INDIANAPOLIS –Tonight's preseason game between the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals is a very big opportunity for many of the players on the field.
The teams each will be fielding 75 players who are vying for 53 eventual roster spots. Many of the players have been conditioning, studying and practicing since this spring at these respective sites, and they have endured the rigors of training camp and three previous preseason games to reach tonight's action.
The fourth preseason outing will be a final dress rehearsal before roster sizes are made.
There are approximately 1,700 players who will make NFL active rosters, while about 260 more will be able to get on league practice squads.
It is a tight job market. It favors those who can excel under the bright lights, regardless of how they made it to this point.
Last year 59 undrafted free agents made opening-day NFL rosters, while 208 of 254 drafted players did as well. A total of 57 undrafted free agents made opening-day rosters in 2010, while 37 did so in 2009 and 33 in 2008.
It is a league where change is constant, reviews are non-stop and the best proving grounds are preseason playing fields. Personnel officials and coaches throughout the league pay rapt attention, and video cameras do not blink.
Fans at tonight's game may not be familiar with names on rosters from top-to-bottom, but some of the Colts performing will have key roles with the team in the coming months.
The club's history is highlighted by those who have used preseason to earn spots on the team – Gary Brackett, Jeff Saturday, Melvin Bullitt and Mike Vanderjagt. Those are just some of the players who had great Colts careers after not being drafted, while a player such as Eugene Daniel, an eighth-round pick and the 205th choice overall in 1984, appeared in 196 career games, third-most in club history behind Peyton Manning (208) and John Unitas (206).
Ryan Grigson is in his first season as the key personnel voice for the Colts, and he and his staff feel every chance to evaluate players must be used, thus there is a tremendous importance to tonight's game.
"Yes, absolutely," said Grigson. "There are always close battles being waged close to cutdown, and we need every second, every rep of every practice and game to make those critical decisions."
Grigson is a gifted talent evaluator who works tirelessly to find players who will make an impact for the organization. Part of his daily efforts is to ensure he is constructing the most competitive squad possible.
"We always look at each position every day," said Grigson. "I always want to get better. … You have to really look at it from all different angles, but (we're) always looking to get better. Chuck and I, we discuss each position regularly. … We'll take it day-by-day and try to get better every day.
"I will always explore anything that makes us better. I'm going to continue keep doing that. My job is to build this team with the help of my staff and the input of the coaches. That's what I'm going to continue to do."
Grigson's actions speak volumes. The club had many as 55 new faces during training camp, and some came from some non-traditional outposts. While there were standards such as Clemson, Miami, Texas and LSU, there also were players from Mary Hardin-Baylor, UTEP, Shepherd, Mount Union and California (Pa). There were players who played in the CFL, the Arena League, the United Football League and even the eight-man Indoor Football League. Grigson looks under every rock.
Three of the club's four team captains in 2011 – Adam Vinatieri, Brackett and Bullitt – made the NFL as undrafted free agents. Vinatieri did so in New England and has crafted a career that ranks among the best of any kicker in any era. Vinatieri unseated incumbent kicker Matt Bahr in 1996, and he has seen preseason games benefit players during his 17-year career.
"The preseason games are extra valuable for the young guys and rookies," said Vinatieri. "That's their highlight film. It's their opportunity to show not only the current team they're on, but every other team out there. That's their stage and platform to show everybody how good they are. I think those last two games are valuable, and certainly the fourth game is where many veterans don't play as much. There are a lot of playing opportunities for the younger guys in the last week. It's important for them."
Tackle Jeff Linkenbach is in his third season with the Colts after making the club in 2010 through the same undrafted path. Linkenbach used four games to ensure his chances.
"Absolutely, it's one more opportunity for you to prove to yourself and others that you can play in this league, even at one or more positions," said Linkenbach. "Any time you can get plays on tape, it's your resume, whether it's here or somewhere else. You're always one or two plays away from being 'the guy.' You're close to having to contribute. As a season goes on, players get dinged up and that's when fans see the guys who contributed late in preseason.
"You build your depth over the course of the preseason, but you really develop your twos and threes (second and third units) in the fourth game. You may not know a certain player's name now, but you will later in the year."
Cornerback Jerraud Powers made the team as a rookie pick in 2009, then started 12 times. Powers knows what to tell guys as they approach the Cincinnati game on Thursday.
"I think it's something where you have to go out there and play your game," said Powers. "You don't want to go out there and try to do too much and end up doing worse than you actually could have done. Guys should go out there level-headed, just focus on doing their job, make a play here and there and playing within the defense. Everything will be alright.
"It's sort of like an audition for another team also. If you don't make this team and know you played well, did good, the coach has good things to say about you, maybe the next team will put you on their squad."
Eleventh-year outside linebacker Dwight Freeney was a first-round draft pick who did not have to fight every emotion that some other young players did. Freeney has seen many players come to the Colts since he has been here, and he knows what the final preseason game can mean for them.
"This is kind of their Super Bowl," he said. "They're trying to make this team, and it's a huge game for them. They have to do all the things right and, hopefully, do something that will really stand out."
Outside linebacker Robert Mathis is another Pro Bowl performer for the Colts. He was a fifth-round pick in 2003 from Alabama A&M. The club was resourceful in finding tape on Mathis prior to the draft because there was not much available. Indianapolis liked what it saw, and it helped Mathis get a career going. He, too, tells others the importance of playing hard because people are watching.
"You tell them this is their resume," said Mathis. "It may not work out here, but there are 31 other teams that are watching. You can't limit yourself to one team, and that goes for anybody."
Like Freeney, Powers and Mathis, linebacker Pat Angerer is a player who had great impact from the outset of his career. Angerer had 75 stops as a rookie in starting 11 of 16 games, and he needed every second of preseason to be prepared.
"My rookie year it took me to the fourth preseason game to really get a sense for what I was doing," said Angerer. "Those four games are really huge, especially for the younger guys. The older guys may not play as much in the fourth game, so that is a great chance for younger guys to stand out. I know they take it that way. Of course this year with a new scheme, the fourth game may mean more across the board."
Linebacker Mario Harvey signed with Indianapolis in January after being cut last year by Pittsburgh after he tried making the team as an undrafted player from Marshall. He has worked hard with the Colts all spring and summer and knows the significance of tonight.
"It's very important. Four games will determine a lot of guys who will be with the Colts," said Harvey. "I'm taking it a day at a time. I'm going to go out there and give it my all (tonight), then pray about it. It will be up to the people who make the decisions. Every day you come to work, it's very important. You're judged on everything. You have to be ready for anything and leave everything on the field. How you prepare yourself is important, and the game (itself) is important. You put in so many hours to prepare for a three-hour game – conditioning, studying, meetings. We put in so many hours to prepare for the game. It shows how much you love it. You sacrifice everything (for the chance)."