On the “worst day” of the NFL calendar, fringe players hope for roster spots

When Washington Commanders' Jaret Patterson broke into coverage, his frustration was obvious.

He had found his way into the roster as a reserve running back for the past two seasons, but this year his status was less certain. In training, he was tasked with impersonating a defensive back – a position he hadn't played since he was a child.

As the last running back on Washington's depth list throughout camp, he had no choice but to play a dummy cornerback against standout wide receiver Terry McLaurin. Such is life as an NFL longshot. For these players, perfecting their skills can be secondary to versatility and a willingness to fill all available roles. That's often the difference between making an NFL roster and being unemployed.

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

Playing on the sidelines of the NFL wasn't what Patterson expected when he decided to forego his senior year of college. After rushing for more than 4,000 yards from scrimmage and 53 touchdowns in 32 games with the University at Buffalo, Patterson envisioned being drafted somewhere between the third and fifth rounds and going on to have a long NFL career as a general defenseman .

Instead, he went undrafted and has spent the last few years proving his worth to the NFL.

2021 onwards: Jaret Patterson talks about his journey to the lineup

Commanders cut Patterson down Monday. For him and other fringe players, Tuesday's mandatory cuts represent a crossroads. Players released before the deadline could sign with other teams, end up on training teams or retire from football altogether.

Another issue: Meeting the NFL minimum for pension eligibility, which requires a player to be on the active roster for at least three games in three different seasons. Achieving something gives you access to health and financial benefits – and cements a player's career as a success in the eyes of his peers.

“That's something I'd really like to achieve,” said Commanders quarterback Jake Fromm. “It would mean the world to me to know that my career has resulted in me being able to support myself and my family many years after my career ends.”

Although creating a squad is every player's goal, the road to achieving it can be rocky. By the time training camp begins, most teams have secured around 85 per cent of their squad spots, leaving the other 40 or so players invited to camp to compete for the few remaining roles.

The purpose of the training camp is to prepare a team's starters for the season, not to serve as a platform for fringe players to show off their skills. So the number of reps a player gets gives a clear picture of where they stand within the organization.

“I'm not allowed to make mistakes,” All-Pro Special Teams player Jeremy Reaves said of life on the edge. “Basically, they already know they're circumcising you, so your only job is to be so awesome that they're like, ‘Okay, we need to look at this guy again.' ”

Dealing with long shots is also a difficult journey for coaches.

“The biggest thing about guys who want to make it is they know it [where they stand]said Commanders running backs coach Randy Jordan. “Whether they want to admit it or not, they've learned that they're fighting for their careers. My job is to help them improve [themselves] So you have the best chance of joining either our team or another team.”

“It is that [expletive] worst day. i hate that [expletive] “Tag,” Jordan said of Cut Day, “because these guys bond. You make friends. … They try to earn a living with this profession. There are some people who honestly don't make it. That's not fair.”

Prognosis of the initial 53-man cadre of commanders

Though Patterson didn't make the Commanders' initial 53-man roster, he could end up in the training squad — or eventually the active roster. Last year after being axed, he signed with the practice team and eventually joined the active roster for the final three games — earning him a second season credited toward NFL retirement.

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

“Every time I've been here, I've attended games and done what I was supposed to do and that's what matters,” he said. “I guarantee someone will see me if I keep going like this and that's it. I am applying for all 32 teams.”

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