Players on fringe brace for final cuts

Ravens have 19 on bubble with six roster spots left

cutdown date is Sunday

August 28, 2002|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Reggie Waddell represents the voice of experience.

Nate Bolling represents the voice of all rookies.

The Ravens close the preseason on the road tomorrow against the New York Giants, and 19 players have one last shot to extend their NFL careers. With only six spots remaining on the 53-man roster, less than one-third of these players on the bubble will survive.

Waddell, a cornerback, is keeping composed after going through the emotional wringer last year. But for Bolling and his 14 fellow rookie teammates hanging on by a thread, life leading up to Sunday's final cutdown won't be as easy.

"I'm sure I can speak for them when I say we're all nervous as hell," Bolling said. "They want to get out there and get this thing over with and see if [they're] going to be in Baltimore."

An undrafted defensive end out of Wake Forest, Bolling is battling teammates Salem Simon and Omari Jordan for one of the last openings on the line.

Bolling made a splash with the Ravens, recording two sacks in the preseason opener and earning Player of the Game honors. After three preseason games, he ranks eighth on the team with nine tackles.

His solid preseason hasn't eased his anxiety. Every morning, Bolling wakes up wondering if he'll get a knock on his hotel door from a Ravens representative informing him of his release.

"It's nerve-racking," Bolling said. "Come Friday morning, I'll either be on the phone with a coach or in his office, asking where I am at. Either way, it'll be a relief."

But Waddell is taking a more relaxed attitude because he knows landing on the 53-man roster on Sunday holds no guarantees.

It was only last year when HBO's Hard Knocks series showed an elated Waddell making a celebratory phone call home to tell everyone that he earned a spot on the 53-man roster. The thrill was short-lived, though, as the Ravens signed Carnell Lake after the season opener and promptly cut Waddell.

After a stressful week of being out of football, Waddell was asked to join the Ravens' practice squad.

That scenario could come into play for a lot of Ravens this year. The team is expected to pursue several players released by other teams Sunday and still may sign a veteran free agent like fullback Sam Gash.

"Now, I'm all calm about a lot of things," Waddell said. "The transition is always going. You never know. You can be up, you can be down and then you can be back up again. You have to keep going with it and not get down."

Waddell is locked in a defensive back logjam.

The Ravens have nine players already assured spots in their secondary, leaving Waddell, Shawn Byrdsong and Jason Olford on the fringe. Since the Ravens carried only nine defensive backs all last season, there might be no spot to win.

"It's not a job that's given to you," Waddell said. "You got to go out there and fight for what you want. You always strive for the best and to always dominate. If you do that, you should be in the game for a while."

Some spots have become threatened by recent additions.

The signing of cornerback Robert Tate drastically closed the window of opportunity for those three defensive backs. And the arrival of outside linebacker Cornell Brown caught the attention of rookie linebacker J.R. Johnson.

"I feel like if I'm going to make this team, it's all in my hands," said Johnson, who leads the Ravens with four special teams tackles this preseason. "If I go out there and am a dominant player on special teams, it's hard to cut a player like that."

With so many newcomers fighting for jobs, Ravens coach Brian Billick addressed how players should approach the final cuts.

"You try to school them as to here's what is coming down the pipe," Billick said. "You want to reduce the anxiety."

That message isn't intended to downplay the significance of tomorrow's game for the players on the bubble.

"There are a couple of instances that come to mind that how they play Thursday night truly could make a difference," Billick said.

The players, though, are prepared to make their last impression a lasting one.

Said Johnson: "It's definitely make or break time."

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