JACKSONVILLE – The cut day is never easy, but it's one that's coming.
That's true for a lot of NFL players, and it was true for veteran defensive end Jason Babin, who was released by the Jaguars on Thursday.
Babin's release came early, hours before the team's final 2014 minicamp practice. Afterward, as players prepared to depart Jacksonville and EverBank Field for the next five weeks, they talked of the future and the excitement around the organization – and of how productive the past few weeks had been – but they talked, too, of Babin.
They talked of his professionalism since joining the Jaguars, and how a lot of what he brought to the locker room will continue.
"It's tough, because of the person that he is," defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "He's a great leader and a great guy to be around."
This wasn't easy for Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley, either.
Bradley has talked often about having to learn how to handle the nature of the NFL – the necessity of releasing players who have worked hard and who have committed to his program, his approach. Bradley said that made Babin's release difficult, and he said he told the 11-year veteran upon his release Thursday that he "is a big part of what we're building here and always will be."
Bradley said he learned about the importance of trust between a coach and a player from Babin.
"We had conversations about things that were important to him about being in the NFL," Bradley said. "He said it (coach-player trust) is so important. It really resonated with me – even though I knew, it was important to hear it from a guy like him.
"I really appreciated all of his efforts. I know our team did, too. It's a tough business."
It's also a competitive business, one that often is about numbers, age and circumstance. All of those were factors in Babin's release.
Babin, 34, led the Jaguars with 7.5 sacks last season, and then voided the final two years of his contract in March. He did so because both he and the team knew his contract – which called for him to make more than $6 million each year – needed to be addressed.
The Jaguars re-signed Babin three days later to a three-year contract with the idea of creating depth along the defensive line. They also signed defensive end Chris Clemons, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood and defensive end Red Bryant in the same stretch.
But Babin's signing, along with the drafting of rookie Chris Smith, also gave the Jaguars significant numbers at the Leo position. Clemons, who had double-digit sacks for Seattle in 2010, 2011 and 2012, worked with the first team in open periods of the team's offseason on-field work, and Bradley had lauded the play of Smith and third-year defensive end Andre Brach in recent days.
The #Jaguars have released DE Jason Babin. More info: http://t.co/96GYf60IqW pic.twitter.com/DQmQJnC895 — Jacksonville Jaguars (@jaguars) June 19, 2014
The team also has second-year veteran Ryan Davis and second-year veteran Gerald Rivers at the spot.
"We did have a lot of guys at that spot," Bradley said. "Looking at these last couple of minicamp practices – the numbers that we have there – I think we just had to ask some tough questions about, 'Eventually the guys who are going to be up on Sundays.' …
"We felt it was best to give him the opportunity to get out there and hook on with another team. It's tough on both sides."
To listen to Bradley and players Thursday, this really was tough. That may not fit with the national perception of Babin. He had had a reputation at previous stops of being difficult, and he was oft-criticized by media and fans.
Bradley said he saw none of that in his year with Babin.
The Jaguars Babin joined off waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles with five games remaining in 2012 was a different organization than the one today. Babin genuinely liked the new culture, genuinely liked Bradley and Bradley genuinely liked him.
"Tremendous," Bradley called him. "He ended up being one of our strongest leaders. He did a great job."
That was the consensus among teammates Thursday, too. Sen'Derrick Marks, the Jaguars' veteran defensive tackle, talked of the work Babin did with Branch. Marks and Miller talked about Babin's positive influence in the locker room.
"Those situations are always tough, especially when you get a chance to know a guy and go in the trenches with him," Miller said. "You see it happen, and it does something to you. It's something you try not to get too used to. You don't want to forget about the person. I wish him the best."
Marks played with Babin in 2010 in Tennessee, and the two meshed last season upon Marks' arrival in Jacksonville.
"Babs left a lot behind," Marks said. "Everybody understands the business end of it, and I'm sure he understands it, too. I'll talk to Babs for the rest of my life. He understood how to pass rush. He was the same way every single day. He's just a great guy."
Although Branch is entering just his third NFL seasons, he has spent those two seasons with the Jaguars in a time of transition.
"I've seen guys come and go," Branch said. "You're never going to be surprised with anything. It's a business. You've just got to keep going. This is a unique culture here where it's kind of like college and everybody's a family. When I first got here, it wasn't like this at all. You just have to keep going, and at the same time, you treat it like a business. It's our job at the end of the day."
That may not have been Babin's story upon arrival in Jacksonville, but it ended up being his story. That made the last day before the end of the offseason a difficult one for many Jaguars.
These days are never easy, even when you know they're coming.