The first round of NFL cuts -- usually consisting of obscure players who are considered long shots to make the team -- took a twist yesterday when wide receiver Darnerien McCants headlined a list of 14 cuts. Other surprise cuts were linebackers Jared Newberry -- a 2005 sixth-round pick -- and Clifton Smith, who had been expected to be a key reserve.
McCants -- whom Coach Joe Gibbs once compared to his former star receiver Art Monk -- had had a tenuous hold on a roster spot with Washington's bevy of receivers. Gibbs declined to elaborate on the decision to release McCants so early, except to emphasize that the inability to contribute on special teams put the fourth-year veteran at a disadvantage. Teams must reduce their rosters to 65, not including exemptions for those who played in NFL Europe, by today. They must further reduce rosters to 53 by Saturday.
"We enjoyed having him here and everything. We just wish him the best now," said Gibbs, whose Redskins were to cut one more player by 3 p.m. today. "[Cut day] is painful because you have a lot of real good guys there that have worked very hard and put everything they got into it. It's just the rules up here just kind of take care of all that."
McCants, an Odenton native who became a fan favorite, posted the news late Sunday night on his personal Web site. Under a headline that said: "It's Official," McCants wrote: "I AM NO LONGER A REDSKIN. I thank everyone for [their] support and love throughout the years. I want you to know this is my home and always will be. If God see[s] fit for me to play again, I'll give it my all like always. I wish my Redskins family the best, and all my brothers stay healthy and win." McCants could not be reached for further comment.
Gibbs predicted that McCants would be picked up by another team before clearing waivers.
And although McCants's practice performances were questioned, wide receivers coach Stan Hixon said that McCants improved markedly from last season: "He was the kind of guy who was a long strider. So some people think he's not running, but he's running. Believe me, he was a lot better than he was last year. He made some strides on offense, but he just wasn't as talented on special teams."
McCants's departure means that Washington's top three wide receivers in 2003 are no longer on the team: Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner were traded at their request in the offseason. And only six players remain from the 2001 roster: long snapper Ethan Albright, linebacker LaVar Arrington, right tackle Jon Jansen, center Cory Raymer (who left for two seasons), linebacker Lemar Marshall and left tackle Chris Samuels.
Washington's other released players yesterday were tight end Billy Baber, defensive back Charles Byrd, kicker Jeff Chandler, tailbacks Jonathan Comb and Brock Forsey, wideout Steven Harris, defensive lineman Charles Howard, offensive lineman Jerome Nichols, quarterback Bryson Spinner and offensive lineman Josh Warner. In addition, tailback Dahrran Diedrick was waived with an injury settlement.
The Redskins added a player, signing punter Chris Mohr as insurance for Tom Tupa, who missed the past two games with a back ailment.
Newberry and Smith were among a bushel of middle linebackers whom assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams had said would compete with Marshall for the starting job created after Antonio Pierce's departure to the New York Giants. Middle linebacker has been the most competitive in training camp with 11 linebackers. "We're deep there," said Vice President of Football Operations Vinny Cerrato. "The next cut is going to be very hard."
The Redskins are expected to keep seven linebackers, meaning two more will be released by the weekend. Newberry, who was drafted out of Stanford, was hindered by his struggles on special teams. Redskins coaches said that the departures of Newberry and Smith were an indication of the competition at that position. "I really like Cliff and I liked Jared," linebackers coach Dale Lindsey said. "I don't like cutting anyone of 'em. But that's the nature of the game."
Smith, a first-year player, sparkled in training camp last year before being injured. But Smith didn't progress as quickly or as much as Lindsey wanted.
McCants, who finished preseason with only three catches for 29 yards, was told the news Sunday afternoon at Redskins Park. McCants, 27, subsequently said goodbye to teammates after cleaning out his locker stall.
McCants's best season was in 2003, when he catapulted to become the No. 3 receiver in Steve Spurrier's pass-happy offense after entering camp on the bubble. In 15 games, McCants caught 27 passesfor 360 yards, showing a penchant for big plays, tying Coles for the team lead with six touchdowns.
Before the 2004 season, Gibbs signed McCants to a three-year, $4.5 million contract that included a $2 million bonus. Last season, McCants was inactive for 10 games and appeared in only five, finishing with the worst numbers of his career: five catches for 71 yards and no touchdowns.
With two new starting receivers under six feet, the 6-foot-3, 214 pound McCants seemed to be battling the 6-2, 212-pound Kevin Dyson for a role as the team's big receiver. Entering training camp, Dyson had played in only one game over the past two seasons because of leg injuries. Dyson, who sat out last season after being released by the San Diego Chargers, said he realizes that McCants's departure doesn't ensure him a roster spot.
"Percentage-wise I guess it looks better," said Dyson, who has three catches for 28 yards, all in the preseason opener against Carolina, "but it's the same situation I was in two weeks ago."