The standout scenes from the Rams game Saturday were easy to overlook.
After all, Los Angeles’ starters were on the sidelines again during the team’s 10-6 preseason win over the Denver Broncos. Their surrogates offered the most compelling moments instead.
There was KhaDarel Hodge pumping his arm forward, pantomiming a first down after one his three catches; Darious Williams’ primal yell, preceded by his athletic pass breakup; USC alumnus Jalen Greene’s touchdown catch, which was punctuated with the Trojans’ two-finger “V” celebration and which compensated for his dropped pass and false start in the plays prior; defensive back Dont’e Deayon’s postgame stroll along the side of the stands, soaking up every second of an NFL stage on which he’s desperate to remain.
Each player is a cut candidate this preseason, mostly journeymen jockeying for the team’s final few roster spots. Next Saturday, when NFL franchises have to trim their rosters to 53 and select 10 more for practice squads, any of the four could make the club. Any of the four could be released too.
“You build relationships with a lot of these guys that unfortunately won’t make the team,” coach Sean McVay said. “It’s never fun.”
Yet, it’s an inevitable part of the preseason process. Deayon knows the drill well.
The 5-foot-9, 159-pound cornerback from Fontana snagged a spot on the New York Giants practice squad after going undrafted out of Boise State in 2016. He made the team and played four games each in 2017 and 2018, but was waived last October. This preseason, he’s vying for one of Los Angeles’ last cornerback spots, again facing unclear odds leading up to cut day.
“You’re constantly learning so much,” he said. “Now, it’s more, what can I work on today? What can I do today? Now, it’s more looking inward.”
What Deayon’s career has lacked in glamour it’s made up for in longevity, helping him grow the nonprofit lifestyle brand he and his college teammates started. The group is called Goodeatz, a name derived from football slang — ‘I’m out here eating on the field,’ Deayon explained, “ ‘Yeah, that’s a good eat.’ ” — that carries out a meaningful mission, organizing everything from football camps to lifestyle seminars for kids from his community.
“I always knew I wanted to do something outside of football that still incorporates a team — that chemistry, that bond, that grit — with other people I know that are like-minded,” he said.
Staying in the NFL would help expand the brand. To do so, he’s had to learn multiple secondary positions in a new defense. Fours years as a pro have taught him to adapt.
“Mentally, you can slow things down,” Deayon said. “You know what you can control now, you know your situation. You know the options. So you can mentally navigate that when you get older.”
Hodge, who appeared in 14 games and caught two passes for Los Angeles last season, also has an interest outside of football. The athletic 6-foot-2, 205-pound wideout is an aspiring model, a passion planted when his mom would make him pose for pictures as a kid.
“I always had a little personality in front of the camera,” he said, flashing a million-dollar smile above his manicured beard.
His heart, however, still belongs to football. His Instagram reads like a calendar. Artsy images of him on sandy beaches or dressed in sleek blazers were replaced by action shots on the gridiron once the preseason began.
“There’s no telling how things are going to go,” said Hodge, whose best chance to make the roster might be as a depth receiver filling a special teams role. “This year, I’ve been more prepared, knowing the playbook, knowing more positions. Whenever time presents itself, I’ll be ready.”
Williams’ path to the Rams has been more circuitous. As a sophomore walk-on at Alabama-Birmingham in 2014, the cornerback compiled 23 tackles, six pass breakups and an interception. Then, the school folded the football team.
“It was gone,” he said. “And you didn’t know when it was going to come back.”
Rather than take an offer to start over somewhere else, Williams decided to wait to see if UAB’s program would be saved. Instead, he went two years without playing a game, picking up a string of oddball jobs, including delivering flowers.
When UAB football was finally revived in 2017, a motivated and more mature Williams flourished. He started every game, led Conference-USA with five interceptions and was named a first-team All-American by Pro Football Focus.
Still, he went undrafted last year, played three games with the Baltimore Ravens, then was waived and acquired by the Rams in mid-October. Now, he’s also in the thick of the backup cornerback competition.
“My whole life has been [as an] underdog,” Williams said. “Barely making something, barely making it somewhere, saying that you can’t — that’s life to me. I’ve never been the top dog.”
Greene is new to this world. In his first NFL preseason, the rookie experienced a homecoming of sorts at the Coliseum on Saturday. The Gardena native spent the first four years of his collegiate career at USC, originally as a quarterback before switching to receiver.
But when the former three-star recruit never became a starter with the Trojans, he transferred as a graduate student to Utah State last season and made 44 catches for 689 yards and six touchdowns. He went undrafted and was only picked up by the Rams after an impressive spring workout. He’s hoping he won’t have to leave Los Angeles again to prolong his football career.
“Every undrafted guy will tell you this: When you don’t get that call after the draft, for weeks you’re like, ‘Damn, what’s next?’ ” he said. “Then to get the call from my hometown [team], that was a blessing.”
Most players in his position, though, are often cursed by the cut list. Often, treating practices like prime-time games and approaching preseason contests with the intensity of a Super Bowl — to put film on display for the NFL’s other 31 teams as well — isn’t enough. The pressure of a roster battle will turn only a handful of players into members of NFL teams.
The biggest thing that Greene, Hodge, Williams, Deayon and the dozens of other Rams players in danger of being cut have in common: learning to cope with the uncertainty.
“Whether you’re Taylor Rapp, the first guy drafted [by the Rams in Round 2], or me, the last guy brought in off a tryout, we’re all here for a reason,” Greene said.
“In a perfect world, they’ll assign me to the 53. All I know is, at the end of the day, I can control what I put on film. Make sure that, if they do let me go, it’s a tough decision on them.”