For the first time in his career, Champ Bailey was told he isn’t good enough.
Jettisoned by the New Orleans Saints after a difficult training camp, the 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback was the most notable name when NFL teams trimmed their rosters to 53 active players Saturday.
A close second was Rams rookie Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team.
The seventh-round draft pick, watched as closely as any rookie in the league this summer, couldn’t make a team stacked with pass-rushers. He still has a chance to get picked up by another team or to make the Rams’ practice squad.
Coach Jeff Fisher repeated over and over that cutting Sam was purely a football decision.
“I will tell you this: I was pulling for Mike,” Fisher said. “I really was, and I don’t say that very often. Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do.”
On Twitter, roughly an hour after he was cut, Sam wrote: “The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I’ve always known. The journey continues.”
He also thanked the Rams and city of St. Louis on Twitter, adding that he looks forward to a long and successful career.
The Rams selected Sam, the SEC co-defensive player of the year at Missouri, with the 249th overall pick out of 256 overall. Fisher called the draft pick a “second historic moment” for a franchise that signed running back Kenny Washington in 1946 as the league’s first black player in the modern era.
Ultimately, he wasn’t good enough to make the Rams’ roster.
Generally, players such as Sam with fewer than four seasons in the league are subject to waivers. Those who clear waivers and have practice squad eligibility can sign Sunday when teams fill out their 10-member developmental units.
Vested veterans who were released this weekend are free agents who can sign with anybody. But some might have to wait to get scooped up because their full 2014 salaries are in effect guaranteed if they’re on a roster in Week 1.
It just might be the end of a stellar career for Bailey, who said after the Super Bowl that he wouldn’t retire “because I still know I can play this game.”
Only seven players in NFL history have more Pro Bowl selections than Bailey, who signed with the Saints following his release from the Denver Broncos in the spring only to spend much of training camp dealing with nagging injuries.
“Well, whatever happens to him now in the short term is not going to change his legacy,” Broncos GM John Elway said. “He’s still going to go down as one of the greatest corners to ever play the game and will always in our minds be a Denver Bronco.”
Bailey missed 11 games last season after hurting his left foot in the preseason. He returned for Denver’s stretch run and reached his first Super Bowl, but clearly wasn’t the same player.
In his prime, Bailey wasn’t often challenged by quarterbacks yet he still managed 52 interceptions, more than any active cornerback.
Elway said it was difficult to let Bailey go this offseason as he retooled his defense following Denver’s Super Bowl dud against Seattle.
Elway also dreads cut-down day.
“Today is obviously the toughest part of my job,” Elway said. “It’s hard breaking dreams.”
Other notable players who were either waived or released this weekend, depending in their experience level, included:
Jets WR Stephen Hill, a 2012 second-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech who failed to follow in the footsteps of fellow alumni Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson. He finished the past two seasons in IR.
Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the team’s top rusher the past two seasons who was made expendable when the team drafted LSU’s Jeremy Hill in the second round.
Browns WR Nate Burleson, an 11-year veteran who was slowed by a hamstring injury in camp. The Browns are thin at wide receiver after Pro Bowler Josh Gordon was suspended for the entire 2014 season for another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.