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Home Sports On the NFL calendar’s ‘worst day,’ fringe players hope for roster spots

On the NFL calendar’s ‘worst day,’ fringe players hope for roster spots


As the Washington Commanders’ Jaret Patterson dropped into coverage, his frustration was evident.

For the past two seasons, he has found a way onto the roster as a reserve running back, but this year his status is less certain. At practice, he has been tasked with impersonating a defensive back — a position he hasn’t played since childhood.

As the last running back on Washington’s depth chart, he has no choice but to play a dummy cornerback against standout wide receiver Terry McLaurin. Such is life as an NFL long shot. For these players, perfecting your craft can be secondary to versatility and a willingness to fill whatever roles are available. That’s often the difference between making an NFL roster and unemployment.

“It’s frustrating,” Patterson said. “But you just can’t let it get to you.”

Playing on the fringes of the NFL is not what Patterson expected when he chose to forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility. After recording more than 4,000 yards from scrimmage and scoring 53 touchdowns in 32 games with the University at Buffalo, Patterson envisioned he would be drafted somewhere between the third and fifth rounds and have a long NFL career as a complementary back.

Instead, he went undrafted and has spent the past few years trying to prove his worth to the NFL.

From 2021: Jaret Patterson discusses his journey to making the roster

For Patterson and players like him, Tuesday’s mandatory cuts represent a crossroads. Players who are waived before the deadline can sign with other teams, end up on practice squads or find themselves out of football entirely.

An additional concern: reaching the NFL’s minimum for pension eligibility, which requires a player to be on an active roster for at least three games in three separate seasons. Accomplishing that provides access to health and monetary benefits — and cements a player’s career as a success in the eyes of his peers.

“It’s something that I’d really love to accomplish,” Commanders quarterback Jake Fromm said. “Knowing that my career resulted in … being able to support myself and my family for years to come after my career would mean the world to me.”

Though making a roster is every player’s goal, the route to achieving it can be winding. Going into training camp, most teams have locked in around 85 percent of their roster spots, leaving the other 40 or so players invited to camp to compete for the few remaining roles.

The purpose of training camp is to prepare a team’s starters for the season, not to serve as a platform for fringe players to showcase their abilities. So the amount of reps a player receives paints a clear picture of where he stands within the organization.

“I can’t make any errors,” all-pro special teams player Jeremy Reaves said of navigating life on the fringe. “Basically, they already know they are cutting you, so your only job is to be so great that they’re like, ‘Okay, we got to take a second look at this guy.’ ”

For coaches, dealing with long shots is also a difficult journey.

“The biggest thing with guys that are trying to make it is that they know [where they stand],” Commanders running backs coach Randy Jordan said. “Whether they want to admit it or not, they got to know that they are fighting for their careers. My job is to try and help them improve [themselves] so they have the best chance possible to make either our team or another.”

“It’s the [expletive] worst day. I hate that [expletive] day,” Jordan said of cut day, “because these guys, they get a bond. They make friends. … They are trying to make a livelihood at this profession. There’s some guys that don’t make it that frankly should make it. It’s not fair.”

Projecting the Commanders’ initial 53-man roster

Even if Patterson doesn’t make the Commanders’ initial 53-man roster, he could wind up on the squad by season’s end. Last year, after being cut, he signed with the practice squad and eventually joined the active roster for the final three games — giving him a second credited season toward the NFL pension.

During the Week 18 win over the Dallas Cowboys, Patterson had 78 yards on 17 carries.

“Every time I’ve been here, I’ve played in games and did what I was supposed to do, and that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “I guarantee that if I keep doing that, someone will see me, and that’s what it is. I’m auditioning for all 32 teams.”

POST AUTHOR: Tramel Raggs

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