As part of the NFL’s Coronavirus deal with the NFL Players Association, training camp roster sizes were cut down from the standard 90 to 80: teams have until August 16 — the day before full-padded practices start — to get under that threshold. Not all of them will wait until mid-August to make decisions, however, and the New England Patriots are among those that have already trimmed their rosters before players have even started reporting.
Over the weekend, the Patriots therefore cut their roster by releasing 10 players. Seven of those 10 entered the league as undrafted rookie free agents not even four months ago, and like their more seasoned teammates have now fallen victim to the circumstances created by the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation itself is naturally a tough one for those players, as veteran defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty acknowledged on the latest episode of their Double Coverage podcast.
“You just hate to see so many young guys not get an opportunity. You’ve seen a lot of teams cut down from 90 to 80 guys, you’re seeing guys get released who never really got an opportunity because of the pandemic. And that really sucks,” said Devin before addressing his brother’s journey to the NFL. “I know you are always talking about, being a sixth-round draft pick, how important training camp practices were and preseason games — how important those were for you making the team. It kind of sucks seeing that.”
New England signed 15 rookie free agents after the draft, and seven of them had to pack their bags again before even setting foot on the Gillette Stadium practice fields: quarterbacks J’Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke, wide receivers Isaiah Zuber, Sean Riley and Will Hastings, defensive tackle Courtney Wallace and linebacker Kyahva Tezino were among those released, alongside cornerback Lenzy Pipkins and safeties Malik Gant and Adarius Pickett.
Their NFL dreams may not be over just yet, but opportunity will have to come in a different form for all of them.
“Every team’s like that: they’re looking for the next guy that is undrafted — the J.C. Jacksons, the Malcolm Butlers, the David Andrews, the guys that come in undrafted and no one thinks about. Next thing you know, they’re starting and playing in the biggest games of the year. It is tough to watch some of these young guys get released before even getting a chance, before stepping into the building,” said Devin about the value of undrafted players.
The situation will, unfortunately, not get any easier for their fellow rookies even if they survived the initial cutdown day. Only a handful of the remaining 18 first-year men who are still under contract can be considered locks to make the roster this year: safety Kyle Dugger, linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, and kicker Justin Rohrwasser are the only rookies that will certainly find themselves on the 53-man squad come September.
And even their impact might be limited given the current state of affairs.
“This is the toughest year to be coming into the NFL,” said Jason about rookie players. “Not only are there not going to be any preseason games for you to get into the groove of things, you had no spring, you haven’t been to the facility or stadium at all, so you have no idea where anything is inside the building, you probably have no idea where you’re going to live. It’s just so many variables going on that are working against you.
“I think for rookies it’s just going to be just trying to get reps during practice, just getting those mental reps,” the veteran cornerback added. “It’s probably just going to be a slower process as guys start to pick things up and get into the groove of things.”