The days leading up to and following NFL roster cuts are equal parts hectic and callous.
Guys who have played the sport their entire lives get the call to show up at the stadium and bring their playbook. Here today, gone tomorrow, perhaps back on the practice squad the next day.
With the exception of draft picks (several from the Matt Rhule era) or quarterbacks (Matt Corral), many of the transactions merit little more than a line on the NFL transactions page or a blurb on a social media platform.
It’s impossible to tell the stories of every guy at training camps when rosters are brimming with 90 players. It’s still difficult when they’re cut to 53.
But it’s cool to get to know the new guys, especially the ones who weren’t sure if they’d still be around after Tuesday’s deadline. The Athletic caught up with three of them this week.
Given his history, you knew Carolina Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer wasn’t going to go through this week without making a trade. That’s what he does. It was just a matter of what player or players Fitterer brought in. It turned out to be a receiver coming off a strong preseason with return skills and a big personality.
Frank Reich offered a scouting report on the latter a day before Ihmir Smith-Marsette arrived. “Apparently he’s got a pretty exuberant personality, which is good,” Reich said. “We like that energy. He has good energy, is what they say.”
Having spent a few minutes with Smith-Marsette on Wednesday, I can confirm. The 24-year-old — his birthday was Tuesday — has a unique vocabulary and no shortage of confidence for a guy with six career receptions in the regular season. He chalked it up to his New Jersey roots.
“That’s just how we are, I guess,” he said. “Exuberant people.”
Smith-Marsette finished as the NFL’s second-leading receiver during the preseason, when he averaged 21.7 yards per catch and scored a pair of touchdowns. But there wasn’t a place for him on the Kansas City Chiefs’ deep receiving corps. So Kansas City and Carolina worked out a deal that also included a swap of conditional seventh-round picks.
“All those people that made that roster, they earned their spot,” Smith-Marsette said. “They got me over here. I can’t worry about over there no more.”
After cutting Shi Smith, the Panthers were interested in bringing in another returner or two to complement Raheem Blackshear. Smith-Marsette was the Big Ten’s top return specialist at Iowa in 2018 but hasn’t had much of a chance in that area since entering the NFL as the Minnesota Vikings’ fifth-round pick in 2021.
“When I get going in the NFL, though, it’s gonna be just like college,” Smith-Marsette said. “Mark my words.”
Reich said Smith-Marsette fielded kicks well during his first practice with the Panthers and showed off good route-running ability as a receiver. “You could see the instincts that he has,” Reich said. “Excited to get to know him more.”
The excitable Smith-Marsette is fired up to get going. “Whenever they let me rock out,” he said, “I’m gonna show that’s why they came and grabbed me.”
With his long beard and black-rimmed glasses, 24-year-old Nash Jensen looks like he could be a member of the Panthers’ IT department, not a rookie lineman who played in more college football games than anyone in NCAA history.
Jensen, a physical and health education major at North Dakota State, laughed at the IT reference. “I know a little bit here and there,” he said. “The most I know is about gaming systems and stuff like that. Technology is definitely not my strong suit.”
Jensen was one of two undrafted free agents to make the initial roster as the Panthers went with younger, developmental players rather than veterans for a few of the backup spots along the offensive line. Jensen said the Panthers’ five rookie linemen organized nightly study sessions in their extended-stay hotel to expedite the learning curve during OTAs.
The 6-4, 329-pound Jensen is healthy after dealing with a back issue during the preseason. But he concedes he can occasionally feel the toll that playing 70 games at left guard at North Dakota State — believed to be an all-divisions record — took on him “body-wise.”
Jensen, a suburban Minneapolis native, was a part of four FCS championships teams at North Dakota State, where he played with Trey Lance and committed only two penalties in more than 3,000 offensive snaps. A teammate introduced Jensen to ice-fishing one day in North Dakota; he never went again.
“I think I was the only one who caught something that day. Something tiny, I don’t even know (what kind). I caught one or two fish,” he said. “And then we just heard the tent next to us, they were just going crazy like catching all the fish. They were like maybe 10 feet from us. It was not a fun day.”
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As Ricky Lee stood next to the temporary lockers the Panthers set up to accommodate 90 players during training camp, there were three empty stalls next to Lee’s where teammates used to dress. The undrafted tackle from North Carolina A&T hopes to be moving into a permanent locker soon.
“I always look on this (temporary) side and be like, man, I wish I was on that side,” he said Wednesday. “It’ll definitely be a privilege to be on that side.”
While Jensen had received some first-team reps at Wofford, Lee worked mostly in obscurity during camp. So it was somewhat surprising to see him make the initial roster. He had a similar reaction when Tuesday’s deadline came and no one had called him with an ominous message.
“I was on my phone, checking my phone. Just anxious watching the clock all day long and just hoping for the best,” he said.
“Even just being here in the preseason, it just felt unreal,” Lee added. “So making the 53-man roster is like a whole other level of surrealness.”
The New England Patriots were the only team to draft a player from a HBCU school this year, prompting Colorado coach and former Jackson State coach Deion Sanders to tweet he was “ashamed” of the other 31 teams. Lee’s path to the NFL — which included stints at two HBCUs — means something to him.
“It’s not only a representation of me. It’s a representation of my family, the school that I come from, the HBCUs,” he said. “The opportunities that we have aren’t as big as those coming from those Power-5 schools. So it means a lot.”
It’s possible that Lee or Jensen’s stay on the 53 is short lived after the Panthers claimed former New Orleans Saints guard Calvin Throckmorton on Wednesday. But the Panthers clearly think highly of both rookies and seemingly didn’t want to expose them to waivers.
Reich called Lee and Jensen “young, developmental guys that showed flashes of being able to have the qualities and the instincts of what it takes to play offensive line in this league.”
Reich said each added to the good chemistry in the offensive line room, while praising their skill sets and mental approaches. In addition to Lee and Jensen, the Panthers took former N.C. State guard Chandler Zavala in the fourth round a year after drafting offensive linemen Ikem Ekwonu and Cade Mays. The Panthers wanted to surround rookie quarterback Bryce Young with more than just skill guys.
“We’ve got a young quarterback, (it’s) good to develop some young linemen with him and get the depth we need. So, excited about those two players,” Reich said, referring to Lee and Jensen.
The 6-5, 289-pound Lee graduated with a degree in biomedical science from North Carolina Central before transferring to A&T, where he received a master’s in biology. Had the Panthers not called and offered him a three-year deal, Lee might be getting ready for dental school.
“I always wanted to be a dentist. I shadowed a dentist before,” he said. “So being in the dental field is something I took interest in.”
For now, teeth can wait.
(Top photo of Ricky Lee, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nash Jensen: David Jensen and John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images, Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today)