The 53rd Man: What It’s Like to Make the Cut, or Miss It

Scooby Wright.

Before final cuts, we profiled three young linebackers—Jeremiah George in Tampa, Hayes Pullard in Jacksonville and Scooby Wright in Cleveland—trying to catch on with an NFL team. Here’s how the final cuts played out.

CLEVELAND — After the Browns’ final preseason game, Scooby Wright sat in silence, leaning forward in his chair, eye-black still freshly smudged on his face, his head buried in his phone in his locker. As his teammates undressed and headed for the showers, Wright checked his messages.

His agent had texted: You did what you needed to do.

The Browns’ new regime, in an effort to overhaul the roster, had made a record-tying 14 picks in the draft, and Wright, the last of those 14 picks, was now fighting to make the roster as a linebacker. In the first three preseason games Wright felt he had been lost in the shuffle. But in this the fourth and final game, with the starters sitting for most if not all of it, Wright played about two and a half quarters, recording four tackles and a sack and making one great last impression on the coaching staff late in the fourth quarter.

The Bears had the ball on the Browns’ one-yard line. Fourth down. Jacquizz Rodgers, the Bears’ shifty running back, had taken a handoff and hit a gap. Only one defender stood between him and the end zone, and Wright delivered a ferocious hit, driving Rodgers back a yard. It was as dramatic and exciting a play you will find in a fourth preseason game. Afterward the stadium cameras found Wright, the hero, on the bench, getting oxygen.

A few days later, on the day of final cuts—the day teams would be cutting 22 players each, trimming their rosters down to the final 53 players—Wright was walking around the mall with his girlfriend and his parents, trying to pass the time, waiting to hear from the team. About 45 minutes before the cut deadline, Wright received a message with a practice schedule for the next day. Wright was confused at first. Then came the realization: He had made the team.

“After I got to play a lot in that fourth preseason game,” Wright said, “I think that definitely helped my case a lot. Them seeing my ability to make plays.”

Other players had to prove they were versatile in order to make the final 53-man roster, like Hayes Pullard III, who made the Jaguars as a backup middle linebacker to Paul Posluszny. After Pullard proved his worth as a linebacker (he notably had a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown) and that he could be a special teams contributor (after never playing on the unit as a star college linebacker at Southern Cal), he also had to adjust when the coaches asked him to try playing fullback. He hadn’t played offense since high school.

At first, when a coach approached Pullard with the idea before an early preseason game, he thought he was joking, just friendly pregame banter. Then during the week the coaches had Pullard learn a few plays at fullback during a walkthrough, just casually, not too serious. Then during the Jaguars’ third preseason game, Pullard was on the sideline, reviewing defensive adjustments, when he heard his name called as part of the goal line unit.

Pullard rushed onto the field, snuck out of the backfield on his route and caught a one-yard touchdown pass—then, a flag. He had failed to report as an eligible receiver, a mistake, he said, that the coaches later owned.

“I don’t know if that was a one-time thing, or my evaluation—we’ll see,” Pullard said. “Whatever’s going to help this team, I’m willing to do. But I still want everyone to know that I’m primarily a linebacker. My goal is to be a starting linebacker.”

Pullard is lucky, though, that his route hasn’t been more circuitous, as it has been for another linebacker, Jeremiah George. This year, George entered Bucs camp playing for his fourth different defensive coordinator, learning his fourth defense, for his third team, since he entered the league as a Jets 2014 fifth-round pick. The Bucs cut George during the second-to-last round of cuts this year, then re-signed him after another player got hurt, and then cut him again during the last round of cuts, after an uninspiring performance in sparse playing time in the fourth preseason game, which could be expected given the circumstances.

The Cowboys quickly signed George to their practice squad, in part, because, he said they ran a defense similar to one of the four defenses George had already spent a full season learning—the one Lovie Smith ran in 2015 in Tampa when George was with the Bucs. “They run the same exact defense,” George said “It was a no-brainer.”

This week has been a whirlwind, as it was with the other moves. George is trying to learn the playbook, pick up new terminology and adjust to a new city, new organization and new teammates. He’s living out of a hotel for now, while he looks for more permanent housing.  

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“I’m really looking for a place that will allow me to get in and out,” he said, “if there’s something that comes up where I get claimed by another team or I get cut or something.”

If another team were to sign him away now, it would be required to put him on its 53-man roster. “I could be here one week or 17 weeks,” George added. “I just want to make the most of it. I want to make sure, looking back, there’s nothing else I could have done better.”

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