ASHBURN, Va. — Control what you can control.
That oft-quoted phrase about staying focused on your specific tasks makes the process sound easy. Good luck maintaining that approach if you’re on the bubble to make an NFL roster after the team’s final preseason game.
The Washington Commanders wrap up the preseason Saturday night at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s the final showcase before the team’s decision-makers must trim the roster from 90 to 53 by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. Outside of kicker, punter, long snapper and perhaps quarterback, there will be serious debate about every position.
The vast majority of the 53 spots are locked in. For those vying for the remaining eight to 10 jobs, when the adrenaline wears off postgame, nervous energy will arrive with a hammer.
“It’s tough mentally,” former Washington tight end Logan Paulsen said of those feelings leading into cutdown day. “Like 44 guys know they’re going to be on the team. And you’re the guy that’s got to play and fight for those last spots.”
Waiting around while outsiders debate your fate is another hurdle. Paulsen, now an analyst for the Commanders’ website following an eight-year career, tried to ignore the chatter but admitted he couldn’t avoid all of it. The harsher views occasionally struck a nerve.
“That’s always frustrating because it’s like, ‘I thought I did enough, so what’s with this (reporter or radio host)?’” Paulsen, who made Washington’s Week 1 roster in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, said. “But that’s the name of the game. That’s the NFL.”
LIVE: Coach Rivera speaks to the media before Thursday’s practice https://t.co/Wjk5J3dDPN
— Washington Commanders (@Commanders) August 24, 2023
The opinions that matter begin the final roster process soon after the game. Coaches will huddle together for initial discussions on each player — not only about the individual talents or performances throughout the summer, but their fit and circumstances. The league’s switch to one cut day rather than the usually staggered calendar — “An excellent idea,” Commanders coach Ron Rivera called it — means there’s more data to explore and more bodies to use later in training camp and for the preseason finale if coaches sit starters or those dealing with injuries.
More players also makes for longer final meetings. But it’s not the length that will have coaches fired up amid the debates. Some, Rivera said, are “very passionate” in arguing for a player or their position room, though “others are very calm. … We understand everybody wants to keep their guys, as many as they can, but we also have a number we’ve got to hit, and that’s 53.”
The next step is for Rivera and his three coordinators — Eric Bieniemy (offense), Jack Del Rio (defense) and Nate Kaczor (special teams) to sit down with the personnel department led by general manager Martin Mayhew and executive vice president of football/player personnel Marty Hurney. More player-by-player assessments take place, followed by a positional overview. A higher-than-realistic number of players is assigned for each before “we whittle it down,” Rivera said.
All in all, these meetings will determine whether some players can look for an apartment in the area or pack their bags.
“That’s part of the nature of this business,” quarterback Jake Fromm, on his third team in three years, said. “And it’s what makes it so competitive and so fun at the same time.”
Danny Johnson came from tiny Southern University to overcome those long UDFA odds to stick with the team in 2018. The reserve cornerback recalled a stretch of pacing and prayers before jubilation arrived upon learning he made the team. But he experienced the opposite emotions last year.
Unlike Paulsen, Johnson remained on that roster bubble throughout his five-plus-year career. Surprisingly, he was among Washington’s final cuts in 2022 despite having played 26 games over the previous two seasons.
“The emotions were there,” Johnson said. “But I understand the business side of it.”
Washington signed Johnson to the practice squad, promising they would give him a shot to rejoin the 53. He ended up playing 11 games and made four starts. “They kept that word,” Johnson said.
Johnson appears safe to make this year’s 53-man as the next round of roster choices rapidly approaches. Other players still have work to do. Enough, in fact, that the staff will not need to inflate the number artificially for roster talks at certain spots this year.
Washington could keep five cornerbacks, with Christian Holmes and Rachad Wildgoose the best bets for the fifth spot. Or maybe six remain should starter Kendall Fuller’s knee soreness linger. Keeping an extra corner might make it impossible to hang onto 11 defensive linemen, at which point fifth-round edge rusher KJ Henry might be in trouble. Running back Jonathan Williams and fullback/tight end Alex Armah making the team could be bad news for center Tyler Larsen as a 10th offensive lineman or any hope of keeping seven receivers.
Four wide receivers appear locked in: Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Curtis Samuel and Dyami Brown. Ex-Chief Byron Pringle is arguably in that group by now, as well. But that will depend on whether or not McLaurin (sprained toe) is available for the Sept. 10 opener against the Arizona Cardinals.
Sam Howell looks ready, Terry McLaurin injured and more from Commanders’ streak-stopping win
Of the following five names, Brycen Tremayne is the longest shot. The Stanford UDFA hasn’t been mentioned for the roster with the frequency of potential punt returners Dax Milne and Kazmeir Allen, rookie Mitchell Tinsley or veteran Marcus Kemp.
That Tremayne’s college offensive coordinator, Tavita Pritchard, joined Washington’s staff as the quarterbacks coach helped influence his decision to join Washington as a free agent following the draft.
Standing out in this receivers room isn’t easy, even for a 6-foot-4 target. Tremayne accomplished that by being the first player arriving for practice most days and flashing good hands and deep-ball skills. That he was undrafted at a position loaded with intriguing depth around the league makes Tremayne a likely candidate to clear waivers and go on the practice squad. This is also the likelier route for Allen, who is still raw as a receiver, certainly when compared to the more refined Milne.
Tremayne’s easy-going smile suggests a 23-year-old enjoying this journey, but he acknowledges it’s hard not to worry about the roster news ahead. He tries his best to remain in that control what you can control mindset. There’s also still a game to play. That is what older players in his position urge him to focus on.
“They say, go out and work, and don’t put anything on tape that you wouldn’t want another coach in the league or your coaches to see,” Tremayne said. “At the end of the day, everybody gets a tape. Everyone’s going to watch the tape. You are the tape.”
(Photo of Christian Holmes: Rob Carr / Getty Images)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.