By Chris Emma—
(CBS) Nine years ago, Jerrell Freeman became the first product of Mary Hardin-Baylor University to earn an NFL contract. He signed with the Titans and began pursuing a dream.
But that chapter was short lived for Freeman, whose hopes were diminished at the time to just a name of roster fodder as cuts leading up to the regular season. As it would turn out, Freeman’s story was just beginning. He played three seasons in the Canadian Football League and would ultimately prove worthy of a shot in the NFL.
Freeman has become one of football’s top linebackers and now a key piece of the Bears defense, but not without bumps along the road. On Thursday night, Freeman didn’t suit up in the preseason finale. He didn’t need to, with nothing more to prove.
He watched undrafted rookies and even some established veterans fighting for their place with this one last chance.
“It’s tough,” Freeman said after the game. “You know? Especially me, I kind of gravitate towards the rookie free agents, try to stay in their ear, keep them pumped up to make it to this point and hopefully have them make the squad.
“Guys just out there (Thursday), you see them fighting for their lives. It’s the tough part. I know coaches don’t like it. Players don’t like it either, because friendships, you got a group of guys you’ve been rocking with. It’s tough, but it’s a part of business.”
For the first time, rosters have remained at a 90-man limit to this point, with the league eliminating the cut-down deadline to 75 in August. The expanded rosters allowed teams to be more cautious with key players during the fourth preseason game.
By Saturday at 3 p.m. CT, there will be 1,184 free agents added to the pool – young players who didn’t do enough to earn a roster spot, grizzled veterans whose hopes to stick to a roster coming up short. For many, Thursday’s preseason finale – one considered inconsequential – will mark the last time suiting up in pads. Dreams that dawned at an early age will come to an abrupt end.
“It’s always tough,” Bears coach John Fox said. “It’s never easy.”
Fox’s third season leading the team has brought greater organizational depth from two troubling years prior. General manager Ryan Pace ensured that the Bears would be loaded with position battles, and that roster competition revealed itself throughout training camp and into the preseason.
Now come the key questions. Is there a need for reserve quarterback Mark Sanchez as Mitchell Trubisky shows he’s ahead of schedule? In the backfield, has Tarik Cohen made Jeremy Langford expendable? Should receiver Victor Cruz remain on the roster after a shaky preseason? Who will be the odd man out at tight end?
There are some on defense, too. Does Jaye Howard look like the player from 2015 or 2016? How should outside linebacker be balanced amid injuries? Which Pace-picked player at safety should be cut?
Now come the difficult decisions coaches and executives dread making. Many will be easier than others, but once the roster is set at 53 players Saturday afternoon, those final selections shouldn’t exhale just yet.
The Bears will be busy scanning through that long list of 1,184 names and seeking potential fits for their roster. There could be vested veterans available as free agents like three-time Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton a year ago, but most of their work should come on the waiver wire.
After finishing 3-13 last season, the Bears are third in the waiver-claim order. Only the Browns and 49ers can keep the Bears from adding any player they desire from the waiver wires, meaning anyone who has played fewer than four seasons cut this weekend goes through that order of 32 before becoming a free agent.
The Bears head into the weekend with a major need at receiver. The team will be monitoring the waiver wires for everything, but Pace suggested receiver will especially be a priority.
“It’s a fun time of year,” Pace said Thursday on the WBBM 780 pregame show. “We really enjoy it. We’ll be here late at night.
“Our (evaluators) do a great job challenging (for) guys, coming into my office pounding the table for guys they like.”
Added Fox: “We have a tough 48 hours ahead of us. We have a lot of decisions to make. That’s kind of where we are right now as we head into Week 1 against Atlanta.”
So begins one of the busiest weekends in front offices around the league. The position battles have played themselves out and the winners will be determined.
For those 1,184 players without jobs, some will land in a better situation. A few will even follow a unique path like Freeman. But most will see their NFL dream die this weekend.
The NFL is a business, and it can be cruel.