Decision Day Looms
The sci-fi comedy Zach Line watched on Monday night wasn’t as funny as he’d hoped. But sometimes any break will do. Maybe more so for his friend.
Line went to the AMC theater in Eden Prairie, Minn., with Bradley Randle, who until a few hours earlier had been Line’s Vikings teammate and a fellow rookie running back. Earlier that day, however, Randle had gotten the call: to report to team headquarters, to bring his playbook, to listen to the explanation of how the decision to let him go came down to a numbers game.
After weeks in which Line and Randle worked side by side in meetings, practices and games, the 7:15 p.m. showing of The World’s End was suddenly the end of their shared story. The next morning Line went to the Vikings facility for another day of practice. Randle took a flight out of town.
“It’s just crazy,” Line says, “to see the business side of it come into play now.”
This is the most ruthless week of the NFL calendar: By 6 p.m. Saturday, 1,184 players will be trimmed from 32 teams’ rosters. The first cuts, from 90 players to 75, were due by 4 p.m. Tuesday, and the next round will reduce rosters to 53 players.
This deadline looms over every training-camp practice and every preseason game, particularly for a player like Line, who entered the NFL as one of about 500 undrafted rookies (Randle, from UNLV, was another) competing with veterans and draft picks for a roster spot. The MMQB is following Line’s journey from the start of camp through the end of the 2013 season, as the former record-setting rusher from Southern Methodist University tries to make it in the NFL.
Back in late July, while training in the summer heat in his hometown of Oxford, Mich., Line envisioned standing out by making “splash plays.” Maybe even just a big tackle on a kickoff, he thought. Instead, on Aug. 9 he scored a 61-yard touchdown in his first NFL game, with two dozen of his loved ones in the stands at the Metrodome. Then last weekend, facing the 49ers at Candlestick on NBC’s nationally televised Sunday Night Football game, he caught a 1-yard touchdown from starting quarterback Christian Ponder.
Line, who is transitioning to fullback from the tailback role he played at SMU, has touched the ball just three times in three preseason games, but has scored two touchdowns—more than any of his teammates. On social media, Vikings fans celebrated his latest triumph by invoking the memorable line about Hall of Famer Cris Carter: “All he does is score touchdowns.” But like every player on the cusp of a roster this week, Line wonders: Is it enough?
His agent, Mike McCartney, is always looking for clues. He keeps track of how many game reps his player gets (Line has been on the field for 78 plays between offense and special teams) as well as a log of contacts from personnel execs on other teams who casually mention Line in the “reconnaissance” calls that are typical around the second and third preseason games. Personnel men reach out to agents, asking about players who have stood out on game film—whether they’re on the roster bubble and what would happen if they were released. Says McCartney, a former NFL pro personnel director himself, “I don’t know if a lot of teams feel like Zach is going to come out of Minnesota.”
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Many doors will close in the NFL this week, but some will also crack open in unexpected ways. On Monday afternoon—around the time Randle was being cut—the NFL announced that Vikings Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton has been suspended for the first three games of the regular season, resulting from a DUI arrest last summer.
Roster spots in Minnesota’s backfield after league MVP Adrian Peterson are tight. McCartney has recorded the number of backs the Vikings kept on their 53-man roster after cutdowns in each of the past five years: four in 2012 (two running backs, two fullbacks), three in ’11 (all RBs), four in ’10 (three RBs, one FB), four in ’09 (three RBs, one FB), five in ’08 (three RBs, two FBs). After Monday’s cuts, the Vikes have six backs remaining on the roster: Felton and Line at fullback, and at running back Peterson; fourth-year man Toby Gerhart; Matt Asiata, a 2011 UFA who made the roster last year; and 2012 undrafted free agent Joe Banyard, who spent last season on the Vikes’ practice squad. Felton won’t count on the roster for the first three weeks, which could help Line stay alive in the remorseless numbers game.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier mentioned Line, along with second-year tight end Rhett Ellison, as a “potential candidate” to fill Felton’s role in his absence. Somewhat encouraging? Says Line: “You’ve got to still protect Adrian. You’ve got to have a fullback, so you hope that it’s you.”
Line’s last chance to prove himself before 6 p.m. Saturday will be in the Vikings’ preseason finale against the Titans on Thursday night in Minneapolis. The physical demands of his new position left Line sore after each of the Vikings’ full-pads training-camp practices, and after each preseason game—even more so after Felton’s emergency appendectomy two weeks ago sidelined the veteran for the preseason, boosting Line’s workload. But Line expects tomorrow will be the most physical night yet. “You’ve got a bunch of guys battling for that last spot,” he says.
So, yes, this week is different. Line realized on Monday that he didn’t know where either of the footballs he carried into the end zone this preseason ended up. One got misplaced on the sideline, and he thinks the other might be in the hands of the team equipment managers, but he isn’t sure. Oh well—they’d be nice keepsakes, but his focus isn’t on the past. It’s on the future.
“Touchdowns are great, but …” he says, leaving the thought hanging for a moment. It won’t be hanging much longer.