"The fourth preseason game doesn’t mean anything."
We hear it every year around this time, and yet it couldn’t be more wrong. Tell the more than 450 players who’ll play Thursday night and be released on Saturday that the game doesn’t matter. Tell the 32 front offices that’ll be making gut-wrenching decisions, filling out their depth charts on a Dry Erase board, laboring over every decision on a backup lineman.
All 32 teams have to get their rosters from 75 to 53 players by 4 p.m. ET Saturday. On Thursday, countless players — both household names and the unsung — will be vying for the final roster spots.
From conversations around the league this week, these are 10 players I believe are on their teams’ "bubbles" and need strong Thursday performances to lock up their spots for 2014:
1. Michael Sam, DE, St. Louis Rams
The seventh-round pick out of Missouri has certainly played well enough this preseason to warrant a roster spot, but St. Louis has a logjam on the defensive line. The Rams’ current depth chart at defensive end includes veteran pass rushers Chris Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes and Eugene Sims.
Taking on a fifth edge rusher is possible, but Sam is in a tight competition with another rookie in camp — undrafted free agent Ethan Westbrooks out of West Texas A&M. Though he hasn’t garnered the same national attention as Sam this summer, Westbrooks has been a standout in camp, and, as Division II’s Defensive Player of the Year, is no slouch. He could edge out the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year for a roster spot with a breakout performance Thursday night against the Dolphins. Westbrooks also plays defensive tackle, in addition to his work at defensive end.
Sam has played well, recording three sacks in three games, and has been better than expected on special teams. But coach Jeff Fisher said Tuesday that it’ll be Sam’s work with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end — not his work on special teams — that’ll be the deciding factor.
"It’s rare that you get a defensive end that’s going to go out and contribute on all four of your core special teams," Fisher said. "So special teams is not part of the equation for Mike."
2. Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
3. Josh Boyce, WR, New England Patriots
If there’s one team in the league not worried about getting rid of a recent draft pick, it’s Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots. Boyce was a highly touted fourth-round selection out of TCU just a year ago, but he caught only nine balls as a rookie and has done nothing this summer to make him an indispensable part of the club. Both he and fellow second-year pro Kenbrell Thompkins could use big performances on Thursday night against the Giants. Thompkins, who caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints a season ago, got injured toward the end of 2013 and didn’t dress for the AFC Championship Game in Denver. | UPDATE: Boyce caught a pair of passes against the Giants, including one for a long of 18 yards. Thompkins pulled down five catches for 46. Will either or both players survive the final cut?
4. Landry Jones, QB, Pittsburgh
As recently as a few years ago, the Steelers were known for having one of the deepest, most competent quarterback rooms in the NFL. Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon were all known for being able to step into the huddle in big spots — sometimes, divisional games or Sunday night affairs — and fill in admirably for Ben Roethlisberger. That’s no longer the case. Though veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski has been around the league, he hasn’t played particularly well this summer. Jones, a highly touted college quarterback and fourth-round selection out of Oklahoma a season ago, hasn’t been any better. He didn’t do anything to help his cause in preseason action this season but should get plenty of playing time Thursday against the Panthers. | UPDATE: Jones played a majority of the game, completing 14 of 18 passes for just 97 yards through the air. He failed to lead a scoring drive as the Steelers were blanked 10-0.The second-year quarterback will undoubtedly be sitting on pins and needles until cut day passes.
5. Daniel Thomas, RB, Miami Dolphins
Thomas has had a solid career with Miami, but he has some stiff competition this summer in the Miami backfield. Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller are locks for the Dolphins’ tailback spots, but there’s no guarantee GM Dennis Hickey will take on four at the position, and rookie running back Damien Williams has had a better summer than Thomas. It’s usually a bad sign when you’re an undrafted running back given a single digit number (5), but the former Oklahoma burner has made the most of his opportunities this preseason. Not to be confused with Dolphins wide receiver Damian Williams, this Damien Williams has scored two touchdowns and had a 35-yard kickoff return that turned some heads. Thomas has carried the ball 365 times in three years with the Dolphins, but his place as the team’s third running back could be in question. Williams seems to do more and is younger. | UPDATE: Will Thomas make the 53-man roster? Well, he carried the ball 13 times for 38 yards on Thursday night against the Rams. He scored a touchdown, but that came in the fourth quarter against players who are almost guaranteed to be unemployed by next week.
6. Kellen Davis, TE, New York Giants
The former Chicago Bear played well against the Colts in New York’s second preseason game but is in a heated battle at his position with three other veteran players. There’s a chance coach Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese opt to include potential breakout star Adrien Robinson, Daniel Fells, Larry Donnell and Davis – but that’d be four players at the tight end spot. That’s not unheard of, but it’s an awful lot. Robinson is the up-and-comer with a world of talent, Donnell is a third-year player the team likes and Fells has had a fine enough summer to warrant a roster spot. Davis could very well be the odd man out. A big performance Thursday night against the Patriots would certainly help his cause. | UPDATE: Well, Davis got the start on Thursday night, but he didn’t do much else past that. He did catch a pass, but it went for no gain. Meanwhile, Donnell had a team-high four catches for 60, with a long gain of 19. The decision is out of Davis’ hands now.
7. T.J. Yates, QB, Atlanta Falcons
8. Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints
9. Brandian Ross, S, Oakland Raiders
Ross played very well for the Raiders in 2013, starting 13 games and recording 75 tackles, but I’m not sure he’s a lock to make the team. Even with as many question marks as the Raiders have on their roster, the safety spot is actually fairly stacked with talent both young and old. Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch are the starters, Usama Young is the likely third safety, and Jonathan Dowling — a 6-foot-3 skyscraper out of Western Kentucky — could be someone with great potential whom Oakland fears losing on the waiver wire. Ross was solid in 2013; he could be gone in 2014. UPDATE: Ross made the most of his opportunity, finishing second on the team in tackles (5) including a sack.