Breaking Down the 10 Biggest Names on the Roster Bubble
It’s the time of the summer where players on NFL roster bubbles, such as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and New York Giants wide receiver Mario Manningham, should be feeling anxious about their futures with their current franchises.
On Aug. 26, after every team has played their Week 3 preseason games, rosters throughout the league will be cut from 90 players down to 75. Just four days later, every team will have to trim its active roster down to the 53-man regular-season limit.
As a result, every team around the league is facing tough decisions on which players are worth keeping and which players have to be shown the door. In some cases, the players who are handed their pink slips might have made big names for themselves in the league or someone who the team has made a significant investment in.
It’s no certainty that any of the following 10 players will be released. Some might make the cut, others might end up on the trade block, but none of them should be sitting too comfortably in their current locations.
Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Christian Ponder’s career as a Minnesota Vikings quarterback has not gone as planned. While the 2011 NFL draft’s No. 12 overall pick has started 35 games for the Vikings in three seasons, he's failed to establish himself as a franchise signal-caller and might not have any future with the team.
First-year Vikings coach Mike Zimmer claimed in June that he wanted to “give everybody an opportunity” in the competition to be the team’s starting quarterback, but it quickly became clear in training camp that Ponder was the third wheel in what remains a two-horse race between veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater.
Ponder did not receive any snaps in Minnesota’s most recent preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Vikings won’t keep Ponder around in 2014. They could opt to keep him as a third-string quarterback. But it’s apparent he won’t be anything more than that for Minnesota, barring injury to Cassel and/or Bridgewater, this season.
If Minnesota decides to only keep two quarterbacks, expect it to try to trade Ponder before releasing him. While he is not one of the Vikings’ top two passers, he could be a backup quarterback upgrade for some teams.
One team specifically suggested by NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah and Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller as a potential trade partner for Ponder has been the San Francisco 49ers. Blaine Gabbert, who was selected two picks ahead of Ponder by the Jacksonville Jaguars but is now the backup to 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick, has struggled badly in two preseason contests thus far.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
The writing has been on the wall in Cincinnati for BenJarvus Green-Ellis ever since the Bengals selected Jeremy Hill, a powerful between-the-tackles running back from LSU, in the second round of this year’s draft.
Green-Ellis is a tough, physical runner himself, but his game is entirely unspectacular. As he is coming off a disappointing season in which he averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, it’s not hard to see why the Bengals wanted to add a younger, more explosive back to pair with 2013 second-round pick Giovani Bernard in the backfield.
It’s possible Green-Ellis could stay ahead of Hill in the tailback rotation. He’s currently listed as the second running back on Cincinnati’s depth chart, and he took second-team repetitions ahead of Hill on Saturday against the New York Jets, according to Jay Morrison of Cox Media Group.
That said, he only played three snaps and received just one carry before he was replaced by Hill. In total, Green-Ellis has just five carries for 22 yards and, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), just 11 snaps through two preseason games.
Ultimately, Green-Ellis’ fate could be determined by the health of Hill, who left Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury.
If Hill is not ready to go or cannot vault Green-Ellis on the depth chart, “The Law Firm” probably has a safe roster spot. But if Hill is good to go—he tweeted Saturday that he is “fine”—and can establish himself in the last two preseason games as Cincinnati’s second-best back, it would make sense for the Bengals to cut Green-Ellis, which would save them $2.3 million, according to Spotrac.
Mikel Leshoure, RB, Detroit Lions
Mikel Leshoure seemed to be a player on the rise after the 2012 season, in which the powerful running back rushed for 798 yards and scored nine touchdowns as the Detroit Lions lead back. In 2013, however, the 2011 second-round pick received just two carries for the entire year.
If the Lions are going to keep Leshoure for the final year of his rookie contract, he has to have a legitimate role within their offense. So far this summer, it’s been unclear whether that will be the case.
Listed as the third-string running back on Detroit’s depth chart, “Leshoure has received a somewhat surprising number of first-team reps with the Detroit Lions in training camp,” according to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. He has received 15 carries through two preseason games but has only gained 54 yards on those rushes, which have come against second- and third-team defenses.
Leshoure is firmly behind Reggie Bush and Joique Bell in the pecking order in Detroit, and he’s expected to also be behind Theo Riddick, who offers more value as a receiver out of the backfield and has been compared by Lions players to both Bush and Darren Sproles, according to Justin Rogers of MLive.com.
That leaves Leshoure, once a highly touted prospect out of Illinois, battling with George Winn and Steven Miller—who both went undrafted in 2013—for one roster spot that may or may not be available.
Rogers has suggested that Leshoure’s increased work in camp could have been part of the team’s effort to increase his trade value. It’s unlikely he has any, however, after his nearly complete failure to get on the field last season.
Bleacher Report’s Jeff Risdon is among those who thinks Winn might “now have a clear edge over Leshoure” for a roster spot.
Knowshon Moreno, RB, Miami Dolphins
When the Miami Dolphins landed Knowshon Moreno for just $3 million this offseason, it looked like they came away with a free-agency bargain. So far this summer, however, it’s the rest of the league who has looked smart for taking a buyer-beware approach.
Moreno is coming off a career-best year with the Denver Broncos in which he ranked fifth in the NFL with 1,586 yards from scrimmage and tied for fifth with 13 touchdowns scored.
Prior to the 2013 season, Moreno’s career had been defined more by injuries than any on-field successes. That has been the case again this offseason, as he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in June and has yet to take the field this preseason.
Moreno also “showed up to offseason workouts a couple steps slow and a little heavy this spring,” according to ESPN.com’s James Walker. That said, Moreno’s prognosis for the upcoming season has started to look up in the past week. According to Walker, “Moreno looks in better shape than he was a month or two ago and hasn't been afraid to test his knee.”
It’s likely that Moreno will end up as the No. 2 back on Miami’s depth chart behind Lamar Miller, but he is currently listed as the fourth-string back behind Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee. Undrafted rookie Damien Williams is also a factor in the competition; Bleacher Report’s Ian Wharton believes that Williams, who had 66 yards from scrimmage Saturday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and received first-team snaps, is “on the 53 barring injury.”
A Moreno cut would still be a surprising end to his time in Miami, but he has to prove his worth in the final two weeks of the preseason. The Dolphins could save $1.725 million by releasing the sixth-year back.
Mario Manningham, WR, New York Giants
Mario Manningham cemented his stake in the legacy of the New York Giants during Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots, when he made a high-degree-of-difficulty, 38-yard catch between double coverage along the left sideline to spark the Giants’ championship-winning drive. Nostalgia, however, won’t be enough for the Giants hero to remain on the team’s 2014 roster.
After tearing his ACL late in the 2012 season as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, he caught just nine passes for 85 yards with the 49ers last year. Now back with the Giants, Manningham is still battling to return to his past form.
According to ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano, “watching him in practice makes it obvious that his knee isn't healthy yet.” Graziano wrote last week that he has seen “unheralded youngsters such as Marcus Harris and Corey Washington drastically outperform their Super Bowl-hero veteran in camp and preseason games.”
Manningham has just one catch for 17 yards through three preseason games (the Giants played the Buffalo Bills in the Hall of Fame Game). Already behind Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jerrel Jernigan on New York’s depth chart, Manningham has also been passed over by Washington and Julian Talley for first-team reps, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.
The Giants aren’t going to keep Manningham for sentimental value alone. It would seem that Washington, who has caught game-winning touchdowns in all three of New York’s August games, has a significant edge over Manningham for a roster spot at this point.
Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders
Denarius Moore has shown fairly significant promise in his first three seasons with the Oakland Raiders. The speedy receiving playmaker has caught 130 passes for 2,054 yards and 17 touchdowns. Pretty good production from a player who was a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft.
Even so, the Raiders could be ready to move on from Moore as he goes into the final year of his rookie contract. He has started 35 games in the past three years but is currently listed as a third-string wideout on the team’s depth chart, which leaves him squarely on the roster bubble.
Players are sometimes listed lower on preseason depth charts as a motivational tactic, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Moore. Rod Streater and Andre Holmes emerged as playmakers last season, while offseason additions James Jones and Greg Little are also ahead of Moore in Oakland’s receiver hierarchy.
The tide might be turning in Moore’s favor. Bleacher Report’s Chris Hansen recently tweeted that he thinks “Moore has moved back ahead of Andre Holmes.” Holmes’ play in Oakland’s win over the Detroit Lions on Friday was described as “a disaster” by XNSports.com’s Rich Hribar.
Still, Moore won’t be able to sleep easy as he hangs on the fringe of a depth chart that also includes promising youngsters Juron Criner, Brice Butler and Greg Jenkins. His release would surely come as a surprise, but it’s also possible he could be traded for a late-round draft pick if the Raiders decide they’d rather move forward without the fourth-year pro from Tennessee.
Moore has four receptions for 36 yards through two preseason games.
Santana Moss, WR, Washington Redskins
Few NFL players achieve the longevity and consistency that Santana Moss has had in his 13-year professional football career. He has caught at least 40 passes for at least 450 receiving yards in each of his past 11 seasons and has career totals of 722 receptions, 10,167 receiving yards and 66 touchdowns.
Moss’ legacy has been defined by his time with the Washington Redskins, with whom he has played since 2005. It’s possible that extensive chapter of his legacy could come to a close in the next couple weeks.
At 35 years old, Moss isn’t the player he once was. He has had less than 600 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons; before that, he had accumulated at least 790 yards for eight consecutive seasons.
If the nearing end of his line wasn’t enough, the Redskins are as deep at the wide receiver position this year as they have ever been in Moss’ time with the team.
Moss is currently listed as a second-string receiver on Washington’s depth chart, but he projects to be the No. 4 receiver at best behind Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. The real challenge to his roster spot comes from a number of young talented players behind him, including Aldrick Robinson, Ryan Grant and Cody Hoffman, along with Leonard Hankerson, who would be a formidable threat to the competition if he returns from the physically unable to perform list.
The elder statesman of Washington’s receiving corps did not catch a pass in the team’s preseason opener. On the other hand, Robinson was impressive in catching three passes for 45 yards with the first-team offense, while Grant, a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft, caught three for 37.
“Coaches want Moss on the roster,” according to Jason Reid of The Washington Post. However, that will be tough to justify if he is not clearly among the team’s top five wideouts, especially as Hankerson could be kept on the PUP list, then activated after Washington’s sixth game.
CSN Washington’s Rich Tandler is among those who predicts Moss will be cut later this month.
Champ Bailey, CB, New Orleans Saints
Like Santana Moss, Champ Bailey is a longtime NFL great trying to hang around for at least one more season, but it’s unclear whether he has enough left in the tank to be worth a 53-man roster spot for the New Orleans Saints.
When the Saints signed Bailey this offseason, he was considered by many to be the favorite to win the team’s No. 2 starting cornerback job opposite Keenan Lewis. The 12-time Pro Bowler, however, played in just five games due to injury in 2013 and took a clear step back in his play last season.
He has been sidelined for most of training camp with a possible ankle injury, according to Evan Woodberry of NOLA.com, and he has yet to play this preseason. When he was on the field early in camp, Bailey looked “extremely average,” according to Greg A. Bedard of SI.com.
“He’s lost a step, is much stiffer in the hips and is relying even more on his mind to make plays,” Bedard wrote on July 29. “It’s early, but it would not be a shock if Bailey, who has just $500,000 guaranteed on his contract, doesn’t make the team.”
Considering he hasn’t been on the field much since, it wouldn’t be any more shocking now if Bailey was cut by the Saints. He is currently listed as a second-team cornerback on the Saints depth chart, but it seems unlikely that he would beat out Patrick Robinson and Corey White for a starting job now, while young cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Trevin Wade could make him expendable.
It’s more likely that the Saints will keep Bailey around and play him in a nickel or dime role this year, assuming he returns to health. The Saints would only save $750,000 this year by cutting him.
That said, the 36-year-old needs to show that he can still make a positive contribution to an NFL defense in 2014. It’s been unclear this summer if he can.
“If Bailey remains planted on the sideline much longer, the Saints have to move on without him regardless of any small sentimental value they hold for Bailey and regardless of it they think he can still play,” Larry Holder of NOLA.com wrote last week.
Will Smith, DE, New England Patriots
Will Smith had an impressive nine-season run for the New Orleans Saints from 2004-12, a period in which he amassed 67.5 sacks. Coming back from a torn ACL suffered prior to last season, however, he is trying to stick with the New England Patriots after being cut by the Saints this offseason.
The 33-year-old’s play was already on the decline before his injury one year ago, so it’s a tall task to expecting him to come back and return to form as a pass-rusher for the Patriots.
Smith has been healthy enough to participate in training camp and play this preseason. Through two games, he has had four quarterback hurries and received a minus-1.0 overall grade from Pro Football Focus for his play.
Overall, however, Ben Volin of The Boston Globe does not think the Smith he has seen in training camp this year is a player who can help the Patriots in 2014. According to Volin, Smith “doesn’t look like he has much left in the tank and is in danger of getting cut.”
Smith is listed as a second-string defensive end on New England’s depth chart, but it shouldn’t be a big surprise, despite his past success, if he is released. His competition for roster spots, behind starting defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, includes Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan and rookie Zach Moore.
Brandon Graham, OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Despite his being the No. 13 overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft, and although he has played very well at times on the field, Brandon Graham has never able to establish himself in a consistent role on the Philadelphia Eagles in his four seasons with the team thus far.
Now entering the final year of his contract, Graham has been rumored as a potential trade chip or player to be released all offseason. Fuel was added to that fire when the Eagles played the New England Patriots on Friday, a game in which Travis Long played before Graham and received 47 snaps, while Graham came in later and played just 28 snaps, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com.
Graham is listed as a second-string outside linebacker on Philadelphia’s depth chart, but there’s probably only one or two spots available between him, Long and Bryan Braman.
Seemingly, the clear-cut choice should be Graham. He’s shown pass-rushing ability and solid strength against the run in limited action through four years, and he's actually ranked by Pro Football Focus as the league’s second-best 3-4 OLB thus far this preseason.
That said, it wouldn’t be a huge shock at this point if Graham were beat out by Long and/or Braman for a roster spot. Shorr-Parks expects Graham to make the roster, but sets the fifth-year player’s odds at 75 percent.
Assuming he does survive cuts, it’s likely he’ll continue to have a minimal role on a team that added first-round pick Marcus Smith to an outside linebacker corps that already included veterans Connor Barwin and Trent Cole.
Should he be released or traded, some have opined that Graham could play in a much more significant capacity for another team, especially one that runs a 4-3 defensive scheme more well-suited to Graham’s abilities.
“If the Eagles cut Brandon Graham, every 4-3 team in the league should be lining up to sign him,” Steven Lourie of footballfanspot.com tweeted Sunday.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.