With roster cuts looming Saturday, nearly one-third of the players on the Patriots' roster knows they'll be looking for work Monday morning.
Whether they try to beat down the doors of other organizations, or moonlight as a personal trainer at a hometown gym — like wide receiver Robert Ortiz did in 2009 when he was cut by the Pats — many players on the roster bubble realize the present-day highs of being a professional athlete will soon be replaced by a gut check. That, and a pay cut of a few hundred thousand dollars, or somewhere in the millions.
"I think that there’s anxiousness or an apprehension with players at this point of the season relative to a lot of things," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "It’s pretty common in training camp or any kind of a competitive situation like that once there is a deadline for certain decisions."
The Patriots had 75 players on the roster Thursday morning, and they've got to trim down to 53 players by 4 p.m. Saturday, which means 22 guys will be looking for work. Fortunately for them, starting Sunday, each NFL team can sign up to eight players to their practice squad.
Even still, that leaves 14 players out in the cold. Multiply that by 32 teams, and 448 guys will list themselves as former NFL players next week.
While specifically studying the Patriots' roster earlier this week, it looked like 38 spots had been sewn up (removing Leigh Bodden from the original list of 39), which means there are still 15 jobs up for grabs. Therefore, roughly 30 players will be on edge this weekend, discounting the handful who, bluntly, have no shot to make the team.
Regardless of whether or not they were on that roster bubble, a number of Patriots this week said it's the big, oversized, monstrosity of an elephant in the room.
"Yeah, it is. It's a big deal," said starting right guard Stephen Neal, who sweated out a number of cut-down days early in his career. "But what can you do except go out there and do your best? It's not up to each individual. You just go out there and play your hardest, and whatever the people decide is what it's going to be."
Patriots star linebacker Jerod Mayo has never had to worry about his future. The 2008 first-round pick was an impact player from the get-go, and he won't fear roster cuts until he's old and gray — which, in the NFL, is sometime around the age of 32.
However, Mayo shared sympathy for his teammates. Even the guys he's known for a short time, like linebacker Dane Fletcher for instance, have spent the better part of the last four months working together toward that common goal. They've got no choice but to become close with one another.
"It's stressful," Mayo said. "It's a stressful time. I remember my rookie year, becoming friends with [undrafted free agent] Gary Guyton, and I remember the stress that he was going through as far as wondering. We were together the whole day [of cuts]. I kind of feel for those guys. Hopefully everybody finds a place to play, and it will work out."
On the other hand, friendships can be dangerous this weekend, yielding a number of cruel pranks. Players essentially stare at their phones throughout the day, praying for silence.
Neal seemed to know of too many instances — one that he indirectly may or may not have anonymously taken credit for — when teammates would call up one another and mimic the voice of an assistant coach or front-office pencil pusher. Or, with slightly less vitriol, they'd just block their number so the tense teammates would fear every millisecond prior to answering the call.
"Your heart is beating," Neal said, "every time the phone rings."
Another portion of players appreciate their careers that much more because they've survived the chopping block in the past and hardly have to worry about it anymore. With few exceptions, every player was there at one point or another.
"You sit there, and another cut day goes by," Neal said. "My first time, I played in the third [preseason] game and didn’t make it to the fourth game. The next few years, it was like, 'Man, that day is coming.'"
Thursday night's preseason finale is each player's last chance to make an impression. It's important for players to realize that one truly great or one horrifically bad performance won't be enough to cancel out months of practices and meetings, but the final preseason game can be weighted as a final exam. The coaching staff will dissect which way each player is trending, if they've grasped it mentally and if they can correct past mistakes.
Likewise, one play probably won't be enough to sway the vote. It's not worth much for a defensive back to cherry-pick an interception if he played zone when he was supposed to be in man coverage. But if a linebacker makes a good read that forces the ball carrier to run into another tackler, chalk up a plus-mark for the guy who didn’t show up with the statistic.
And, while some players are stuck on the depth chart behind a few big-time performers, they've got to remember that 31 other teams will also watch Thursday's game tape. Earlier in camp, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio knew off the top of his head exactly how many preseason games had already been played around the league, and he mentioned that each tape was already logged on their video system.
So, a positional pileup in New England could turn into a golden opportunity elsewhere. That’s what makes the fourth preseason game so vital for the bubble players.
"Every chance you get, every opportunity you get to showcase your skills in the game is big, because you're not only auditioning for the Patriots," linebacker Eric Alexander said. "You're also auditioning for the other teams in the league. It's just the reality of this profession, of this business. If you've been around awhile, you know that if you don’t have a shot here, you may have a shot somewhere else."
Defensive lineman Mike Wright is a lock to stay in New England, maybe for the first time in his six-year career. Yet, like any player, he knows he's expendable. Rather than coasting through the last week of preseason practices, Wright said he has channeled his past and used it as motivation to finish the summer on a strong note.
Then, before finishing the conversation and walking away, Wright echoed the words that have so many players on edge this week.
"Yeah, there have been more stressful years, but this year, I don’t know who he's keeping on the team," Wright said. "You can say I'm on the team, but only Bill knows that."