It’s the toughest day on the NFL calendar, the one on which 704 players are told they’re not good enough to make the team this season.
Before I began covering the NFL, I covered college football, basketball and lacrosse, where players get benched not cut, and Major League Baseball, where most of those who fail to make the roster get sent to the minors, so NFL cutdown day was a bit of shock. I still remember tight end Craig McEwen trying to keep a stiff upper lip as he carried his belongings out of the old Redskin Park in a trash bag. I admit to hugging Patrise Alexander goodbye when he was let go.
Beat writers can get pretty attached to players when they cover them for years. Although in the free agency era, few players stick around for as long as a decade, half as long as Darrell Green played in Washington. And now the cuts are announced late at night when the players are long gone from the Park and out of sight of the media.
Chris Cooley’s release on Tuesday made Santana Moss, the senior Redskin as he starts his eighth year in Washington. Moss is now also the only veteran of a Redskins playoff victory, the divisional round conquest of Tampa Bay in 2005.
Unlike Cooley, Moss showed enough this spring and summer that he’s in no danger of becoming an ex-Redskin tonight. But coach Mike Shanahan and his staff have some difficult decisions to make, particularly at receiver, linebacker and in the secondary.
Let’s take a look at how the roster figures to shake out position by position.
Quarterbacks (3): No-brainer here. Robert Griffin III, Rex Grossman and Kirk Cousins make it. Jonathan Crompton doesn’t. 21 cuts left.
Running backs (5): Roy Helu, Tim Hightower, Evan Royster, Alfred Morris and fullback Darrel Young make it. Dorson Boyce and Tristan Davis depart. 19 cuts remaining.
Tight ends (3): With Cooley gone, Fred Davis, Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen are your tight ends. Richard Quinn gets waived. 18 moves to make.
Offensive line (9): With Jammal Brown on the physically unable to perform list, Tyler Polumbus is at least an interim starter alongside Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, Will Montgomery and Chris Chester. Maurice Hurt and Adam Gettis, the guards for most of preseason, will join Josh LeRibeus and Tom Compton as the backups. Willie Smith will head to the practice squad. Fellow rookie Grant Garner might, too. Veterans Eric Cook and Jordan Black will hit the road, leaving 14 more names to come off the roster.
Defensive line (6): Adam Carriker, Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen start. Jarvis Jenkins, Chris Baker and Kedric Golston are the reserves. I think Darrion Scott just misses out while rookie Delvin Johnson is practice squad-bound and Doug Worthington and Marlon Favorite are out of work. That leaves 10 players to be cut loose.
Specialists (3): With Billy Cundiff replacing kicker Graham Gano on Tuesday, he’s the man here along with punter Sav Rocca and snapper Nick Sundberg.
Now come the three tough positions.
Receivers (6): Moss, free agent signees Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and 2011 third-round pick Leonard Hankerson are sure things.
You could make a case for everyone else. Shanahan’s pointed failure to praise former starter Anthony Armstrong and return man Brandon Banks after they made big plays in Wednesday’s preseason finale didn’t bode well. Armstrong, a non-factor in 2011, missed most of the summer with a sprained shoulder. Banks is tiny and drops the ball too often, but produced 313 yards on 14 touches in preseason.
Dezmon Briscoe, signed the first week of camp, had 117 yards and two touchdowns in preseason but doesn’t really play special teams. Terrence Austin hasn’t done much since being drafted in 2010. Aldrick Robinson led the way in preseason with eight catches and 132 yards but has practice squad eligibility.
Let’s put Robinson on the practice squad, leaving Armstrong, Austin, Banks and Briscoe for the last couple spots. It could go any way, but Briscoe led Tampa Bay with six touchdown catches last year and Austin is a Shanahan draft pick so I guess they’ll be the survivors. Seven cuts to go.
Linebackers (9): London Fletcher, Perry Riley, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan start. Former starter Lorenzo Alexander and fourth-rounder Keenan Robinson back up inside. Rob Jackson, who filled in for Orakpo the past 2-1/2 games, should make it outside. Bryan Kehl was signed because of his special teams ability. He flashed at times inside in preseason. Chris Wilson made much more of an impact outside than Markus White, but the latter is five years younger and a Shanahan draft pick. Rookie free agents Donnell Holt and Brian McNally have practice squad hopes. My hunch says Kehl and White stay and Wilson goes although it doesn’t seem fair. Four players left to be waived.
Defensive backs (9): DeAngelo Hall, Josh Wilson, Madieu Williams and Brandon Meriweather start. Tanard Jackson, Cedric Griffin and Richard Crawford make it as backups. Hasta la vista, Travon Bellamy and David Jones. Seventh-rounder Jordan Bernstine will begin his career on the practice squad.
That leaves cornerback Brandyn Thompson and safeties Reed Doughty and DeJon Gomes. Is this the year that Doughty, the sixth-rounder from 2006, finally doesn’t survive the cuts? The coaches have to decide between his smarts and pending 30th birthday and the 22-year-old Gomes’ youth and penchant for mistakes. I fear it will be the latter with Griffin’s poor preseason keeping Thompson around.
If Doughty departs, Moss, Golston, Fletcher and Alexander will be the last of Joe Gibbs’ players on the Redskins. Those four plus Davis, Hall, Rob Jackson, Montgomery and Orakpo will be the only ones to have played for Washington before Shanahan’s January 2010 arrival.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin