The final preseason game for the Indianapolis Colts at Cincinnati tonight is least important and most important.
It's least important for key starters (quarterback Andrew Luck, wide receiver Reggie Wayne, outside linebacker Robert Mathis) who won't see much, if any, playing time. It's most important for those players who rank somewhere between No. 50 and No. 60 of possible roster players.
The Colts play the Bengals at 7 tonight in Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. They must trim their 75-man roster to 53 on Friday. It's no easy task for the coaches, and those players on the bubble know what's at stake.
“Every opportunity in this league, every opportunity, every play is a blessing for me, because there's a lot of guys that would love to be in this situation,” linebacker Caesar Rayford said. “I'm playing as if every play is my last."
Rayford, 27, who signed as a free agent from the Arena Football League in May, is among the players who have made a surprising impression. He's old for an NFL rookie, but he has had five sacks in three games (another was negated by penalty) and continues to impress with his relentless play.
He's also raw, and the question remains whether there will be room for him on the roster.
“His measurables and God-given ability, those things we talked about that you can't coach, it's unbelievable the size and length that he has,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “He's got a knack for edge rush, beating a guy, getting the tackle's shoulders turned and then he's got that move down pat now. I'm a firm believer in it. Again, it's going to be interesting post-Cincinnati game to see how this thing shakes out.”
Every year, there are feel-good preseason stories, players who perform above expectations and put up impressive statistics.
Every year, some of those players are released after the final game.
There's a reason why the Friday after the final preseason games is known as Black Friday to young and unproven NFL players.
Equally nerve-wracking, however, is the fact that even if a player is on the 53-man roster Friday, he could still be released if the team decides to make an offer to another team's released player.
"It'll be a challenge,” Pagano said, “and unfortunately there's some guys that have played really good football for us over the past month and there's going to be some good football players that, unfortunately, we're going to have to let go. It'll be tough.”
The good news for Colts fans: Once the roster is trimmed to its final 53, it should look significantly stronger than a year ago in many areas.
Start with the secondary. The starting group of cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler and safeties Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry will be, if it remains healthy, one of the best in the NFL. Toler has already shown the type of playmaker he can be, and there's great chemistry among the group.
The receiving corps appears to be upgraded with the addition of Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has been more impressive as the preseason as gone on. He's developed a rapport with Luck that should benefit the team in several areas, especially if it frees up Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton even more.
The defensive line should be stronger with second-year player Josh Chapman healthy and the additions of Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin. This will be an area where cuts will be difficult, because it is fairly loaded. There are 10 defensive linemen on the roster now and not an obvious cut among them.
Pat Angerer's return bolsters the linebackers group, which will have to be trimmed of strong players.
That's what makes a player like Rayford's final preseason game so important.
“We've got competition across the board in a lot of spots,” Pagano said. “(Defensive line and linebacker), in particular, it's going to be tough because we're going to have to make some tough decisions, obviously, and we're going to let some good players go.”
One player who went through the process last year and faces another Black Friday of uncertainty is No.3 quarterback Chandler Harnish. The Colts like him. They believe he has a future in the league. The question is whether they have a spot for him on their 53-man roster.
When the Colts cut a player on Black Friday, it's open season for another team to see something they didn't or to have a need that the released Colt can provide.
These end-of-the-roster decisions won't likely involve big-name players, but they could tilt a season's direction in ways that won't be seen until a few weeks down the road.