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The 53rd Man: What It’s Like to Fight for That Last Roster Spot

The final week of the preseason is the edgiest of times for NFL players on the bubble. We tracked three young linebackers as they battled to make it for 2016

TAMPA — Practice had ended when Jeremiah George grabbed his friend and fellow linebacker, Adarius Glanton, to do one more drill. They had only devoted so much time to special teams during practice, and George wanted to get his footwork down for when he played on the line on the punt team. George and Glanton took turns kick-stepping like tackles, blocking the other for a few moments, and then shedding the other’s hold, releasing and charging up field to cover.

This was like a receiver staying after to work on the JUGS machine, a corner working on his backpedal, a lineman driving a blocking sled. George was trying to make the Bucs roster as their sixth linebacker and a special teams contributor, and he was somewhere on the fringe.

For hundreds of players around the league in a similar situation, this is perhaps the most important week of the season. As the starters sit out the final preseason game, those players have one last chance to make a final impression on the coaches. Then by 4 p.m. Saturday, every team will make their final 22 cuts, trimming their rosters down to 53 players.

These are the decisions coaches and general managers agonize over. Determining the 44 or so first- and second-stringers is easy by comparison. Choosing the right last handful of players can solidify the depth of your roster. Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells had a saying: The 53rd man is going to win you a game or lose you a game at some point this season.

George as a Jet in 2014, a Jag in 2015 and a Buc in 2016.

George as a Jet in 2014, a Jag in 2015 and a Buc in 2016.

The 53rd man—that’s Jeremiah George. A 2014 fifth-round pick from Iowa State, he bounced from the Jets to the Jaguars to the Bucs his first two years, building a reputation as a solid special teams player but a raw linebacker. He was good enough on special teams to keep finding work, but raw enough at linebacker that he was never really on steady ground.

Now, even after the Bucs had brought him back for another season, he was going through more change. A new regime. A new defensive coordinator, another defense to learn—his fourth in three years. And the Bucs were moving him to middle linebacker, which meant he had to know that defense inside and out, to make the calls on the field that the coaches wanted.

George made flashcards, diagrammed alignments on a whiteboard at home and had his sister quiz him on defensive calls using solo cups as props. He reviewed film with his camp roommate, starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander. George cringed thinking about past camps, when he would make mental mistakes—and get yelled at for repeating them. 

“That’s the one thing that’s absolutely not tolerated in the NFL,” George said after an early August practice, his voice firm. “Doing something that you’re not necessarily comfortable with, it’s challenging sometimes. Training camp is, what, two weeks? Preseason is four weeks? So, six weeks? It’s hard to learn and break habits you’ve been doing for four, five years.”

Mike Smith, the Bucs’ new defensive coordinator, sympathized with George, pointing out that various defensive coaches around the league use somewhere between three and five different sets of terminology. “There are some common words, but then there are words that are different,” Smith said. “It’s like trying to speak French and Portuguese and Spanish.”

George has learned the value of special teams contributions; he blocked a punt against the Bears in Week 16 last season.

George has learned the value of special teams contributions; he blocked a punt against the Bears in Week 16 last season.

This year, though, George had new hope. He recognized concepts from previous spots. Parts of Smith’s system sounded similar to what George learned at Iowa State, the defense he was most comfortable with. Even some of the play calls sounded similar. “If there was a defense for me,” he said, “it would be this one.” George read and reacted more, and, when he made an error now, he made sure to circle back with a coach and explain what he’d do next time.

“I’ve learned from the mistakes in the past that may have cost me a roster spot,” George said. “I want to stay with this team, man. I don’t want to end up on another team.”

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* * *

October 2015

Hayes Pullard III was home watching the movie Troy, talking to his mother on the phone, when he received another call, from his agent. Pullard ignored it at first. A 2015 seventh-round pick from USC, he was wallowing on the Browns’ practice squad. What did his agent want anyway? Out of curiosity, he hung up with his mother and called his agent back.

“Pack your stuff. You’re going to Jacksonville.”

About seven weeks after the Buccaneers snagged Jeremiah George off waivers from the Jaguars, Jacksonville was looking for another young developmental linebacker, and Pullard fit the bill.

“Your flight leaves in two hours,” his agent said.

Pullard started scrambling. He called his best friend and dispatched him to tell the rest of the family the good news. They all blew up his phone, as he threw clothes into a bag. Underwear, socks, sweatpants—wait, it’s hot in Florida. No sweatpants. Shorts, tank tops.

In a preseason game against Cincy, Pullard caught a TD pass out of the backfield but was flagged for failing to report as eligible. He later redeemed himself with a pick-6.

In a preseason game against Cincy, Pullard caught a TD pass out of the backfield but was flagged for failing to report as eligible. He later redeemed himself with a pick-6.

Pullard raced to the airport, where he called another friend, a college teammate who he had also known growing up, Marqise Lee. A second-round pick, Lee played receiver for the Jags. Pullard told Lee the news and asked if he could crash with him in Jacksonville. He ended up living with Lee the rest of the season. So goes the life of the 53rd man sometimes.

Pullard has the type of story producers would feature on “Hard Knocks.” Grew up in the notoriously rough Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles. The second-youngest of seven children. Had his father die unexpectedly while in high school. And this year he’s in a unique situation, fighting to make the Jags roster as a middle linebacker behind Paul Posluszny, a Pro Bowler, and Myles Jack, the gifted second-round pick who is projected to be a star. With those two ahead of him on the depth chart, Pullard is fighting just to see the field.

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That is, except for special teams. Any coach will tell you: a fringe player must contribute on special teams and be a good locker room guy in order to make the team. “You look at the character,” Jags coach Gus Bradley says. “I mean that guy that gets up at six in the morning. Comes in and takes care of his body. Does things right. Studies film. Great teammate. Those traits.” Bradley pounds a fist into his other hand as he makes each point. “Because with those traits, when it gets tough, you know they’re going to come through. That 53rd man on the roster, that’s what he’s going to go through. He might not get as many reps. He might be up; he might be down. He’s really got to have that mindset to fight through those things.”

But like many star collegiate players, Pullard had little special teams experience when he came to the NFL. He was a four-year starter and two-year captain at USC, playing 100-plus snaps a game against uptempo Pac-12 offenses. Those types of players don’t typically play special teams. Plus, the Trojans played under scholarship restrictions from the Reggie Bush scandal the entire time Pullard was there. The Trojans couldn’t afford to risk him getting hurt.

Pullard and Posluszny talk football during a Jaguars practice at EverBank Field.

Pullard and Posluszny talk football during a Jaguars practice at EverBank Field.

Pullard admits when he arrived in Cleveland, he was also “too confident, too arrogant,” carrying his swagger over from college. Playing special teams shook that feeling quickly. On one kickoff early in his NFL career, Pullard says, he “went down [the field] and tried to blow somebody up and got blocked.” The next day he got chewed out during a special teams meeting. “Hayes, you’ve got to make them miss! We want you to make a tackle!”

The Browns put him on the practice squad, and that cut his ego down further. “God blesses those who are humble,” he says. “You’ll ride this bench until you become humble.”

Armed with a new perspective, Pullard sought advice from other special teams players on their approach. He studied special teams film, looked for tendencies, examined different coordinator’s styles. He learned how he fit into the larger scheme, to make a guy miss and make a play. “The NFL is no different from college,” Pullard says. “People hype it up like the players are bigger and faster. But the most important thing is what’s between your ears.”

Pullard gleans all the knowledge he can from the 10-year veteran Posluszny, willingly answers any questions from Jack and plays special teams all out, hoping it will lead to a starting role someday.

Pullard started the final two games of 2015, registering 11 tackles.

Pullard started the final two games of 2015, registering 11 tackles.

Pullard can still recall his first snap on defense after arriving with the Jags. They were playing the Falcons in Week 15, and Telvin Smith came off the field with an injury. Someone called Pullard’s number. Running onto the field, he thought to himself: First play, gotta do something spectacular. Devonta Freeman took the handoff on an outside zone play, and Pullard ran him down and stuck him, holding him to a short gain. Then Smith trotted back onto the field, healthy.

Pullard grimaces telling the story now. “I was just getting in my groove!”

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* * *

April 2016

Scooby Wright III turned off his phone as the fourth round of the draft ended. About a dozen family and friends had gathered at his parents’ house in California to celebrate when he got picked. ESPN had a camera stationed there, waiting, too. This was embarrassing. He had been told he would go in the third. Maybe the second. Worst case scenario, the fourth.

Injury sidelined Wright, a Lombardi winner, in his final college season, pushing him down the draft board.

Injury sidelined Wright, a Lombardi winner, in his final college season, pushing him down the draft board.

Wright had won the Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards his sophomore year at Arizona. He missed all but three games his junior year due to a torn meniscus and a Lisfranc sprain, but he was healthy by the time he declared for the draft. He tallied 15 tackles in his final college game. As he put it, “What else did I have to prove? Win the Heisman?”

The fifth, sixth and seventh rounds marched on—and still, nothing. Wright turned his phone back on, and, as the final picks of the seventh round came in, he started hearing from teams who wanted to sign him as an undrafted free agent. About four showed interest. Wright warmed to the idea: He could pick which city to live in, which coach to play for, which scheme fit him best. Arizona’s Bruce Arians called and chatted for 10 minutes, recruiting him. Wright hung up, told his parents he would sign with the Cardinals, and was about to call Arians back … when a Berea, Ohio, number popped on his phone.

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After the Bucs snagged Jeremiah George from the Jags last year, and the Jags poached Hayes Pullard from the Browns’ practice squad, the Browns wanted to take a late-round flier on a linebacker in this year’s draft. They made Wright the 250th pick, the seventh-to-last of the draft. Wright cried when he heard the news, and then he leapt into his parents’ swimming pool, going sideways over the four-foot perimeter fence, like a high jumper clearing a bar.

It might not have occurred to him then that he would be in a tough situation. The Browns’ new analytics-driven front office had decided to start its new era by hoarding draft picks. They acquired seven extra selections, giving them 14 in all, which tied the record for most picks since the draft went to a seven-round format in 1994. But, of course, that also meant not all of those 14 picks would be locks to make the roster. And Wright had been the Browns’ 14th pick.

Now, when the final cuts are made this week, teams will undoubtedly circle the Browns’ leftovers like sharks, hoping to pounce on any young talent Cleveland cannot keep—the 54th, 55th and 56th guys who were a split-decision away from being the Browns’ 53rd man.

Some teams in the Browns’ position have a tactic for countering such situations. Some GMs will try to hide a rookie they like by limiting his playing time in the preseason, as if to signal he doesn’t belong in the NFL. That way the player would theoretically slide through waivers unclaimed, and the original team could sign him to a cheaper contract and stash him on the 10-man practice squad. Other teams could still sign a practice-squad player to their active rosters, but they would also be less likely to do so if the player lacked any substantial amount of film. 

This may or may not be the case with the Browns and Wright.

Wright has been concerned about his preseason playing time, but the coaches laud his play.

Wright has been concerned about his preseason playing time, but the coaches laud his play.

During an interview, Wright, for one, sounded upset about his lack of preseason playing time. His snap count diminished significantly over the Browns’ first three preseason games, according to the count of an SB Nation fan blog. In the first game, he played 44 snaps, the most among Browns middle linebackers. Then he saw just 16 snaps in the second game and 10 in the third. Over three games and 70 snaps, he has only been credited with four tackles.

“This is nothing new to me,” Wright said. He was a two-star recruit coming out of high school and has since adopted the nickname Two Star Scoob, making it his Twitter handle. “I’ve always been the underdog. If you don’t think I’m good enough, I’ll go out there and show you. I can tell people how good I am, and this and that. But I need to go out there and play.”

What’s more, Wright felt he needed reps to prove he was mastering the Browns’ 3-4 defense. There was “a big learning curve,” he admitted. At Arizona he played in a 3-3-5 and was mostly asked to blitz and attack the ball carrier. Now the Browns were asking him to drop in coverage, mind specific gaps in the run game and stay disciplined doing both.

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Johnny Holland, the Browns’ inside linebackers coach, said he was pleased with Wright’s development, despite his lack of game snaps. “When you’re building a team, young guys don’t understand you’re looking at a lot of scenarios,” Holland said. “Every snap you get—special teams snaps, practice snaps, game snaps—you have to make the most of them.”

Wright sounded confident anyway. The league hadn’t humbled him yet, as it had Jeremiah George and Hayes Pullard. When asked what they would do if they left football, those two seemed to have given the question some thought. Pullard would use his USC connections to get into real estate; George would get into public relations, possibly coaching.

When Wright was posed the question, he paused for a moment. He said he had never really thought about it. “I’m only 21 years old,” he said. “I’ve got a little bit of time to figure it out. … I’m trying to stay positive. If [the Browns] don’t like me, someone else will.”

* * *

Late August 2016

Jeremiah George lay stomach-down on a table as a Bucs’ staffer massaged his lower back and hamstrings. It was a little before 9:30 a.m. on the Bucs’ off day. Their final preseason game was a few days away, and George wanted to ensure he would be healthy.  

In the Bucs’ first three preseason games, George had been getting regular snaps on special teams, but he hadn’t played many downs on defense, where he was trying to pick up his fourth different scheme in three years. He was certainly getting fewer snaps than Luke Rhodes, a rookie undrafted free agent linebacker whom the new coaching staff had handpicked. This last game, though, George would get a shot. He was sure. After the massage, he would study film.

Jeremiah George blows off steam during a preseason game against the Browns.

Jeremiah George blows off steam during a preseason game against the Browns.

He checked his phone. He had a few missed calls, a voicemail and a text message from the same number. The message asked if he could come meet with Jason Licht, the Bucs’ general manager. George knew what that meant. He ended his massage and left the room.

George was one of 13 players cut that day, during the second-to-last round.

George met briefly with Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter, and then more at length with the special teams coach and his position coach. They loved his energy. They even said they wanted to bring him back if someone got hurt. “But they were looking to go another way schematically,” George said in a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “I won’t elaborate on exactly what they said. They just didn’t think I fit their system on defense.”

He didn’t sound down or defeated. He stated this dryly, as if he were talking about someone else. “They loved my special teams work, but you can find those kind of [special teams] guys around the league and whatnot, so…”

His voice trailed off, and he left that sentence unfinished, because perhaps that meant he, too, was dispensable.

Later that day, the Bucs called George again. They were placing two injured players on the PUP list and wanted to bring him back for the final preseason game against Washington, which had been moved up from Thursday to Wednesday because of an approaching storm. Another chance, or just a fill-in? During the third quarter, George committed an offside penalty on special teams that gave Washington a first down, and made two tackles on defense in the waning minutes of the game.

Then George was left to wait again, like dozens of other players over these final few days, for another phone call that may or may not come.

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