The episode of Hard Knocks that carries the most drama, the one with the most on the line, is obviously the fifth and final episode each season. This is the one where they have to make the final cuts. It's sort of like voting someone off of Survivor, except in this case, the person isn't going back to Jamba Juice.
Though in reality, they might have to get a job there for the first time. (In all likelihood, they will probably become a team lead at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which seems to be a popular spot for former athletes.)
Which is fine. Enterprise is a fine company, a good place to grow. It's just not the job that these athletes have been working towards their entire lives. We don't usually view it this way, but a player like Jared Smith, the defensive-tackle-turned-guard that Seattle drafted in the seventh round that I haven't heard anyone mention is a possibility for the final roster, is one of the best football players in the country. By being drafted alone, he's one of the most unique people you could ever hope to meet.
According to Schmoop.com, only 3-4% of high school football players will go on to play college football. This makes a lot of sense to me, because I played high school football. And on the athletic scale, I rank somewhere between Tom Arnold and a Roomba. There weren't cuts on my high school football team, there were just the guys that played and the ones that didn't. For reference, I also joined track and field one year as a goof. Still, that doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of good high school players that don't go onto the next level.
During my junior season of football, we went to the 3A State Championship game and barely lost. In the entire history of my school, this was by far the best team we had ever seen. We had some really good players.
I think one of them went to Central for a bit. One of them was recruited by Harvard (they don't have athletic scholarships, but he played football there and is also smart I guess.) One of them played for PLU. Another was mostly just a soccer player and played that at the next level. Of the 90 or so players on the team that nearly was the best 3A team in Washington, a couple went onto minor college careers.
Schmoop estimates that this leaves about 12,650 Division I college players and roughly the same number of Division II players. Being a Division II player alone is something of note, and again, we don't usually think of it that way. But you can still find Hall of Fame NFL players at the Division II level. So no we are looking at a college pool of 25,300 players and maybe around 3,500 seniors. With about 254 players drafted into the NFL each year, that's just 7% of the eligible players.
So now you've overcome the odds twice to make it onto a 90-man NFL roster, but here's the good news: Only 59% of you on the roster are going to make it to the regular season. Fewer actually, since the initial 90-man roster will undergo several cuts along the way before the preseason gets underway. Oh, and most of the roster spots are already spoken for. Smith was incredibly fortunate to be one of the select players drafted and Alvin Bailey was lucky enough to be one of the select players not drafted that signed a contract afterwards, but both had incredibly long odds to beat out a veteran for a roster spot.
Bailey probably has. Smith probably hasn't.
We've managed to boil down the unrealistic probability of making an NFL roster if you're an aspiring high school footballer (fun fact: the son of a major league baseball player is 800 times more likely to make the majors than a person whose dad was some loser that didn't make the majors) down to the Seahawks and their final position battles. We can already assume a good number of names that will not make the final roster, but there's going to be a handful of guys that you're really going to hate to lose.
On the other hand, rumors that A.J. Jenkins might not make the 49ers just a year after being a first round pick at a time when they desperately need receivers prove that nobody is as ever as safe as you might have thought once upon a time.
I can't remember who it was that said it (or maybe I just don't feel the need to say so) but on draft day I "tweeted" (an outdated form of communication really) that Chris Harper was no guarantee to make this roster. It wouldn't be the first time that Pete Carroll and John Schneider quickly regretted a fourth round pick. In fact, the fourth round might be the Achilles heel of this front office:
2010 - Walter Thurmond, E.J. Wilson
2011 - KJ Wright, Kris Durham
2012 - Robert Turbin, Jaye Howard
2013 - Harper
Clearly the only issue here is that the Seahawks only had a single fourth round pick this year. (The fourth round pick is considered to be a bugaboo for Schneider, yet they could still retain 4-5 of those fourth round picks above for the final roster this year. That's... amazing. That's a better track record than Raiders first round picks since Al Davis popularized pleated pants for the Americas.)
I tweeted that and someone told me that I was being ridiculous. That Harper was a lock. This was on the day of the draft mind you. And it wasn't a personal opinion sort of "Harper is a lock" as much as it was a commonsense sort of "Harper is a lock." But commonsense is never quite as common as we think.
Some people would say that if you have a chance at a career in professional sports, that you'd be an idiot not to take it. Certainly I think that I'm the type of person that would also have jumped at the chance to play in the pros, to take a gamble, because as it says in Revelation 6:17:
However, is it practical? Should a player going after a contract as an undrafted free agent or a seventh round pick give a few years of his life to reach for the stars? To go after his dreams? Despite popular opinion, the truth is that making your way in the world today takes everything you've got. There's a lot to be concerned about as human beings, so taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. I mean, man to man (or woman), tell me this:
Wouldn't you like to get away?
But the world isn't a place where everybody knows your name.
I was listening to Freakonomics and they were discussing the topic of quitting. A study of the 2001 MLB draft showed that 10 years later, players who were picked in that draft and went on to pursue a baseball career were making 40% less per year on average than upper middle class graduates that went on to do things in the "real world." You know, that place where it's time to stop being polite and start being real. A life in the minor leagues for most men is roughly $20,000 per year and a job in the offseason, if anyone is willing to hire somebody that they know is leaving in six months.
Baseball is different, but there are still similarities.
The NFL minimum for a rookie this season is $405,000. Not bad.
The minimum for a practice squad player is $5,700 a week. Hey, also pretty damn good.
So anyone that makes an NFL team is going to get paid pretty well that year. Anyone that makes the practice squad will also do pretty well, if you give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they stay there for 17 weeks, which they very likely wouldn't, but if they did, that's almost $100,000.
Of course, anyone that makes an NFL practice squad for a year better save their money since very few of those players go on to have regular squad NFL careers. In 2010, the Seahawks practice squad included Andre Anderson, Nate Davis, Dominique Edison, Maurice Fountain, Chris Henry, Michael Johnson, Nick Tow-Arnett, Vuna Tuihalamaka, Derek Walker, and Patrick Williams. Those are names of guys that actually played with your favorite football team and I hope they saved up.
Because just one season on the regular roster at minimum is worth four times as much as the practice squad. And with an average career of maybe three or four years, that could be the difference of say, $200,000 if you're a great practice squad player (and there are rules about how many times you can be on the practice squad) and $1.2 million if you can earn a roster spot on a regular basis. Why does a player like Heath Farwell, trying to make an NFL team for the ninth straight year, work so hard on special teams?
Because Farwell has started zero NFL games in his entire career but has made millions on the strength of being the 53rd man. The "special teams guy" that every special teams coordinator loves to get at least one of. I'm not trying to put words in anybody's mouth, and this is entirely speculation, but do I think that Dan Quinn wants Farwell to make the team this year?
No. Because Farwell isn't going to be here to play linebacker for him in the way that we might view Mike Morgan, Allen Bradford, Malcolm Smith, or John Lotulelei. But do I think that special teams coordinator Brian Schneider is fighting for Farwell to stay? Probably. Because Farwell is one of the best special teams players in the NFL and if the Seahawks are going to stay good at coverage and if B-Schneidz is going to keep his job, he's going to beg for Farwell.
And that difference, that decision, is ultimately going to end up costing somebody hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. That's why the last episode of Hard Knocks is intense as fuck.
I did some name-crunching, some numbers-crunching, and finally decided on a final 53-man roster. I consulted with some folks and basically at the end of it, felt like I had done a defensible job. The truth is that I really had at least a half-dozen spots remaining when I had put everyone I needed on the roster. Then I started placing the names that I wanted and shit got difficult.
I mean, how do you decide between keeping a potentially-great undrafted free agent like Benson Mayowa and a not-so-exciting quarterback like Russell Wilson? It was time for number three to take a hike.
Seriously folks. Here's how I started:
Quarterbacks - Russell Wilson and Tarvaris Jackson
Running backs - Marshawn Lynch, Christine Michael, Robert Turbin, and a fullback (more later)
Wide receivers - Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, Stephen Williams
Tight ends - Zach Miller, Luke Willson, Sean McGrath
Offensive linemen - Russell Okung, James Carpenter, Max Unger, JR Sweezy, Breno Giacomini, Paul McQuistan, Alvin Bailey, Michael Bowie, John Moffitt, Lemuel Jeanpierre
Defensive linemen - Chris Clemons (optimist), Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Jaye Howard, Jesse Williams, Jordan Hill
A Chorus Linemen - Michael Blevins, Michael Douglas, Gregg Burge
Linebackers - Bobby Wagner, KJ Wright, O'Brien Schofield
Cornerbacks - Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Antoine Winfield, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell
Safeties - Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Jeron Johnson, Winston Guy
Special teams - Clint Gresham, Jon Ryan, Steven Hauschka
That gave me 48 players with five spots to go.
I decided to go with Spencer Ware at fullback because of cost savings over Michael Robinson.
49 48 players. (Edit: As noted in the comments, not only is it hard to decide who to keep, but it's hard for me simply to count. This still only makes 48 players, since I already added 'FB'.)
I opted to add another receiver and my choices were between Arceto Clark, Phil Bates, Perez Ashford, and Harper. I don't think this is necessarily good reasoning, but when in doubt, go with the guy drafted. I add Harper.
50 49 players. (Edit: Oh, this is fun)
I obviously am short on linebackers, this isn't even a question. I add John Lotulelei because of course I do.
51 50 players. (Edit: "50! 50 Players! Wah-ah-ah!" says the Count)
Everyone is saying all this good shit about Benson Mayowa.
52 51 players. (Edit: Now here comes a bunch of lying...)
This is it. The final roster spot. The all-important move and who do I have left on my plate? More than I would have ever asked for, as many as I could hope for:
Michael Robinson, Cooper Helfet, Ty Powell, Malcolm Smith, Mike Morgan, Rishaw Johnson, Mike Person, Ryan Seymour, Jared Smith, Tony McDaniel, Clint McDonald, Bradford, Farwell, Will Blackmon, Chris Maragos, Ron Parker, Tharold Simon.
(Roster notes: Percy Harvin on PUP, Greg Scruggs on PUP or IR, Bruce Irvin suspended.)
Immediately I know that I must have made a mistake. Logically, I start thinking about what else, but special teams. I want another linebacker, meaning that I could add Farwell and give Schneider his special teams ace, but the problem is that I'm concerned he can only play special teams. I make a really tough decision and decide to cut Farwell.
I still need my special teams player though, so I add Maragos. Giving me 53? No, a twist! I release a guy. Not just any guy. (It's Winston Guy, get it?) Maragos is younger than Farwell and has really impressed Carroll during his tenure with Seattle.
52. 51 (Edit: Still wrong)
I decide that linebacker is "fluid enough" on this defense that four is enough. What's left to do? Bring back a veteran like Robinson or save money and continue to try and develop Seymour, Smith, or Powell? Ultimately it's never easy to cut anyone, but it's very easy to keep somebody. This team is trying to win a Super Bowl this year and it's completely within their reach to do so. They were one of the best teams in 2012 and I'm not going to mess with that.
53 52 players. (Edit: No dumb, dumb, still not there yet.)
(Edit: Fan vote?! FAN VOTE!)
I feel bad, Dewey. I feel really bad. But Simon, Seymour, Powell, and Smith are invited to join the practice squad. So are some of those other guys, but I'm not in the mood to decipher practice squad rules at the moment after constructing the 53-man roster already.
There are plenty of guys on this roster that are safe. It's so incredibly safe that you wouldn't believe it. Sherman and Wilson and Lynch and Okung and others are set for life. A lot more are maybe set for the next three months. Even making $100,000 on the practice squad can go by really quickly -- oftentimes, players have already guaranteed money to agents that spent thousands and thousands on them in the pre-draft process and after paying your taxes, your agents, and the Bentley corporation, the money could be gone by the next training camp.
I don't know how the coaching staff is going to end up ultimately doing it, but I know that for somebody, it'll be the toughest day of their life. That's the chance you take.