For those on the Browns’ roster bubble, the preseason finale tonight against the Chicago Bears affords them one last chance to make their dreams come true.
All NFL teams must trim their rosters to a maximum of 53 players by 6 p.m. Saturday. The Browns have 75 players heading into their final audition, which is set to begin at 8 p.m. at Soldier Field.
Several backups will take center stage and vie for their professional lives.
“Every year it is a fight,” Browns backup inside linebacker Tank Carder said. “You never have a spot solidified. Guys get traded. Guys get cut all the time. Camp is a grind and even through the season, even once you make the team, it’s a grind. You’re trying to fight for a spot and keep a spot. In the final game, decisions can be swayed.
“This fourth preseason game is a chance to show what you can do. Even if you aren’t going to make the team, this is a chance to put on film what you can do for other teams, and it’s a resume for 31 other teams. Every game is, and this is just as important as the first and second and third preseason games.”
Last year, the Buffalo Bills drafted Carder in the fifth round and waived him during final cuts. The Browns claimed him off waivers, and he played in 15 games, starting once.
Now Carder and James-Michael Johnson share a spot on the depth chart behind starting inside linebacker Craig Robertson. It’s unlikely that Carder and Johnson, a 2012 fourth-round pick of former Browns General Manager Tom Heckert, will both stick around.
Carder doesn’t know exactly how he feels about his chances.
“It’s up for grabs,” Carder said. “We’ll just have to see what happens. It’s up to the coaches. It’s out of my hands. All I can do is do what I can control and play the game and take the defense and run it the best I can and hopefully it’s enough.”
Browns coach Rob Chudzinski conceded that some roster spots would be decided after the exhibition finale.
“It is not as easy as saying, ‘It’s between this guy and this guy,’ a lot of times,” Chudzinski said. “For one thing, there are other positions, so you are balancing a player at one position to a player at another position. Sometimes they’re not even on the same side of the ball. Then there are always things that happen. If you look two weeks ago at what you thought the roster was going to be, things change really quickly in games. Injuries and those things play a part in that. There are guys who are getting released from other teams, too, that potentially play into the mix.”
Backup defensive end Brian Sanford is well aware that he might be auditioning for several teams during the finale. Last week, the Browns traded Sanford to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for guard John Moffitt, but they voided the deal because they had concerns about the health of Moffitt, who underwent knee surgery two years ago and elbow surgery last year.
Sanford and John Hughes, a third-round pick in last year’s draft, share a spot on the depth chart behind starting left end Ahtyba Rubin.
“This game is really big,” said Sanford, who has spent the past three seasons with the Browns, vacillating between their practice squad and active roster. “It’s the last interview of the season. Everyone is watching just like every other game, so there’s a lot at stake. I try to handle it like every other game.”
Wide receiver Josh Cooper has a similar mindset.
“I’m just trying to go out and worry about every day and keep giving it all I got,” Cooper said. “It’s a job interview every day when I go out there, and that’s kind of how I approach it.”
Cooper did not make the team last year as an undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State University, where he established himself as one of starting quarterback Brandon Weeden’s favorite targets. But Cooper earned a spot on the practice squad and eventually appeared in six regular-season games.
“Coming in as a rookie, it’s tough,” said Cooper, whose chances of making the team seemingly increased Monday when the Browns cut fellow slot receiver Jordan Norwood. “You got to go through all the stuff and mentally you’re drained. So you know what to expect. This year was a lot better.”
Three undrafted rookies — starting free safety Tashaun Gipson, backup free safety Johnson Bademosi and backup inside linebacker L.J. Fort — survived cut day last year.
Cornerback Abdul Kanneh, an undrafted rookie from New Mexico Highlands University, is among those hoping to do the same this year.
“This has been my dream since I was like 7 years old,” Kanneh said. “I’m just trying to get there. I feel it’s very important that I play good and help better my chances of making the 53-man roster.”
Special teams are vital for bubble players. Those who prove to be productive on kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return teams usually have a leg up.
Carder is proud to be a first stringer on all four units.
“It’s huge for guys that aren’t starters, especially linebackers,” Carder said. “Linebackers are kind of the hybrid guys that play a lot of special teams. It’s huge for my position and for me. Special teams will be a make or break type thing to make a 53.”
For example, Bademosi made the team last season because he was a special-teams dynamo on coverage units.
“A lot of it does tie to special teams, their value on special teams, as well as playing on offense and defense,” Chudzinski said. “That all goes into it.
“A lot of people don’t think of the fourth preseason game as important. But it is from an evaluation standpoint of that group of guys on the roster.”
Now they have one chance to state their case before it’s too late.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at https://ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.