Ravens on bubble see meaning in otherwise meaningless preseason game

Ravens wide receiver Tom Nelson, right, is tackled by the Philadelphia Eagles' Jaylen Watkins during the second half of a preseason game in Philadelphia.
Ravens wide receiver Tom Nelson, right, is tackled by the Philadelphia Eagles' Jaylen Watkins during the second half of a preseason game in Philadelphia. (Michael Perez / Associated Press)

Tom Nelson has been through this before. Kapron Lewis-Moore has been around it, but has not experienced it himself.

The fourth preseason game in the NFL's bloated August schedule is reserved for reserves like them, with a few dozen players vying for a handful of spots on the back end of the Ravens roster entering a game that has meaning only to them.


"I think there's a pretty clear picture of who's going to be here and who's not," coach John Harbaugh said. "Of course, the last couple spots are still up in the air, and it'll be interesting to see how it plays out."

Harbaugh said 43 players — all projected backups or unlikely to be on the roster at all — will be prepared to play in Thursday's game against the Falcons in Atlanta. With the roster at 75 players, and with a handful of players injured, it's easy to deduce who will suit up. What's more difficult is to determine who is still playing for a roster spot, and who is just playing out the string.


In last year's preseason finale, undrafted rookie left tackle James Hurst played every snap and was a surprise inclusion on the 53-man roster. The other tackle, undrafted rookie Parker Graham, played every snap as well, but was released after the game.

Such is life on the roster bubble, and Nelson and Lewis-Moore represent two of the more intriguing stories this year.

Nelson was a feel-good story in the 2009 edition of HBO's "Hard Knocks" with the Cincinnati Bengals, making the team as an undrafted safety. He played two seasons there before a painful pattern set in.

The Bengals released him near the end of training camp in 2011. He caught on with the Philadelphia Eagles that season and was released late in camp in 2012. The same story played out with the Chicago Bears in 2013 and the Carolina Panthers in 2014.

So in an effort to save his career, Nelson began working as a wide receiver, and has made his mark since signing with the Ravens at the beginning of training camp. He's caught three passes for 39 yards, and is also an option in the return game.

"I don't think I would be in this position if I didn't make that move," Nelson said. "All I ever asked for coming out of college was an opportunity. Switching over gave me this opportunity, so it was definitely the right call."

Nelson is no stranger to the fourth preseason game, and said the only way to deal with the stakes is to ignore them. Now in his fifth NFL organization, he's seen the game from plenty of perspectives.

"I think there's been teams where the decisions have been made, and there's been teams where that final game makes a difference," he said. "But at the end of the day … this is Day 32. There's a lot more than just this final game of what they've seen on a day-to-day basis."

Lewis-Moore is in a bit of a different situation. A 2013 fifth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, he missed his rookie season because of a knee injury suffered in college, and a torn Achilles early in the 2014 training camp robbed him of his second season.

Harbaugh said Lewis-Moore needed to knock off two years of rust during the early portion of training camp.

"He's through all that now, and this is a big game for him," Harbaugh said. "He played well last week, so it's going to be fun to see how he does. But, he has done a great job, especially for a guy that has come back from so far" behind.

Lewis-Moore was rehabbing through the final cutdown days in years past, and knows how difficult it can be for the players on the bubble. He's trying to keep Thursday's game in perspective.


"It's definitely an added importance, but at the same time I try not to think about stuff like that," Lewis-Moore said. "With me not playing for the last couple years, I'm just grateful for the opportunity to go out there and show what I can do. It's definitely something you think about, but at the same time, you play your best, play as hard as you can and you see where the chips fall. If it happens, I'll definitely be excited. If it doesn't, I try not to think about the negativity."

Both players are on the cusp of a roster spot at position groups with a fair amount of uncertainty. Lewis-Moore, DeAngelo Tyson, and Christo Bilukidi seem to be locked in a battle for the final spot in the defensive line group, though the team might need extra depth there with starter Timmy Jernigan dealing with a knee injury.

Nelson, along with Jeremy Butler and Daniel Brown, are on the bubble at wide receiver, a position at which the Ravens will have to carry the injured Breshad Perriman to begin the season.

Several other Ravens on the bubble — like running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and cornerback Quinton Pointer — have experienced the highs and lows of the fourth preseason game themselves.

Toussaint ran for 103 yards in last year's preseason finale in New Orleans, but was released afterward and ended up on the practice squad. Pointer, when he was a rookie with the St. Louis Rams in 2012, capped a strong camp with an interception against the Ravens in the final preseason game that year and made the 53-man roster because of it.

The game might not feature marquee names, but that's all the more reason why those who suit up want to make an impression.

"Guys are [also] battling for practice squad spots, and they're not just battling with each other," Harbaugh said. "They're battling, really, all around the league for some of those spots. It's a very competitive thing to make an NFL team or an NFL practice squad."

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