But now that the preseason is over and the final roster cuts loom, those young players are playing a different game. It’s a game with no physical demands, but one that is tougher - much tougher - on a mental and emotional level.
It’s the waiting game.
The Dolphins took the field against New Orleans with 75 players on their active roster, and that number will be brought down to 53 before Saturday at 6 p.m., Eastern time. The minimum roster moves could be made at any time before the NFL-mandated deadline, which only adds to the anxiety.
The Dolphins will not practice again before they reach the roster limit, which means that the young players without a secure spot have no more chances to impress the coaching staff.
All they can do now is wait.
“Oh, it’s going to be rough,” rookie defensive end
Okpalaugo joined the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in May, but he was a playmaker along the defensive line throughout the preseason, finishing with three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
But the Dolphins are loaded along the defensive line, which means that Okpalaugo could find himself waived despite having shown in the preseason he has the ability to play in the NFL.
“I feel pretty good,” Okpalaugo said when asked to assess his chances of making the team. “I feel like I played solid. The only thing with me in the beginning of the preseason was mental errors. I feel like I cut those down and started making plays. Hopefully they give me a shot.”
Okpalaugo’s plight is one shared throughout the Dolphins roster.
Take defensive tackle
Another undrafted rookie free agent, Francis made his presence felt in the middle of the defensive line throughout the preseason, capping his summer by breaking through the line of scrimmage to meet former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the New Orleans backfield almost immediately after he got a handoff. Francis wasn’t able to bring down Ingram on the play, but he forced him to go wide and cornerback
“I think I’ve shown a lot in practice and I’ve shown a good amount in games,” Francis said. “I’ve had my low points, I’ve had my high points in games. But I think I’ve done a good job and hopefully the Dolphins like me enough to let me stick around. I like Florida. No taxes. It’s awesome down here.”
There were plenty of other examples of young players making a final statement in the preseason finale.
There was wide receiver
There was safety
There was cornerback De’Andre Presley, who sealed the victory with an interception inside the Dolphins 10-yard line in the final minute.
And then there was quarterback
Devlin, who spent most of the 2011 season on the Dolphins practice squad and then was inactive for all 16 games last season, said he was planning on treating today and tomorrow like business as usual.
“It’s out of my hands,” Devlin said. “My family came down, so I’m going to spend a little time with them. (I’ll) take care of my body, I guess, and relax for the next couple of days.”
Devlin also said he wouldn’t refuse to answer the phone before Saturday at 6 p.m., even though the reality is that phone call could be coming from a Dolphins official telling him to bring in his playbook.
“No, no,” Devlin said. “You just face the music”
McNutt went through this process last year when he was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
He had joined the team as a sixth-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft but had caught only one pass for 13 yards in the preseason before he was waived on Aug. 31. McNutt is hoping this training camp will have a different ending, and his four catches for 99 yards against New Orleans certainly did nothing to hurt his cause.
Whatever happens to him, McNutt fully understands that the Dolphins roster will look much different by Saturday evening.
“It kind of sucks, because you get to become really good friends with a lot of guys, develop some friendships that really kind of last you throughout your whole life,” McNutt said. “It’s a part of the process that you just have to go through. What you have to know is that if you are one of those guys, like I was last year, something my family has always said, the sun will rise tomorrow and if you get another opportunity, make sure it counts.”