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Unkindest Cuts: Each NFL faces major decisions

By
Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
Detroit Lions wide receiver Jace Billingsley (16) can't make the reception under pressure from Baltimore Ravens defensive back Carrington Byndom (33) during the second half of an NFL preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, August 27, 2016. Baltimore won 30-9. Photo by David Tulis/UPI
Detroit Lions wide receiver Jace Billingsley (16) can't make the reception under pressure from Baltimore Ravens defensive back Carrington Byndom (33) during the second half of an NFL preseason game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, August 27, 2016. Baltimore won 30-9. Photo by David Tulis/UPI | License Photo

Training season turns into the dreaded cutting season this week with the National Football League's first mandatory roster reduction, from 90 to 75 players, as both players and teams hope for the best.

But sometimes these become the Most Unkindest Cuts of all, for either the player or the team.

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Many of the most intriguing stories in league history, involving some of the greatest players, were once a part of one of these cutdown moves, either by trade or waiver.

In the NFL's streamlined process this year, the cut to 75 is Tuesday, two days before all teams play their fourth, and final, preseason game. So there could be players already in new uniforms for the Thursday games.

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On Saturday (Sept. 3, by 4 p.m. EDT), teams make the more difficult decisions, cutting the roster down to the final 53 players. There are often surprises on these trims, either involving well-known veterans whose contracts became too expensive or young players whom some thought had a bright future.

Also on Sept. 3, teams must designate if a player is going to begin the season on the physically unable to perform/non-football injury list, putting him out for at least the first six weeks of the regular season. These players don't count against the 53. On Sunday (Sept. 4), teams can establish their 10-man practice squad.

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Reporters covering each team for The Sports Xchange identified at least one intriguing potential cut. Their look inside these dramas is listed below, but first let's recall a few of the more famous, or infamous, moves made by NFL teams during this critical cutdown period.

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Until recently, the best example was probably that of quarterback Johnny Unitas, whose road to the Pro Football Hall of Fame had a rocky beginning.

In fact, Unitas was one of two historically significant quarterbacks whose Hall of Fame career included being cast aside by the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1955, as a ninth-round pick (105th overall) out of Louisville, Unitas was released without even taking a snap in a preseason game.

Head coach Walt Kiesling thought Unitas wasn't smart enough for the position. Kiesling preferred Ted Marchibroda, who did indeed show enough smarts to become an NFL coach

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Unitas cleared waivers and was relegated to construction work and weekend semi-pro football until the Baltimore Colts gave him a try. He rewarded them by becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks in pro football history.

In 1957, the Steelers drafted Purdue quarterback Lenny Dawson in the first round (No. 5 overall), but they liked Bobby Layne better. Dawson wound up with the Cleveland Browns on 1960, but they liked Milt Plum better.

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So in 1961, Dawson rejoined his old Purdue assistant, Hank Stram, who was head coach with the Dallas Texans of the upstart American Football League. Stram, Dawson and the team moved to Kansas City where, as the Chiefs, they were one of the greatest of AFL franchises.

Speaking of the AFL, that is a term now associated with the Arena Football league, which gave Kurt Warner BACK to the NFL so he could carry on in the tradition of Unitas and Dawson.

Warner, an undrafted rookie out of Northern Iowa, signed with the Green Bay Packers in 1994. Assistant coach Steve Mariucci, himself a former quarterback from a small "compass-point" school (Northern Michigan University), liked Warner.

"But we waived Warner," Ron Wolf recalled Sunday, chuckling at one of the few bad moves he made in his Hall of Fame career as an NFL executive.

"That set off a series of events which allowed him to become one of the most celebrated quarterbacks in recent history. We had Brett Favre. So maybe if we kept Warner nobody ever would had heard of him."

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But now Warner himself is pounding on the door to the Hall of Fame after leading the St. Louis Rams to two Super Bowls and the Arizona Cardinals to one.

Against that background, teams hope not to become a historic footnote in some player's great career, and players are glad to at least remain a footnote this year as they try to forge a career.

Here is a close look at some of the intrigue in each NFL camp as teams prepare for the cutdown process. TSX reporters with each team share their insight (teams listed alphabetically within each conference, first the NFC, then the AFC):

ARIZONA CARDINALS

--Defensive tackle Red Bryant: He is in a position crunch. Eventually, there are going to be two to three players among the Cardinals' deep collection of defensive linemen who won't make the team. One of them could very well be the veteran Bryant, if only because Arizona likely will want to go younger at the position, and letting a player such as Bryant go early could further help his chances of catching on elsewhere.

But make no mistake, the team still very much likes Bryant, and he was actually a defensive captain in the Sunday game at Houston.

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"Red's in good shape," coach Bruce Arians said. "He still stuffs the run as good as ever and is doing a heck of a job."

ATLANTA FALCONS

--Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon: A few years back, Weatherspoon was considered a building block to the Falcons' defense. However, a rash of injuries have derailed the once promising former first-round pick. He started the first exhibition game but lost ground to rookie fourth-round pick De'Vondre Campbell at the weak-side linebacker position.

Weatherspoon was considered a low-risk signing in free agency and could still be retained as an insurance policy backup. Still, it is clear the Falcons' likely present and future weak-side linebacker is Campbell.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--Linebacker Ben Jacobs: After trying out for the Panthers in the spring of 2013, Jacobs appeared in all 32 games the past two seasons. He has become a dependable special teams "ace," but an ankle injury kept him out of camp for nearly three weeks.

While Jacobs was sidelined, Jeremy Cash's stock began to rise. The former All-America safety had a slow start in his transition to linebacker, but Cash, a priority undrafted free agent, could now be a threat to Jacobs' roster spot.

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CHICAGO BEARS

--Outside linebacker Christian Jones: Keeping six outside linebackers would be a luxury, and Jones hasn't had the exposure at the position in this defense to warrant beating out any of the five ahead of him. He is one of the team's more valuable special teams players, too.

Sam Acho stood out last year in preseason and then vanished largely in the regular season. In this preseason, he had one solid game and an average one while Jones didn't do much in games. What could save Jones is if Pernell McPhee isn't ready to go on opening day. More and more it's looking as if this could happen. McPhee last week began doing more running on the sidelines with trainers at practices. How far away he is from playing condition in two weeks is anyone's guess.

DALLAS COWBOYS

--Free safety J.J. Wilcox: He started for two years before being supplanted by Byron Jones last year. Wilcox is a good special teams player, but he takes bad angles as a defender, especially against the pass. It also plagues him as a tackler. The development and potential of rookie Kavon Frazier makes Wilcox expendable.

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DETROIT LIONS

--Offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz: The Lions signed this spring Schwartz to play a key backup role on the interior offensive line, then a month later drafted three rookies who all look like locks to make the team now. Schwartz started 11 games at right guard for the New York Giants last year, but he may be squeezed out in a numbers game in Detroit.

Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson are the Lions' starting guards, though Tomlinson hasn't played particularly well this summer, and rookies Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl are the backup interior linemen. (The third rookie, Taylor Decker, will start at left tackle.) Schwartz can play both guard and tackle, but he is not a center, so he is not likely to be active on game day. Given that he missed time this preseason with an injury, he enters the last week of the preseason on the roster bubble.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

--Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott: The third-year pro likely needs to come up big in Green Bay's final preseason game to salvage a roster spot. Two years after the then-undrafted rookie won an unlikely job by leading the league with five sacks in the preseason, Elliott has been almost non-existent in exhibition play this summer. He had only three tackles (one solo) with zero sacks in substantial action (43 total plays) the first two games, then wasn't on the field for any scrimmage plays in the third game against San Francisco.

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What's more, Elliott has zero tackles while appearing in 29 plays on special teams, where he flourished the last two seasons with a combined 32 tackles, including the playoffs. The Packers continue to list Elliott as No. 2 on the depth chart behind Clay Matthews at right outside linebacker.

However, Elliott seemingly faces long odds to survive the upcoming roster cuts at a crowded position group that includes Matthews, Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, converted defensive end Datone Jones, promising rookie Kyler Fackrell and Denver Broncos castoff Lerentee McCray.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

--Running back Malcolm Brown: He leads the Rams in rushing during the preseason and has proven he deserves an NFL roster spot. However, he might be up against a numbers game. With Todd Gurley set at No. 1, Benny Cunningham a quality backup and Chase Reynolds a special teams ace who figures to stay on the roster, Brown's spot might depend on how many running backs the Rams want to keep. It is also worth remembering rookie Aaron Green has been effective with his chances as well. Brown might be a victim of just too many good players and too few spots available on the roster.

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS

--Safety Michael Griffin: The Vikings have been trying for three seasons to find, as they say, "the right guy" to pair at safety next to rising star Harrison Smith. Now in his 10th season, the 31-year-old Griffin was thought to be the guy who could take the job from incumbent Andrew Sendejo, a scrappy, overachieving player who is better suited as a special teams standout and backup defender.

Griffin, a former first-round draft pick of the Titans, was signed after Tennessee released him this past offseason. But he has done nothing to suggest he will overtake Sendejo. And if that is the case, this could be the end of the line for Griffin. The Vikings have a number of younger, promising safeties whom they will keep in backup roles instead of Griffin.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

--Wide receiver Brandon Coleman: The former undrafted free agent and practice-squad player made the team in 2015 and enjoyed limited success, but with a whole year on the active roster under his belt, he went into training camp as possibly the fourth wideout behind Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and second-round draft pick Michael Thomas.

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Still, Coleman apparently hasn't made a big enough jump from year two to three, which led head coach Sean Payton to say after a 16-9 exhibition loss to the Houston Texans last week that Coleman has had a "pedestrian" camp. That is not what a player wants to hear midway through the preseason and clearly indicates that Coleman could be fighting for a roster spot with several youngsters in the Saints' final exhibition outing against the Baltimore Ravens.

NEW YORK GIANTS

--Linebacker Mark Herzlich: When the Giants' history books are updated, Herzlich probably will go down as one of the most inspirational stories to ever be written. Undrafted out of Boston College despite fighting his way back from a rare form of bone cancer, Herzlich signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and has stuck around since despite not showing the breathtaking skills as a linebacker he once had before his diagnosis.

Still, Herzlich emerged not just as one of the core special teams players for New York, but also as a model citizen on and off the field. Unfortunately, Herzlich's amazing tale could be coming to an end this summer thanks to the emergence of B.J. Goodson. The rookie leads the Giants in tackles this summer and has already shown more ability as a middle linebacker in just a few short weeks than Herzlich has throughout his career. He also has proven to be every bit as good, if not better, than Herzlich when it comes to special teams.

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With this being a new era for the franchise, it appears very likely that Herzlich, one of a handful of players remaining from the 2011 Super Bowl championship team, is likely going to be phased off the roster.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

--Wide receiver Josh Huff: A 2014 third-round pick, Huff is on the bubble. The outstanding play in training camp and the preseason of undrafted rookie Paul Turner, along with the recent addition of Dorial Green-Beckham, could make Huff, who has not played particularly well this summer, expendable.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

--Inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite: The healthiest of the 49ers' inside linebackers the past two seasons, Wilhoite ranked third in tackles in 2014 and second last year. However, he is being challenged by Gerald Hodges and Ray-Ray Armstrong in a bit of a tag-team match in camp. It is quite possible new head coach Chip Kelly will determine that Hodges is a better run stopper, and Armstrong is clearly a better pass defender. And if that is the case, Wilhoite could be the odd (third) man out in the competition.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

--Wide receiver Kasen Williams: Perhaps no other player stood out more often during OTAs and minicamps over the offseason than Williams. A 2015 undrafted free agent from the nearby University of Washington, Williams seemed poised for a breakout camp being another year removed from a devastating ankle injury he sustained in college.

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However, Williams has been sidelined for a majority of camp due to a hamstring injury. He was not targeted once in Seattle's second preseason game against Minnesota, and then didn't play against Dallas on Thursday because of the lingering hamstring issue. Other options at receiver such as Douglas McNeil, Tanner McEvoy and Antwan Goodley have done more to stand out in recent weeks in the fight for receiver spots at the back of Seattle's roster.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--Cornerback Johnthan Banks: A former second-round pick who started parts of three seasons, Banks appears to be the odd man out. The signing of free agent Brent Grimes and the emergence of first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves has pushed him out of a job. He struggles playing off the ball and is a candidate to be traded or released.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

--Guard Josh LeRibeus: A third-round pick in 2012, LeRibeus is almost always targeted for the waiver wire and yet has carved out a four-year career in Washington. That could change with the recent addition of center/guard Bryan Stork via trade. Even if the Redskins keep 10 linemen -- that would be a surprise -- there is plenty of young depth at guard (Arie Kouandjio) and tackle (Takoby Cofield). Ty Nsekhe is penciled in as the backup left tackle already. Stork was added for a reason. LeRibeus also struggled when he had to move to center last season for 11 starts after Kory Lichtensteiger's midseason injury.

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AFC

BALTIMORE RAVENS

--Wide receiver/returner Keenan Reynolds: The sixth-round pick has been one of the feel-good storylines of the preseason. However, Reynolds is in an uphill battle to make the final roster. The former record-setting quarterback from Navy is facing a challenge trying to make the transition to being a wide receiver and special teams player. Reynolds did have two special teams tackles against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2 -- a feat that impressed his coaches.

"I jokingly said in the meeting room, 'His first two tackles he ever had in his life happened to be in the NFL.' He did a great job as a gunner," special teams coordinator/associate head coach Jerry Rosburg said. "He ran the show. He was aggressive down the field in coverage."

Nonetheless, Reynolds has some more experienced players in front of him, including Michael Campanaro, whom head coach John Harbaugh called the "best guy" for returning kicks. As a result, it likely will be tough for the Ravens to find a spot for Reynolds on the 53-man roster. However, Reynolds could be a prime candidate for the practice squad.

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BUFFALO BILLS

--Linebacker Eric Striker: He was a feel-good story when he joined the Bills as a free agent right after going undrafted. He is a socially responsible person who made big news twice at Oklahoma thanks to a pair of viral videos -- one for railing against racism, the other for putting aside his draft-day disappointment with a moving message to his family and friends. However, the story probably won't have a happy ending.

Striker has not done anything worthy in camp, and he played only nine snaps against the Giants in the second preseason game and then three in the third game along with six on special teams. He is undersized and really isn't a good fit in coach Rex Ryan's defense, so his chances of making the team are pretty remote.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--Wide receiver Alex Erickson: An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, he might be a popular choice among fans to be one of 53 players to make the squad. However, there isn't much room at the inn on a deep Bengals roster.

Erickson hadn't stood out much among the receivers vying to make an impression in training camp until the preseason opener against the Minnesota Vikings when he electrified the crowd with an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Erickson is an adept pass-catcher and router runner, but his long-term status is undetermined at this point.

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CLEVELAND BROWNS

--Cornerback Justin Gilbert: The current coaching staff is discovering what the previous one learned: Gilbert has difficulty converting his athletic skill to football ability.

Gilbert played with the first team at left cornerback at the start of training camp while Joe Haden recovered from ankle surgery. He was beaten often, and now that Haden has returned, Gilbert isn't even the nickel back.

If the Browns do cut Gilbert, picked eighth in 2014, it would mean two first-round picks from just two years ago are gone. Quarterback Johnny Manziel, picked 22nd in 2014, was cut in the offseason.

DENVER BRONCOS

--Running back Kapri Bibbs: In his third training camp with the Broncos, Bibbs led the Broncos in carries and yardage this preseason after two games, and he ripped off some dazzling runs in training-camp practices. However, he is in a fight with Ronnie Hillman that could end with only one of the two getting a spot behind starter C.J. Anderson and rookie Devontae Booker. Bibbs had five carries for 11 yards Saturday against the Rams.

HOUSTON TEXANS

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--Running back Kenny Hilliard: Hilliard has had a much better training camp than he did in his rookie season, running with power and quickness in preseason games this year. However, the numbers game may not work out for him after being a seventh-round pick last year from LSU. The Texans have plenty of running backs, and his style is similar to the power of Alfred Blue, who is bigger, faster and more versatile than him. There may not be a spot for Hilliard on the 53-man roster. He spent last season on the practice squad.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--Guard Hugh Thornton: He was supposed to be the Colts' first-team right guard to begin training camp and the preseason. However, Thornton, who missed all of the team's OTA and minicamp work last spring after undergoing offseason foot surgery, re-injured the foot the first week of camp and has been in rehab mode ever since. Thornton was a third-round draft pick by Indianapolis in 2013 who has played well at times as a starter, so patience could begin running thin waiting for him to work his way back.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--Defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks: It is hard to believe the Jaguars would simply cut Marks, but they shopped him around to see how high of a draft pick they could get for him. During the past several years, Marks was considered the team's best defensive lineman and other than middle linebacker Paul Posluszny may have been Jacksonville's best defensive player.

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Certainly he ranked high among Jaguars supporters, but Marks has been hit by injuries, first a torn ACL to end the 2014 season and later an elbow injury that restricted him to just four games and two starts last season.

Marks had a slow start in training camp, but had a stellar performance in the second game against Tampa Bay. He has lost his starting position to free agent acquisition Malik Jackson and is now battling several younger players for playing time behind Jackson. If the price is right, the Jaguars could let Marks go. But likely they won't release him outright without getting some compensation for him.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--Running back Darrin Reaves: It is crowded at running back on the Chiefs' depth chart, and despite a strong preseason performance, Reaves has little chance to make the final 53-man roster. In the first two preseason games, Reaves was the most productive player for Kansas City, carrying the ball 17 times for 74 yards and catching four passes for 29 yards. He scored on a 4-yard touchdown run Saturday against the Bears but totaled only 3 yards on four other carries.

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Ahead of Reaves in the running back competition are Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis, along with fullback Anthony Sherman. Coach Andy Reid seldom carries more than four backs on the active roster.

Reaves entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent with Carolina in 2014. He played in six games with the Panthers that year, seeing 36 touches for 109 yards. The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder out of Birmingham, Ala., spent most of the 2015 season on the Chiefs' practice squad.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

--Center/guard Jamil Douglas: The 2014 fourth-round pick is caught up in a numbers game, which is a nice way of saying he is not good enough. Douglas hasn't found a home at guard or center, and this is the second time since November he had a chance because center Mike Pouncey is sidelined. Douglas came in with lots of hope two years ago, but now it appears he will be lumped in with the other recent misses on draft picks by Miami.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

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--Wide receiver Aaron Dobson: A former second-round pick, Dobson has actually had the best offseason of his three-plus year career. But even with the early cut of veteran Nate Washington, Dobson's status is tenuous and likely tied to the health of Danny Amendola (physically unable to perform list), Keshawn Martin and rookie Malcolm Mitchell. If those three guys get healthy, Dobson's last-ditch effort to retain a job in New England may not be enough after two previous seasons that saw him land on injured reserve.

NEW YORK JETS

--Cornerback Dee Milliner: He might be the unluckiest player in football. Unfortunately, there is no room for sympathy in the NFL, especially for a player who was drafted by a previous regime. So Milliner, who has played just 21 games in his first three NFL seasons due to wrist and Achilles injuries, could be playing for his roster spot.

Milliner won't climb any higher than third or fourth on the depth chart at cornerback, but the Jets need to know they can rely on a backup to stay healthy and productive. This could be the last chance for Milliner, who was beaten repeatedly in the preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars and sustained a minor biceps injury against the Washington Redskins. He was beaten for a touchdown Sunday against the New York Giants.

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OAKLAND RAIDERS

--Cornerback Neiko Thorpe: After Thorpe got considerable playing time a year ago, the Raiders tendered him at a second-round level to make sure he didn't sign elsewhere. However, Thorpe later agreed to a pay cut, an indication that his spot on the roster was far from secure.

Training camp as well as the preseason have done nothing to dispel the notion, even though Thorpe has one of the Raiders' two interceptions. With David Amerson and Sean Smith as the starters, D.J. Hayden at the nickel, T.J. Carrie in the mix and Dexter McDonald having a solid camp, Thorpe is on the bubble.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--Offensive lineman B.J. Finney: The Steelers have two All-Pro players among their starters on the offensive line, center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro. They also boast a deep cast of reserves that will make it difficult for Finney, a worthy candidate, to make the 53-man roster. The Steelers will have Ryan Harris serve as the swing tackle, but Finney might have received a reprieve when rookie fourth-round pick Jerald Hawkins was placed on injured reserve Sunday. Veteran Cody Wallace is the top interior reserve, and Chris Hubbard can play all three line positions. Finney, at least, is a candidate for the practice squad again this season, but the Steelers would have to get him through waivers in order to make that happen.

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SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

--Quarterback Kellen Clemens: The Chargers' backup quarterback is everything you look for in a No. 2 guy. He has starting experience, has won as a starter and is good in the locker room. But the Chargers are giving Zach Mettenberger, a third-year pro, a long look. Mettenberger started for offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt last year when Whisenhunt was head coach of the Titans. Mettenberger has a big arm and a decent upside, but will it be enough to supplant Clemens, an 11-year veteran?

TENNESSEE TITANS

--Wide receiver Justin Hunter: As a former second-round pick, Hunter arrived with high expectations. But after three seasons of injuries and inconsistency, Hunter's time with the club could be nearing an end.

The lanky receiver has as much athletic ability as any player on the roster, but his development as a receiver has been slow to progress, and with new general manager Jon Robinson calling the shots, there is no longer any loyalty to players from past regimes, as receiver Dorial Green-Beckham found out a couple of weeks ago.

It is possible Hunter could fetch a low-round or conditional pick in a trade, but if not, he could end up being released. He has been passed on the depth chart by newcomers Tajae Sharpe, Rishard Matthews and Andre Johnson.

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--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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