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OWINGS MILLS — As the Baltimore Ravens huddled at their training complex Wednesday afternoon, they were reminded about the grim reality awaiting several players during a pivotal weekend.
By Saturday’s NFL deadline, the roster must be trimmed down to 53 players, which means Friday night’s preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons could mark the last time 20 players will wear a Ravens uniform.
"Some of these guys, and this is the unfortunate side of this business, this is the last football game they’ll ever play," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "There’s a lot riding on this. I told these guys just a minute ago:
"’There’s somebody who thinks he’s made this team that’s wrong based on what will happen Friday, and there’s a guy who thinks he’s on the bubble and out of here who’s going to be on this football team.’ I don’t know who it is, but they had better go in with the attitude that they’ve got one opportunity to make this football team."
As the coaches and scouting department determine how the roster bubble is going to pop, a complicated numbers game is afoot.
One of the more intriguing battles is being waged between Clarence Moore and Devard Darling for the fourth wide receiver job. Both are disappointing former draft picks entering the final year of their respective contracts and are slated to earn $850,000 this season. Only one is likely to survive this cutdown.
"It’s coming down to the wire," Ravens receivers coach Mike Johnson said. "This is a big week for those guys. I’m asking my fourth guy to be accountable like the first three."
A former third-round selection who hasn’t caught a pass since his rookie season in 2004, Darling has just two career receptions for five yards. However, he has blocked fiercely, caught three passes for 39 yards and is willing to play special teams.
"The No. 1 thing with me is consistency,â€ Darling said. â€œIâ€™ve been blessed with talent, but I still need to show them what I can do."
Meanwhile, Moore, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound specialist at the fade route, has caught just two passes for 14 yards and seems to trail Darling.
"I think about that everyday, because we came in together and you don’t want to make it a cutthroat competition, but it’s hard because they aren’t probably going to keep both of us," Moore said. "I congratulate him on every great catch and he does the same for me. We understand it’s a business, and the best man is going to win.
"For the guys on the bubble, this is one of the last times to make the coaches say, ‘We do need to keep him around.’ I want to leave no doubt in their heads.â€
Despite reporting on the final day of training camp due to work visa issues, kicker Rhys Lloyd is closing in one of the final roster spots.
The Dover, England native booted five kickoffs into the end zone with two touchbacks against the New York Giants, also kicking two field goals. The Ravens seem poised to keep him as a kickoff specialist, but he’s not an absolute lock.
"Basically, I’ve got to perform on Friday night and convince them to keep me," Lloyd said. "I don’t worry about paperwork or stress. I can only control what I can oversee. I’ve done all right so far.â€
Diminutive running back Cory Ross isn’t inclined to relax just because P.J. Daniels was placed on injured reserve this week with a hamstring injury. The 5-foot-6, 201-pounder leads Baltimore with 85 rushing yards on 16 carries.
"I’ve still got to show them that I do belong," Ross said. "It’s a golden opportunity, but you’re never comfortable until you hear your name is on the roster.â€
The release of former starting right guard Keydrick Vincent could benefit fourth-year lineman Brian Rimpf.
The team kept nine linemen last year. However, this year’s line features more flexibility with two players — Chris Chester and Jason Brown — who can play guard or center and rookie Marshal Yanda capable of playing tackle or guard.
"They haven’t told me anything," Rimpf said.
Linebacker Dennis Haley is hoping to hold off the challenge of undrafted rookie outside linebacker Edgar Jones.
"I feel good about what I did last year, but you can’t rest on your laurels," said Haley, who played in nine games last season and registered 10 tackles and two pass deflections against the Tennessee Titans.
Jones is a converted defensive end from Southeast Missouri who has impressed coaches with his speed and pass-rushing skills.
Much like their impending choice with rookie quarterback Troy Smith, the team has to decide whether to keep Jones or risk exposing him to the waiver wire before trying to sign him to an eight-man practice squad as soon as Sunday.
"You can’t go out there thinking negatively and cut yourself,â€ Jones said. â€œFiguring out the numbers game is up to the coaches, so the mindset is you leave it all out on the field.â€
On the defensive line, the Ravens are pondering whether to keep defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison, whoâ€™s listed behind starter Kelly Gregg, as an extra backup.
"I know what this is about,â€ said Ellison, who has been cut four times. â€œYou can’t get your feelings hurt or your hopes too high.â€
In the secondary, Baltimore faces a tough decision on whether to keep backup safety Jamaine Winborne. Gerome Sapp is the primary backup to starters Ed Reed and Dawan Landry. Plus, nickel back Ronnie Prude has experimented as a reserve safety this month. Reserve cornerback Evan Oglesby’s status is unresolved, too.
Billick called the painful responsibility of deciding whoâ€™s in and whoâ€™s out of the worst aspects of his job.
"Sure it is," Billick said. "The time and energy they’ve put into this and what it means, it is very, very difficult."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.