Last week, an envelope appeared in each player's locker at Redskins Park. Tucked inside was an invitation to a weekend gathering that marks the end of the preseason, a celebration that happens to coincide with the Washington Redskins trimming their roster from 80 to 53 players.
“I don't know what to expect at all,” rookie wide receiver Niles Paul said of the pending roster cuts. “All I know is we got this thing Saturday, and I'm planning to go to it.”
Between now and then, the Redskins will play a final preseason game — Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field — a last chance for players to audition for coaches.
Coach Mike Shanahan won't reveal how many jobs are still up for grabs, but about 45 appear to be locked up, which means the other 35 players on the roster are fighting for about eight, plus an additional eight positions on the practice squad.
While the starters will see some playing time against the Bucs, the second- and third-string units on both offense and defense will receive their most extensive action. More importantly, they’ll compete on special teams, where the fates of players on the bubble might actually be determined.
“Special teams is always the key if you're not a starter,” said linebacker Horatio Blades, a sixth-round pick in 2007 who has survived four cut-down days because of his special teams contributions. “I don't care if you play running back, receiver, linebacker, safety, corner — if you're not the starting guy, you're going to play special teams.”
Rookies reported to training camp five weeks ago and learned right away that though they might spend most of practice with their position groups, special teams play was the key to making the team. A backup linebacker or a third-team running back needs to be a first-team contributor on punts, kickoffs and field goals.
“That's what I've been focusing on, just trying to get up there on the depth chart on special teams,” said running back Evan Royster, a sixth-round pick from Penn State.
It's not an easy adjustment for every player. They earned their way to the NFL through their work at a specific position, but most must quickly accept that they will have to contribute in new ways as a pro.
“Everybody who's coming into the National Football League, they're not coming in to play special teams. Everybody wants to be a starter,” Shanahan said. “Offensively, defensively, they want to be starters. Usually, when they came up from the collegiate level, they never thought about playing special teams and they didn’t play special teams because they were usually the superstar.”
For most, it's a new skill set, and while they're digesting the offensive or defensive playbooks during training camp, they're also learning entirely new positions on special teams.
“They can only dress 46 guys on gameday, so everyone has to have some role,” said nose tackle Chris Neild, the team's seventh-round pick out of West Virginia. “I knew that coming in, so whatever impact I can make, I try to do.”
The team will review film of the preseason finale on Friday and coaches will then meet to discuss the roster. Scouts and front-office personnel will be present, too.
“This year you have a salary cap that plays into it. Youth. Contract situation. All that stuff plays into it,” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. “Obviously, the final decision is made by Coach Shanahan with Bruce Allen, and everybody that has a say in it. . . . It’s just not one thing anymore. It’s a number of different things that go into deciding who’s going to be in your final 53.”
Position coaches and coordinators will weigh in on their respective players, but special teams coordinator Danny Smith will offer his thoughts on virtually every bubble player. He might not win every argument, but Smith can be a passionate advocate for players he feels make his units better. Rookies learn quickly that impressing Smith is critical, and veterans on the second tier of the depth chart -- players such as Blades, Lorenzo Alexander, Mike Sellers and Rob Jackson — know special teams play can add years to a career.
“Danny's your biggest ally,” said Blades, a third-string linebacker who again finds himself on the bubble. “If you're not a starter, Danny is the guy. If you perform well for him, you have a chance.”
While coaches want to see the starters work together a bit more, it hasn’t been a typical workweek for those fighting for their livelihoods. The daily schedules, meetings and routines might have been the same, but the backdrop has been different.
“Everybody's kind of on edge,” Royster said.
“It's more pressure-packed,” said Neild.
As the preseason concludes Thursday night, each snap on offense and defense will be scrutinized and dissected. But for the guys on the bubble, it's the plays on special teams that could be the difference between making the Redskins' regular season roster and joining the league's long unemployment line, which is scheduled to grow by more than 850 players by Saturday afternoon.