As Craig Robertson walked out of the locker room after practice to grant interview requests, he told a member of the Browns media relations department that reporters probably had no idea who he was because he wasn’t wearing his jersey.
His comment undoubtedly had some truth to it.
Robertson and several other Browns players hoping to make names for themselves are fighting for roster spots with cut day on the horizon. All 32 NFL teams must trim their 75-man rosters to 53 players by 9 p.m. Friday.
Those on the bubble still have a chance to show coach Pat Shurmur and the organization’s brass what they’ve got before the roster is set. Their last audition begins at 7:30 tonight, when the Chicago Bears visit Cleveland Browns Stadium for the preseason finale.
“I think there are a handful of decisions that we’re going to make come the final cuts that will be determined by how guys play in this game,” Shurmur said. “I think that’s fair.”
Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden won’t enter the game at all tonight, and most of the Browns’ other starters “will play very little if at all,” Shurmur said. Meanwhile, the backups will take center stage with their dreams at stake.
“Yeah, but you can’t view it as a final audition, just another evening to go out and have fun,” said Robertson, a former standout at the University of North Texas who spent the final two weeks of the 2011 season on the Browns’ practice squad. “That’s how I have to view it. If I view it that way, I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself.
“You’ve always got to have that mindset that you can do it. If you’re defeated before you even start, you might as well always give up. I’ve never been that kind of person.”
Robertson is listed as the backup weakside linebacker behind Kaluka Maiava. Starter Chris Gocong suffered a season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon Aug. 4, and the door opened for Robertson.
He and backup middle linebacker L.J. Fort are listed with the first-team return and coverage units, a sign they might be on the verge of making the team. Performances on special teams make or break players’ chances of securing one of the last available jobs.
“It’s very vital and that’s why it’s an important game for a lot of guys because some of these guys that would make the team purely by playing special teams are not going to play a lot of scrimmage downs in this game, so we’re going to get to see a lot,” Shurmur said. “We’re going to get to see and learn a lot about our team watching the guys in there playing.”
Like Robertson, Fort is trying to focus on the task at hand instead of allowing nerves to get the best of him.
“I’m just blessed to be in this position to get an opportunity to come out here and show what I have,” said Fort, an undrafted rookie from Northern Iowa. “There’s not really any negative emotions surrounding these [preseason] games. I’m more excited for the opportunity to be able to seize it.”
Strong safety David Sims is another defender who has stood out this preseason. He has compiled two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, and he actually had another interception return for a touchdown wiped out by a roughing-the-pass penalty last week.
Still, Sims isn’t taking anything for granted. After joining the New York Giants last year as undrafted free agent from Iowa State, Sims didn’t escape cuts. He spent the final five weeks of last season on the Browns’ practice squad and is hoping to stick around.
“Everybody sees the big plays, but they don’t look at the little things,” Sims said. “So I’ve got to sharpen up.”
Wide receivers Jordan Norwood and Josh Cooper, an undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State, are at the center of one of the most intriguing position battles on offense. Norwood, who had 23 catches for 268 yards and a touchdown last season with the Browns, appears to have an edge in the competition, but Cooper impressed during training camp.
“Competition for anybody that’s a competitor brings out the best in you no matter who is out here,” Norwood said. “No matter what, I try to do the same thing regardless.”
They’re both slot receivers, and there’s probably only enough room for one of them on the 53-man roster.
“I’m not really trying to think about it too much,” Cooper said. “I’m trying to get focused on the game and getting prepared for that and see where it goes.”
It’s important to remember that some players who are cut will still be signed to the Browns’ practice squad. Cooper and rookie fullback Brad Smelley, a seventh-round pick from Alabama who’s behind Owen Marecic on the depth chart, are among the logical candidates.
Of course, they would rather just make the team.
“It’s a little bit of an uneasy feeling, but I think that can be said for a lot of guys,” Smelley said. “Bottom line is they’re cutting to 53. You’ve just got to play well, do what you do, and I’m not trying to overanalyze anything.
“I go out, try to compete and win every individual battle I come up against in a game. That’s the way I approach it. I don’t care if I’m playing cards against my grandmother, that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
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 at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.