The last full week of July is one of the most stressful in the life of an NFL rookie.
Up to this point, most players have been living out their dream. They had outstanding high school careers followed by strong college careers - enough that an NFL team either drafted them or sign them immediately after. Since the NFL Draft in May, those same players reported to their teams and have been working out with the coaches, getting to know their new teammates, and studying up on the team’s playbook. Some realized signing bonuses that were worth more money than anything they’ve ever seen in their lifetime. Others, may not have seen the mega signing bonuses but sign player contracts that will pay them over $400,000 this year alone - putting them in the top 2% of income earners in the country from their first “job” after college. Life is good.
Then in these final weeks of July, as the players are focused on winning their spots in training camp, reality might set in for the first time. All NFL teams are allowed a maximum of 85 players to start training camp. Almost every teams is over that limit in the weeks leading up to the opening of their camp. So while there are more drastic cut downs spaced out toward the end of training camp to get down to the 53 man regular season roster, this cutdown one is the silent dream killer.
Why? Because this first cut down usually affects the most vulnerable players per team - rookie free agents. These are players the NFL teams typically sign right after the draft winds down and those players were not drafted a year ago, but are still trying to make a run at their NFL dreams. The teams do not have anything vested in them - there is no major salary-cap hit, they typically did not use a draft pick on the player, there was no major signing bonus, should they become the most expendable.
For the player, this is one of the toughest times they will face in their careers. For player to make it to the doorstep of the NFL and have an opportunity to drink of its “fountain of glory,” it can be devastating for a young player since is often their first real taste of adversity. Some might have missed time with injuries in college, however, no one ever told them they “are not good enough” to be on the team. Since their days of youth football, probably no one has ever said you’re “not good enough.” So when you are already anticipating living out your NFL dream, you get your first dose of someone telling you’re “not good enough.”
This time is also one of those situations when a player’s agent becomes a therapist. I used to counsel my clients in this situation and tell them that “it’s the best thing that could’ve happened in your career.” You might be asking the same shocking question that they would in this situation, “I just got cut, how could THAT be the best thing to ever happen to me?”
Well, therein lies the answer. For a young player, it is hard to comprend that the NFL is more about business than it is about football. As a young player, you have to realize that it’s no longer about football and your own glory days. It is about their business and your business survival. From this point forward, you will have to prove yourself every day. You will have to give an employer every reason reason to want you there daily. And even if you do all the right things, it still might not be enough to keep you there. (For example, if you are the teams six or seven wide receiver on the roster, and to offense of lineman go down in the game, you better believe that you might not be on the team next Wednesday.)
For a rookie player, the first “cut” is when everything comes into focus. This is where that player realizes the advice you gave him about being the hardest working person on the field every day. This is where the advice of making friends with coaches make sense as those same coaches might be their biggest advocate down the road. When you’re back in the job market, those who know you, know your skills, and like you become the most valuable people for the next stop in your professional career. You learn not to make enemies, and to not gain a reputation for being lazy or a “prima donna.”
For the team that just cut you, it is usually nothing personal: they have a maximum roster they can carry and whether they like it or not they have to make tough decisions to meet that roster cap. Two days into training camp, they might be calling you back if they suffer injuries or need another player. Otherwise, coaches all have friends on other teams and don’t be surprised if your reputation earns you a call from somewhere else. This is where that scout that like you coming out of college but was not able to convince their GM could still win the day for you and help you earn a call from somewhere else.
So the reason I use to tell my clients that getting cut the first time may be the best thing that ever happens in their career is that it gets the stars out of their eyes very early in their career. It is not all rosy and it is not a straight path to the top. It is a curvy one filled with potholes, detours, and redirects. You have to be willing to keep your head in the game and do all those little things to prove yourself every single day.
For most players getting that second call back to the NFL is much easier than the first. That is because no one wants to be the first person and go out on a limb. So, for the second team, no one has to put their own credibility on the line to be the first one to give you a shot. Now that someone else already has, it makes it so much easier for the next team to say, “(Team X) already had this guy in camp.” So for the rookie players who are about to learn their first lesson in “football business,” keep your head up, keep your nose clean, and do those little things and you will get your second chance. Try not to blow it!