike McNeill, who does a little of everything.
- Up front, the Rams seem to have a good bead on the players that will comprise the offensive line group, even if their positions aren’t set. Center Scott Wells, guards Harvey Dahl and Quinn Ojinnaka and tackles Rodger Saffold and Barry Richardson appear to be locks to make the roster. Beyond that, it will depend on how many linemen the Rams opt to keep. It’ll likely be eight but nine isn’t out of the question. Interior swing man Robert Turner, guard Rokevious Watkins and tackle Jason Smith are the logical options there.
On defense, the Rams have some spots still up in the air as well, particularly in the lower spots on the depth chart.
- Up front, the Rams figure to keep eight or nine defensive linemen with the ends likely being Chris Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes and Eugene Sims. At tackle, the Rams have some difficult decisions after Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford with only rookie Matt Conrath and Jermelle Cudjo providing depth. Veteran Trevor Laws has been injured for most of camp and his status is up in the air.
- The linebacking group has some clarity to it though the Rams could have a spot or two still up for grabs. James Laurinaitis, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Rocky McIntosh, Mario Haggan and Josh Hull seem to be pretty well set. Rookie Aaron Brown has earned high praise for his special teams work and Justin Cole has had some nice moments as well. Both are in strong contention for a possible last two spots but someone like Sammy Brown, who brings a pass rush element the others don’t could also factor in.
- There’s probably no position better set than cornerback following the trade of Josh Gordy to Indianapolis. The Rams seem set to keep five corners with Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Bradley Fletcher, Trumaine Johnson and Jerome Murphy in place.
- The safety group has been the most difficult to evaluate because of myriad injuries throughout camp. Quintin Mikell, Craig Dahl and Darian Stewart figure to be in good shape. Rookie Rodney McLeod has had a strong camp and has been excellent on special teams. Matt Daniels could also figure into the mix of what will likely be a quartet at this position.
- The special teams’ situation might be the easiest to predict of all. Despite entering camp with rookies at kicker and punter, the Rams have seen nothing but strong outings from their chosen duo of Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker. They’ll make the cut. Jake McQuaide seems likely to win the long snapper job.
When all is said and done, the Rams could of course still look for outside help to add to the squad, meaning there’s almost no guarantee that comes with making the final cut. Those that survive the first round will get one more shot to show their worth in the preseason finale on Thursday against Baltimore.
“You get cut, and it's tough to come back from,” Dahl said. “It's the real world. Do I need to go get a real job, or can you play football? So it'll test you.”
While the decisions come down Sunday evening and into Monday, it’s clear that there will be some tough choices to make before a final 53-man roster comes together. Almost all of the players in camp have spent months together and formed friendships along the way.
And not all of those decisions have been made. There is always a spot or two on the roster or even practice squad spots that can be won. It’s why the last group of backups fought to the bitter end of Saturday’s game against Dallas.
“You like to see these guys compete like that,” Jackson said. “They made the game competitive at the end. Guys are fighting for roster spots and you see that we have depth in areas. It’s going to be tough these next couple of days going into the last preseason game.”