Life On The Bubble: Behind the Scenes Of Cut-down Day

Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Antonio Dixon.Moments after the 9 o’clock deadline had passed Friday night, Howie Roseman sat at the head of a long conference-room table on the first floor of the NovaCare complex, and reflected on the player he just cut.

The day had been dedicated to trimming the roster down to 53 players. Antonio Dixon was the last to go. Dixon is a remarkable story. He spent much of his childhood in and out of homeless shelters, went to about 10 different middle schools, battled dyslexia and a major stammer, and still fought his way through college and into the NFL. He was claimed by the Eagles in September of 2009 after being cut by the Redskins, and had been with the team ever since.

“I remember the first time I saw Antonio Dixon,” said Roseman. “He was a senior and I actually went to see him at a practice where he had a heat stroke, and they took him out in an ambulance at the University of Miami. I remember telling him that story when we got him here. He’s a tremendous individual, he’s a tremendous personality for our football team. I think he has a bright future ahead of him.

“It’s like the question, ‘Who’s your favorite child?’ It’s the same way when picking players. At some point we picked every man on this roster because they have some trait  we want them to bring to the Philadelphia Eagles. When you let them go, you’re letting go someone you have chosen.”

For bubble players, cut-down day is all about the phone call. If you go the whole day without one, you have made the 53-man roster. If the phone rings and the incoming call starts with a “215” area code, chances are you are being summoned to gather your things and drop off your playbook.

Just imagine how slowly time ticks by. Or how your stress level shoots through the roof when  your cell phone buzzes because a friend or family member is unaware of the circumstances.

“You go about your day. If they call you they call you, if they don’t they don’t,” said cornerback Brandon Hughes. “You get an unknown number, that’s probably them calling you. I can’t be sitting by the phone all day hoping the Philadelphia Eagles don’t call me.”

“It’s just trying to relax, hang out with the family. You’ve got the day off, so you try and go do something to keep your mind occupied and see if you get a phone call or not,” said reserve offensive lineman Dallas Reynolds late last week. “I’ve gotten a phone call every year so far.”

The NFL is the definition of a competitive marketplace. Your grip on a roster spot is never tight. Roseman said that before the team goes to training camp with their 90 assembled men, they put together a list of all the players on other teams that have been drafted in rounds 4-7 over the past two years, along with those who have graded out in that area. They then take a look at teams who have an excess of talent at certain positions to try and gauge who may become available. That adds up to some 500-600 players that they are evaluating during the preseason to potentially claim somebody’s roster spot.

“By the time it got to [Friday], we had a targeted list of about 150 guys that we thought might get cut and we had good grades on,” said Roseman.

“We sit in our draft room. We have a board, by position. We grade the guys. We’re able to pick guys off, make playtime tapes of them, watch them and discuss them.”

One of the players they scouted who shook out was former Texans offensive lineman Nathan Menkin. He was put on waivers and the Eagles snatched him up. To make room, they had to part with cornerback Trevard Lindley, who had just survived the cutdown to 53 the day before.

“You can’t think about it,” said Lindley right before the Jets game. “Just go out there every game and play your hardest. Hopefully some team likes you and if they don’t, just hope another team will pick you up.”

Roseman makes it a point to try and call every player that is released, though he conceded with the flurry of activity leading up to Friday at 9 p.m., he needed some assistance from other members of the personnel department.

“They’re human,” said Roseman. “They had a dream, an ambition to play on this football team, to play in the National Football League. We just want to be as honest as possible. We want to tell them their strengths and weaknesses, we want to tell them how we can help them.”

As of Sunday morning, Dixon has yet to be picked up by another team. Same for Lindley. Reynolds finally avoided that phone call and is currently listed as the Eagles backup center and guard. Hughes also made the team and is a reserve behind Nnamdi Asomugha at right corner.

An odd part of the lead-up to the cutdowns was that Jeffrey Lurie was throwing  a barbecue at his house that Friday afternoon from 12-4. Attendance was mandatory for Eagles players. The thing is, there was a host of guys that had no idea if they would still be Eagles players at that time.

“Hopefully they have all their decisions made by 12 o’clock,” said Hughes Thursday night. “ But if they don’t, hey, I guess you get some good food out of it. And then if they call you, you can thank them for the opportunity, and the hamburger.”

Follow Tim on Twitter and email him at tmcmanus@phillymag.com.

DB Review: Boykin Or Hanson?

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin.Here’s a review of how the Eagles defensive backs performed against the Browns after having re-watched Friday night’s game. Click here for the linebacker review, here for the defensive line and here for the review of the offense.

Nnamdi Asomugha – He was all over Josh Gordon, but the wide receiver made a 28-yard catch on a nice throw from Brandon Weeden on the first play from scrimmage. Asomugha also gave up a 6-yard completion to Mohamed Massaquoi in the red zone. Weeden went after him on a deep ball later in the quarter, but Asomugha had good coverage. Don’t expect quarterbacks to target him a lot this season, but one key to improvement will be Asomugha making plays on balls that are thrown his way.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – He jumped in front of Massaquoi, but couldn’t get a hand on the ball, giving up a 12-yard completion. Like the rest of the starters in the back seven, Rodgers-Cromartie came out after two series. He’s had a good summer and will try to carry momentum over to the regular season as he enters the final year of his contract.

Curtis Marsh – He played left cornerback with the second team. Nice one-on-one tackle, stopping Greg Little after a 3-yard gain. Gordon got free for a 10-yard reception between Marsh and Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second. He’s in place to be the first backup should Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie go down. And Marsh will see the field in the Eagles’ special nickel package where Asomugha moves inside.

Joselio Hanson – Played with the first-team in nickel and didn’t get targeted. Trying to hold off the rookie (below).

Brandon Boykin – He came in with the second team and played well. You can see Boykin’s athleticism throughout the course of a game. He broke up a pass intended for Little on third down in the first. And Boykin broke up a third-down pass intended for Massaquoi near the sideline. He had good coverage, but gave up a 19-yard completion to Jordan Norwood in the second. Weeden had a lot of time on the play.

Brandon Hughes – He stepped in for Asomugha, playing right cornerback with the second team. Hughes got beat by Gordon for a 12-yard slant on 3rd-and-10 with Cleveland backed up inside its own 5. Not sure there’s going to be room for Hughes on the final roster, but he’s got a shot.

Trevard Lindley – The 2010 fourth-round pick saw extended action. His hit forced an incompletion in the flat in the second. Lindley was challenged on a deep ball; it looked like he got beat initially, but rookie Travis Benjamin couldn’t make the catch. Joshua Cribbs beat Lindley on a 13-yard completion in the third.

Kevin Thomas – He came in and played right cornerback in the third. Thomas was cut yesterday. The Eagles acquired him during training camp in a trade with the Colts in exchange for linebackers Moise Fokou and Greg Lloyd.

Cliff Harris – He was cut this morning. Harris had an interception on Friday off a deflected pass. He impressed early in camp, but suffered an ankle injury. As Jimmy Kempski over at Blogging the Beast pointed out, Harris was No. 15 on Mel Kiper’s Big Board just 15 months ago. But apparently, the Eagles didn’t see enough potential in the undrafted free agent to hold on to him.

Nate Allen – Started, but played limited snaps. Has had a good camp and finished last season strong. The Eagles will need him to take the leap in his third season.

Kurt Coleman – Made a couple nice plays against the run. He and Mychal Kendricks combined to bring Montario Hardesty down after a 6-yard gain in the first. Coleman played up in the box and stopped Hardesty after a 1-yard gain. He has not been challenged by the other safeties on the roster and will start in Week 1 alongside Allen.

Jaiquawn Jarrett – With Tom Nelson cut yesterday, Jarrett looks like he’ll make the roster, although the Eagles could add safety help once other teams trim down to 53. Jarrett had good coverage on Little, helping to force an incompletion in the first. Later though, Cleveland’s Rod Windsor got behind him and in front of Thomas for a 24-yard completion. Jarrett and Boykin brought Brandon Jackson down after a 9-yard run.

Phillip Thomas – All summer, it’s looked like pretty much any safety on the roster would have a chance to survive cuts. Thomas is a longshot, but played well Friday, filling in with the second team alongside Jarrett. He broke up a pass intended for the tight end in the first and had another pass breakup in the end zone in the second. Good job of helping Hughes on the slant and go in the second; Thomas nearly had an interception on the play. Thomas made a good tackle on Norwood after a 4-yard completion in the second. And he came on a blitz, forcing Seneca Wallace out of the pocket in the fourth. On the 3-yard touchdown, Thomas tripped and fell in coverage against tight end Evan Moore.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

DB Review: Asomugha Showcases Tackling Skills

Philadelphia Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha.Here’s a player-by-player breakdown of how the Eagles defensive backs performed Monday night, after having re-watched the game. Check out the linebacker review here, the defensive line review here and look for write-ups of the rest of the positional groups on Wednesday.

Nnamdi Asomugha – The veteran cornerback deserves some credit here. Last Monday, he was involved in a mid-air collision with Nate Allen, suffering a lip laceration, sore neck and whiplash-type symptoms. He tried to practice on Thursday, but was having trouble with a spasm in his back and had to head inside early. He participated Friday, but could barely talk afterwards as his lip continued to recover. Asomugha probably just as easily could have been cautious and sat out this game, but he thought it was important to be on the field.

And he played well. Asomugha had his share of tackling issues last season, but he was excellent in that aspect Monday night. He lined up inside on one play and tackled Shane Vereen after a 2-yard gain. He made a textbook tackle on Vereen, stopping him after a 1-yard gain on a screen. And he made a nice read and tackle on a wide receiver screen to Jeremy Ebert, dropping him for a 3-yard loss in the second. I believe Asomugha was only targeted once, and it was an incompletion to Deion Branch.

The only downside was a costly holding penalty on a 3rd-and-7 play that negated a Trent Cole sack. But overall, Asomugha played well, and he stayed on the field well into the third quarter with the rest of the starters.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – It was mostly good for DRC before he left the game in the second quarter because of a shoulder injury. Rodgers-Cromartie made a great break on the ball and nearly came up with an interception while covering Donte’ Stallworth in the first. On an almost identical play later, he came up with the pick, but Fletcher Cox was whistled for roughing the passer. Rodgers-Cromartie also broke up a pass intended for Danny Woodhead in the red zone. The only negative I saw was when he got beat by Branch over the middle for a 20-yard gain on 3rd-and-5.

Joselio Hanson – It looks like the competition between him and Brandon Boykin is still on. Hanson started the game as the nickel corner, but rotated in and out with the rookie the rest of the game. He lost track of Julian Edelman on a quick screen that picked up 16 yards on 3rd-and-8. And he had trouble sticking with Edelman on an 8-yard crossing route in the first. Hanson had good coverage on Ebert, breaking up a pass (albeit with this back) over the middle in the first. He sat out the second and returned in the third.

Curtis Marsh – With Rodgers-Cromartie leaving early, Marsh saw some time at left cornerback. He also played in dime when Rodgers-Cromartie was still in the game. Marsh got targeted fairly often. He broke up a Brian Hoyer pass intended for Stallworth. Along with Nate Allen, he had good coverage on Stallworth on a deep pattern in the second. Marsh was targeted on third down in the third, but had great coverage on Stallworth and forced an incompletion. It looked like he had pretty good coverage on Stallworth down the right sideline on a deep ball that was incomplete in the third. The one time he got beat was on a 20-yard completion to Stallworth on 3rd-and-9 late in the first half. Marsh also did a good job on special teams, downing a Chas Henry punt at the 6 in the fourth.

Brandon Boykin – I believe this was the first time all summer Boykin got a chance to run with the starters. He’ll now have a couple weeks to wrestle the first-team nickel job away from Hanson. Boykin entered the game in the second and came back in late in the third. It didn’t look like he was targeted. It’ll be interesting to see if Boykin mixes in with the first team at practice Wednesday.

Brandon Hughes – He entered the game on defense mid-way through the third quarter, playing right cornerback. Hughes had good coverage on Branch, but Ryan Mallett still made a nice throw for a 14-yard completion in the third. Hughes broke up a deep ball to Stallworth down the left sideline in the third. And on Mat McBriar’s first punt, he was the first man down in coverage, but missed the tackle. Looks like Hughes is facing an uphill battle for a roster spot, unless someone ahead of him gets injured.

Trevard Lindley – He came in to play left cornerback late in the third.

Nate Allen – Encouraging signs all around for Allen (7 tackles, 2 solo). He did a good job against the run, stopping Vereen after a 2-yard gain in the first. Allen dropped Vereen after a 1-yard gain in the red zone in the second. And he flew in to help trip Stevan Ridley up after a 2-yard gain in the third. It’s always tough to judge safety play off of TV, but Allen had good coverage on one deep ball, breaking up a Hoyer attempt intended for Stallworth.

Kurt Coleman – Didn’t notice Coleman much, which sometimes can be a good thing for safeties. Branch found a hole in the Eagles’ zone, in front of Coleman and behind Mychal Kendricks, for a 17-yard gain on 3rd-and-13 in the second. But that very well could have been on the rookie not taking a deep enough drop.

Jaiquawn Jarrett – He didn’t really get a lot of chances to show his progress. Jarrett entered the game mid-way through the third quarter. It looked like he closed on time on a deep incompletion to Stallworth down the left sideline. Still very much on the roster bubble.

Tom Nelson – With Oshiomogho Atogwe sidelined because of a hamstring injury, he ran with the second team. Nelson made a good tackle on a screen to Vereen, limiting him to 4 yards on 3rd-and-10. He also suffered a high ankle sprain during the game.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

Eagles Training Camp Preview: Cornerbacks

Leading up to the first full-squad practice, our position-by-position preview continues with a look at the Eagles’ cornerbacks.

Save ‘em a spot: Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh.

Somewhere along the line, I started to hear the argument that the Eagles’ defense finally started playing well last year when they used Asomugha in man coverage on one side of the field. But that wasn’t really the case. Very late into last season, Asomugha was still being used in a variety of ways, including inside against tight ends.

Yesterday, when veterans arrived, T-Mac asked Asomugha if he still expected to be used in different ways this season, and he said he did. The idea is that Juan Castillo now knows what worked and what didn’t work with him in 2011. But don’t expect Asomugha to just line up on the right side and play man coverage the whole game.

One other nugget to share about Asomugha. While he did not have a good season, opposing quarterbacks still stayed away from him quite a bit. According to Pro Football Focus, Asomugha was targeted about 6.3 percent of the time when he was in coverage. As a point of reference, Asante Samuel was targeted about 12.6 percent of the time. The problem with Asomugha, of course, was that when he was targeted, he gave up too many big plays.

As for Rodgers-Cromartie, he clearly looked more comfortable once the Eagles moved him to the outside, and that’s where he’ll line up in 2012. My guess is you’re going to read a lot of glowing reviews about Rodgers-Cromartie at training camp. But remember, this is the kind of environment in which he gets to show off his top-end speed and athleticism. The problem last year was that he was careless once opposing wide receivers made catches against him, and his tackling was poor.

Considering he’s scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season, perhaps this is the year Rodgers-Cromartie will put it all together. But I’m in wait-and-see mode. Remember, the Cardinals were willing to include him in the Kevin Kolb deal even though Rodgers-Cromartie was only 25 and had already made a Pro Bowl.

Boykin, meanwhile, is a lock to make the roster, but will he start out the season as the nickel corner? According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles played nickel about 47 percent of the time last year. It’s up to Boykin to unseat Joselio Hanson and take over that role.

And finally, there’s Marsh. A third-round pick in 2011, he’ll have the inside track on one of the backup jobs, which is important because it means he could be called on should Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie suffer an injury. Marsh only played 13 snaps as a rookie, though, so he’s largely an unknown at this point.

Fighting for a job: Joselio Hanson, Brandon Hughes, Cliff Harris, Trevard Lindley, Wade Bonner.

Hughes saw some action last year, most notably in the Patriots game, but did not play particularly well. He has a good chance to make the roster, but will have to hold off the other names on this list.

As for Hanson, don’t forget that the Eagles cut him last year before eventually bringing him back. He was better than Rodgers-Cromartie in the slot, but did not play particularly well and turns 31 in August. The Eagles know what they have in Hanson. If he happens to make the team and win the nickel corner spot, it will be more of a reflection on what they’re not seeing out of Boykin.

Harris has been a play-maker through the first three days of camp. Assuming the Eagles keep five or six cornerbacks, competition is open, and he could push for a backup spot, especially if Harris is able to contribute on special teams.

Lindley, a fourth-round pick in 2010, and Bonner, an undrafted free agent, are longshots.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.