Preseason finale still meaningful for Indy players
Play well Thursday night at Cincinnati, and they just might have one of those precious jobs. Play poorly, and their careers could be over by Friday. It's a pressure-filled, high-stakes situation in a game most NFL fans consider the least meaningful of the preseason.
''There are a lot of guys that would love to be in this situation,'' Rayford said this week. ''I'm grateful for every opportunity, every game, no matter what it is, I'm going to enjoy it. It's a blessing and I'm going to live it up.''
Given what they've already endured, Howell and Rayford should savor these moments.
Howell was bypassed in the 2012 draft but played well enough in the preseason to impress Buffalo's scouts. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound safety, the lesser-known college teammate of Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener, managed to spend 3 1/2 weeks on Buffalo's active roster last fall before a demotion to the practice squad in November. Eventually, he wound up on Indy's active roster for the final five regular-season games and the playoff loss at Baltimore, finishing his rookie season with just one tackle.
Rayford's path to the NFL has been more unusual.
At 6-foot-7, 267 pounds and armed with a gigantic wingspan, the 27-year-old rookie linebacker came to Indy after stops with the Arena Football League's Spokane Shock, the Canadian Football League's British Columbia Lions and the AFL's Utah Blaze. A late bloomer, who used to carry around a bag of peanut butter, jelly and a loaf of bread just to gain weight, Rayford has put on more than 30 pounds since leaving college and this giant now serves as one of the most imposing figures in Indy's locker room.
They've played well, too.
Howell was dubbed the ''marathon man'' by coach Chuck Pagano after participating on 99 percent of the defensive snaps in Indy's preseason opener. He also competed on 17 special-teams plays that game, a total of 106 snaps. After three games, Howell leads the Colts with 17 tackles.
Yet he understands that given the depth and competition this year in Indianapolis, he still has to do something to stick around.
''This is the one (game) we've been looking forward to, for the young guys, for guys that are trying to prove something, trying to claim a spot,'' he said. ''I know all of us, all the young guys and everything, the people that are fighting to earn a spot, they're all going to be taking advantage of it.''
Rayford puts himself in the same category even though he might have been the most impressive rookie in training camp.
As first-round draft pick Bjoern Werner fought through a knee injury and made the transition from college defensive end to NFL rush linebacker, Rayford has steadily progressed. He had one sack in the preseason opener, two more against the Giants and would have topped that Sunday against Cleveland - if a third sack hadn't been wiped out by penalty. With five sacks this preseason, he has accounted for half of Indy's team total.
Rayford knows nothing is guaranteed.
''I'm just going to go out and compete like nothing happened,'' Rayford said. ''What I did last game doesn't matter about this game. It's all about Cincinnati and I've got to go out there and compete, because those guys, they ain't worrying about what I did last game, it's what I do now.''
Clearly, Pagano has been paying attention.
''He's definitely making a case for himself and he's produced every week,'' Pagano said when asked about Rayford. ''The kid's here non-stop and he's constantly asking questions, asking the right questions. He practices his tail off. He's a football junkie. He's got a knack for edge rush, beating a guy, getting the tackle's shoulders turned and then he's got that move down pat.''
The bigger question, of course, is whether Howell and Rayford can perform as well against NFL starters rather than a bunch of pro football hopefuls?
That's what the coaching staff must evaluate this week as Howell and Rayford try to beat the odds.
''I'm trying to do everything I can to make myself necessary,'' Howell said. ''My mentality is that you want to play to a certain level to where the coaches do not want to get rid of you. You want to make yourself valuable, and that's what I plan on doing.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org