The Most Surprising NFL Roster Cuts
As NFL teams cut their active rosters down to the league’s 53-man regular-season limit, a plethora of players—some of whom are prominent names and have displayed talent at football’s highest level, such as quarterback Terrelle Pryor and cornerback Champ Bailey—became unemployed.
Players who are seemingly set to play a role for their teams one week can find themselves released the next, as all 32 NFL franchises are forced to make tough decisions on whom to keep and whom to let go.
Being cut this week doesn’t necessarily mean that a player won’t play in the NFL this year—once released, he can be signed by another team—but it’s a time when talented athletes can be left searching for a new job.
Each of the following was either a significant contributor for his team in previous years, a player in whom the team made a significant investment and/or a player who stood out this preseason. All of these players were expected to be contributors for the teams they were with, but are instead among the most notable and/or unexpected names handed a pink slip this week.
Tommy Kelly, DE/DT, New England Patriots
A starter for the New England Patriots’ first five games in 2013 before tearing his ACL, Tommy Kelly was expected to be a key player in New England’s defensive line rotation once again in 2014.
He restructured his contract in March to give the Patriots more cap space and looked healthy in the three games he started for New England as a 3-4 defensive end this preseason.
Despite his more favorable cap number and his solid play this summer, the Patriots decided to part ways with Kelly on Sunday, prior to the team’s cut-down to 75 players.
A 6’6”, 310-pound interior defensive lineman with a good combination of quickness and power, Kelly was a solid fit for a multi-front scheme like the ever-changing Patriots defense.
Kelly might not be as explosive as he once was, as he is 33 years old and coming off a knee injury. Still, he possesses the versatility to play either defensive tackle spot in four-man fronts and as either a nose tackle or a defensive end in three-man fronts.
The release of Kelly is an indicator that the Patriots feel good about the health of fellow interior defensive linemen Dominique Easley, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga, who will all be needed to play now that Kelly is off the roster. Easley, New England’s first-round pick, is also coming back from a torn ACL; Jones suffered an ankle injury this preseason, and Siliga missed nearly three full weeks with a wrist injury.
Unsurprisingly, Kelly was quickly scooped up by the Arizona Cardinals, who lost starting defensive end Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL of his own last week. Kelly will most likely play defensive end primarily in Arizona’s 3-4 scheme, where he will rotate with Frostee Rucker, Kareem Martin and/or Ed Stinson for playing time.
Terrelle Pryor, QB, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks picked up an intriguing talent when they traded a seventh-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for quarterback Terrelle Pryor in April. Apparently, that intrigue didn’t translate to anything the Seahawks could utilize on the field.
NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reported Friday that the Seahawks are releasing Pryor, who was competing with Tarvaris Jackson and B.J. Daniels for a backup quarterback job in Seattle.
Pryor is one of the most spectacular physical specimens in the NFL. Listed at 6’4” and 233 pounds, the former Ohio State signal-caller reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range at his pro day prior to the 2011 supplemental draft, according to NFL Media’s Albert Breer.
Despite being an explosive athlete with great size and a strong arm, Pryor’s game hasn’t translated to NFL success.
Pryor played 11 games and started nine for the Raiders last season, but he completed just 57.4 percent of his passes, averaged 6.6 passing yards per attempt and threw 11 interceptions compared to a mere seven touchdowns. For the Seahawks this preseason, Pryor completed just 53.8 percent of his passes with 7.2 yards per attempt, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Pryor has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL and should draw interest from other teams as a result. But while his athleticism makes him a dynamic dual threat, the 25-year-old may never have enough passing accuracy or master the mental side of the game enough to have sustained success as a quarterback.
Some have suggested that Pryor should consider a position change given his athleticism, but it’s probably too late for him to learn a new position and play it at an NFL level. Pryor could continue to be hyped for some time still, but it seems unlikely he’ll make any more meaningful contributions to the league after being dumped by two teams in a five-month span.
Landon Cohen, DT, Buffalo Bills
Landon Cohen may well have been the Buffalo Bills’ best player this August. He led all NFL defensive linemen during the exhibition season with 10 defensive stops, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and was PFF’s No. 2-ranked DT for the preseason.
His month was certainly impressive, but it wasn’t enough for him to earn a spot on the Bills’ 53-man roster.
Cohen displayed notable quickness throughout the preseason, regularly penetrating opposing backfields to blow up plays. At the least, he looked like a player who could be an asset in a rotational capacity.
It wouldn’t be the first time, however, that Cohen had a strong preseason that failed to translate to regular-season success. He’s spent time with 10 different NFL teams since 2008, but he hasn't made any regular-season production of significance or lasted more than two years with any franchise.
That might have factored into the Bills’ decision to cut him, despite his preseason performance, which was dominant but came with backup Bills defensive units against backup offensive lines.
The biggest reason Cohen got cut, however, was seemingly that there was too much talent in front of him. The Bills decided to only keep four defensive tackles on their roster; Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are two of the NFL’s best, while backups Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles also performed at a high level this preseason.
Cohen has had many chances to make it in the NFL, but he should have earned at least one more with his showing this summer.
Mike Brewster, C, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ depth chart still listed Mike Brewster as the team’s starting center as of Saturday morning, but the team is apparently going in another direction, as it made the decision to release Brewster on Friday.
Brewster’s release is a bit surprising because he was expected to start coming into the preseason but not because of his performance. He was consistently overmatched in 10 starts at guard for the Jaguars over the past two seasons, and he continued to struggle at center this preseason.
Brewster, who went undrafted in 2012 out of Ohio State, has been too frequently overpowered thus far in his NFL career. In addition to being overmatched by most of his opponents, he struggled with shotgun snaps this preseason.
The Jaguars don’t have a significantly better option to start at center—they’ll likely turn to either journeyman Jacques McClendon or sixth-round pick Luke Bowanko, who each started one of Jacksonville’s final two preseason games in the middle of the Jaguars line—but Brewster still wasn’t good enough to keep a roster spot.
Considering his fall from a starter to off the roster on a team without much proven interior offensive line talent, Brewster might have a difficult time securing a job on another NFL roster.
Connor Barth, K, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In his first five years as an NFL kicker, Connor Barth earned a reputation for reliability. He has never missed more than five field-goal attempts in a season and has a career field-goal percentage of 84.2.
Signed to a four-year contract in May 2012, Barth was expected to be with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through at least 2015. However, Barth missed the entire 2013 season with a torn Achilles suffered in a charity basketball game and got beat out by Patrick Murray this summer.
Barth made both of his field-goal attempts this preseason, so there was little reason to believe Barth wasn’t going to return to form.
It’s likely this move, which the team announced on Friday, was made because of that contract he signed in 2012. While Barth was set to make $2 million this year, according to Spotrac, Murray is only set to make $420,000.
Barth should be a prime candidate for a tryout with any team still concerned about its placekicker or one that becomes unhappy with its kicking situation during the season.
Stephen Hill, WR, New York Jets
When the New York Jets traded up to select Stephen Hill in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, he was expected to give them a consistent deep threat and big-play weapon. Instead, his underwhelming tenure with the Jets lasted just two seasons.
Hill was released by the Jets on Saturday after they attempted to trade him, according to Newsday’s Bob Glauber.
Physically, Hill possesses the tools to be a dangerous mismatch on the outside. At 6’4” and 215 pounds with a 4.36-second 40-yard dash time, Hill is both bigger and faster than most NFL defensive backs.
However, his potential has never translated to consistent production. Even in his best year at Georgia Tech, he had only 28 receptions for 820 yards and five touchdowns. In two seasons with the Jets, he accumulated just 45 catches for 594 yards and four touchdowns.
Hill had more drops than he had big plays during his Jets career. He never showed much ability to run routes other than the go route. A decoy at first because of his measurables, it’s been figured out by now that Hill is not the receiving weapon he should be.
Had he improved this preseason, Hill might have started for New York. The Jets don’t have much talent at receiver outside of Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley. Instead, the Jets determined he no longer added value to their roster.
Hill should get another shot because of his physical upside, but it seems unlikely at this point that he will be a significant contributor in any NFL offense.
Vincent Brown, WR, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers went with a talented local product when they selected Vincent Brown out of San Diego State in the third round of the 2011 draft, but they’re moving on from him after an underwhelming and injury-plagued three-year run.
Brown was informed he was going to be waived Saturday, according to ESPN’s Adam Caplan.
Brown was expected to be a key player in the Chargers offense last season—and he started 12 games—but while 2013 third-round pick Keenan Allen became a star, Brown’s play was underwhelming as he had just 472 yards and one touchdown on 41 receptions.
A slot receiver who relies on his shiftiness and route-running ability, Brown didn’t look quite as shifty last year as he came back from an ankle injury that cost him the entire 2012 season.
Brown couldn’t afford to lose any quickness. A 5’11”, 190-pound pass-catcher who ran a slow 4.71-second 40-yard dash at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine, Brown was already smaller and slower than most NFL wideouts.
Even still, he was expected to see a role for the Chargers this season, competing for playing time with Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal. Just last week, ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams wrote that he expected Brown’s roster spot to be safe, though he acknowledged that Brown’s value to the team might have been compromised by a calf strain he has been battling.
A consistent catcher of the ball, Brown should get another shot to prove whether he is healthy and skilled enough to help an NFL passing offense.
Kris Durham, WR, Detroit Lions
Kris Durham was one of the Detroit Lions’ most reliable pass-catching options last season, starting 13 games as an outside wide receiver. Improvements to the Lions’ receiving corps, however, have apparently made Durham expendable this year, as he was released Saturday.
At 6’6” and 216 pounds, Durham is a long-limbed receiver who has made some tough grabs in his college and NFL careers and can be a jump-ball target. He lasted just one year as a fourth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks but was a significant player for the Lions in 2013. He caught 38 passes for 490 yards and two touchdowns.
Overall, however, Durham is a perfectly mediocre player. He usually catches the passes that come his way, but he has limited explosiveness and doesn’t make defenders miss in the open field.
With the addition of Golden Tate in free agency and the return of Ryan Broyles from injury, Durham was no longer in line to play a big role this year. He should get another shot to play this season, but he’s really not a starting-caliber wideout; at best, he should be a fourth or fifth option.
Duke Ihenacho, SS, Denver Broncos
A hard-hitting playmaker with some ball skills, Duke Ihenacho was a breakout player for the Denver Broncos during the team’s Super Bowl run last season. An undrafted gem picked up by the Broncos out of San Jose State in 2012, Ihenacho started 14 regular-season games last season and recorded 73 tackles, six pass deflections and three forced fumbles.
Ihenacho’s role was set to be decreased this year because of Denver’s offseason addition of strong safety T.J. Ward, but it’s still a surprise that he’s being removed entirely from the roster. He was waived Saturday, according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Both Ward and Ihenacho are best utilized in the box, which might have led to the Broncos’ decision to keep other backup safeties, such as Quinton Carter, ahead of Ihenacho on their 53-man roster. While Ihenacho is active in run support and a sound tackler, he can be a liability in coverage.
Nonetheless, Ihenacho should be a priority claim for another team. At the least, he could be a solid addition for an NFL team as a backup safety who can play situationally in run support and be a core special teams player.
Leon McFadden, CB, Cleveland Browns
It’s rare for an early third-round draft pick to be waived by an NFL team after just one season, but that’s exactly what happened to Leon McFadden on Saturday, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
Selected No. 68 overall out of San Diego State in last year’s draft, McFadden is an athletic cornerback who displayed great coverage instincts and good ball skills during his collegiate career.
As a rookie for the Cleveland Browns last season, however, McFadden didn’t perform well. He didn’t play much until the final four weeks of the season, but during the year’s final quadrant, he was regularly exposed in coverage and recorded just one pass defensed.
A bad four-game stretch wouldn’t typically be reason to give up so quickly on a third-round pick, but his early release is in part because the Browns changed regimes this offseason. The people who made personnel decisions when McFadden was selected—coach Rob Chudzinski, general manager Michael Lombardi and president Joe Banner—are all no longer with the team.
New Browns coach Mike Pettine favors bigger cornerbacks than the 5’10”, 190-pound McFadden, which he found by selecting Justin Gilbert and Pierre Desir in this year’s draft. Those picks made McFadden expendable, and the Browns decided to cut their losses with him rather than trying to salvage him because of his draft position.
Considering his youth, McFadden should get claimed by another team and have a shot to prove himself as a slot cornerback.
Champ Bailey, CB, New Orleans Saints
It’s quite possible that Champ Bailey, who is considered to be one of the greatest cornerbacks of his generation, has reached the end of his NFL career.
The 12-time Pro Bowler was released by the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, according to NFL Media’s Albert Breer.
Bailey put together excellent runs in five seasons with the Washington Redskins and 10 years with the Denver Broncos. One of the league’s best cover cornerbacks in his prime, Bailey has also accumulated 52 career interceptions.
Some expected Bailey to be a starting cornerback for the Saints this season after the team signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract in the offseason, but the truth is Bailey is well past his prime. At 36 years old, he can no longer run with the speed and fluidity that he once did, which compromises his ability to take advantage of his ball skills.
Bailey only played in five regular-season games for the Broncos last season, and he struggled when he was on the field. He's a potential future Hall of Famer, but it's evident that he's no longer fit to be a significant player in an NFL secondary.
Kelvin Hayden, CB, Chicago Bears
Kelvin Hayden’s roster spot was pushed into jeopardy when the Chicago Bears selected Kyle Fuller with the No. 14 overall selection in this year’s draft, but he was still expected to be the team’s fourth cornerback. Instead, he was released on Saturday.
Hayden is a solid slot cornerback who had a good year playing in nickel and dime packages for the Bears in 2012, but he missed all of last season with a torn hamstring. The move to draft Fuller was as much about the future as it was the present, but it also might have been spurred by concerns about Hayden’s ability to bounce back strong from injury at 31 years old.
The veteran cornerback was healthy this summer and returned to the field to play three games for the Bears this preseason, but he was beaten out for a roster spot by Sherrick McManis and Demontre Hurst, who both performed well this August.
A nine-year NFL veteran, Hayden performed well enough this summer that he should get another opportunity to be a third or fourth cornerback with another team in need of depth and/or slot talent at the position.
Robert Lester, SS, Carolina Panthers
Within a Carolina Panthers secondary starved for talent last season, Robert Lester stepped in to become a key player in the rotation—even starting four games—despite being an undrafted rookie.
The Alabama product played relatively well when called upon. He showed some playmaking ability with three interceptions, was not a liability in coverage and was solid in run support.
In spite of the unexpected boost he provided the Panthers secondary, he was not deemed worthy of keeping around for a second year. He was released on Saturday.
The Panthers signed Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper this offseason to be their starting safeties, which left Lester in a battle with Colin Jones to make the roster along with fourth-round draft pick Tre Boston. Carolina decided to go with Jones over Lester. Jones has made no significant defensive contributions in three NFL seasons, but he offers more special teams value than Lester, which likely led to the somewhat surprising decision.
Lester is not a great athlete by NFL defensive back standards, but he has good size (6’1”, 225 pounds) and enough ball-hawking ability to make other teams take notice of his being cut. He shouldn’t be viewed as a long-term starter, but he should get claimed for an opportunity to be a backup strong safety and special teams contributor.
Danny Aiken, LS, New England Patriots
Long snappers never get any attention for their play unless they make a costly mistake, but it’s an important role on special teams that customarily leads each team to keep a specialist at the position. The New England Patriots, however, have formed their initial 53-man roster for the upcoming season without one after releasing Danny Aiken on Saturday.
Aiken has been the Patriots’ long snapper for the past three years.
It was evident the Patriots were considering moving on from Aiken when they signed Tyler Ott as an undrafted rookie out of Harvard this May, but it seemed Aiken had won the job when Ott was released earlier this month.
The Patriots will likely bring in another player to take over long-snapping duties, but that player will have to quickly develop a rapport with Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter/holder Ryan Allen.
It’s also possible that the Patriots could go with the unusual strategy of not keeping a long-snapping specialist and instead entrust the responsibility to Rob Ninkovich. One of New England’s starting edge defenders and star defensive players, Ninkovich received some work as a long snapper this preseason.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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