When the clock strikes 4:01 pm on Saturday, the New England Patriots and the other 31 teams in the NFL will have cut their active rosters from 80 down to 53. This process will leave more than 800 players across the league in a state of limbo. Will they get claimed off waivers? Will they enter the open market? Will they get signed to a practice squad? Will anybody even show interest in them?
Cutdown weekend is not only one of the busiest stretches on the NFL calendar, but also one of the toughest in all of sports.
Patriots defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty have seen their fair share of them over the years. Devin arrived in New England back in 2010 as a first-round draft pick, experiencing cutdown weekend as a lock to make the final roster ever since. Jason, meanwhile, was a sixth-round selection by the Tennessee Titans one year before that and initially on the other end of this spectrum due to his draft status.
Heading into 2020 as team captains and established veterans within New England’s backfield, both appear to be safe to make the team yet again. That said, cutdown weekend is still a taxing time for them even if they are not necessarily the ones having to fear for their jobs and in plenty of cases their careers.
“It’s tough,” Devin told Pats Pulpit earlier this week. “I can just speak for me, I’ve been blessed that each year on cut day I haven’t thought about making the team. I was fortunate enough to get drafted in the first round and each time after that been one of the leaders and starters on the team. But I think each time this day comes around, I try to take time to really understand how blessed and fortunate I am.
“Whether it’s injuries, whether it’s personal things, so many things hold people back that you don’t really have control over sometimes and don’t give them the same opportunity to make a team. This year’s been a little different, but usually one month, two months we’re together in the spring and in the summer, and I watch guys give it everything they have from waking up early, fighting through injuries, to studying, doing all of those things to really earn a spot on the team. When you fall short of that it’s just devastating.”
The process is the same each year: players have to prove themselves through spring and summer, in training camp and preseason. This year, as Devin pointed out, is a bit different due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Accordingly, some players will get the axe without ever having taken a step on an actual field. They will have to hope that their practice performances were good enough to warrant being kept around — if only on the 16-man practice squad that will be built following cutdowns.
As the 203rd overall selection of the 2009 draft, Jason McCourty was far from safe heading into his first cutdown weekend after a preseason fighting for recognition. His feelings that day reflected this.
“I remember my rookie year, cutdown day, the way we used to do it — I was Tennessee at the time — we’d all be in the building on one of the big cut days,” he said. “And I literally remember I got drafted with Kenny Britt, we were college teammates and then teammates in Tennessee for five years, our rookie year on cutdown day, I remember us hiding out in the players lounge thinking that ‘Hey if I’m here they may not come and find me.’
“But I just remember being extremely nervous, and realizing I made the team that weekend was just a little bit of relief but then that relief quickly turned into concern because you realize week-in and week-out you have to continue to make the team all over again, to continue to earn your spot.”
Having to earn a spot the team on a weekly basis has not changed over the course of both the twin brothers’ respective careers, but their experiences and roles have. While Jason in particular was a fringe roster player when he first arrived in the NFL, he has now joined Devin as one of the leaders on the Patriots’ defense — so much so that he was recently voted a captain for the first time since his arrival via trade in 2018.
With that role comes responsibility, and Devin understands that leadership does not end just because a teammate is in danger of being let go by the club.
“I always try to encourage guys to understand that you really have to look at not making a team by calling it a failure or whatever you want to call it, but you have to look at it as something that’s part of the process that’s going to propel you forward into whatever your next step is, the next step on your journey, whatever that holds,” said Devin.
“I try to encourage guys that way, but it’s never fun watching young guys coming in there and really try to make a team and fall short of their goal. Everyone can relate to that — trying to do something you really love and are passionate about, and not getting the exact goal that you want. I think we all can relate to that because all people had those experiences in our lives.”
Jason, who came close to the cutdown experience when the Cleveland Browns decided to part ways in him before changing their mind at the last second and sending him to New England via trade, has a similar perspective on what will happen in the league over the next few hours. Players will lose their jobs and dreams will come to an end.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to see sometimes young players, sometimes old players... their dream for a little while stops and is put on pause. It’s tough watching guys get cut. That’s not only now on cutdown day but that’s through the season.”