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View from the O-Zone: An emotional Monday – as always


JACKSONVILLE – This was the best of days, a happy day. Every year it is this way.

This was the Jaguars' EverBank Field locker room Monday. And no doubt: there was joy here on this Monday. Real, unabashed joy. And at the same time, there was something far different – which is why the Monday before the regular season is annually perhaps the oddest day of the NFL calendar.

Over here there was joy. Neal Sterling. Chris Smith.

Josh Johnson. Jarrod Wilson.

Those are happy stories, players who made the Jaguars' 53-man roster and are now part of what Head Coach Gus Bradley on Monday called "from top-to-bottom without a doubt the best team we've had personnel-wise."

It wasn't easy, making this roster. General Manager David Caldwell made that clear over the weekend, calling Saturday's cut to 53 the toughest in his four seasons.

Bradley reiterated that stance Monday.

"We had some very tough decisions," Bradley said as the Jaguars gathered Monday to begin preparing for Sunday's 2016 regular-season opener against Green Bay at EverBank Field. "To us, that's a good thing."

Yes, it's a good thing – and Monday was a good day for many.

It was good for Wilson, who made the team as an undrafted rookie from the University of Michigan. Wilson was your classic rookie-free-agent-made-the-team story, emerging as a smart, capable player during organized team activities and solidifying his spot through the preseason.

It was also good for Johnson, a first-year veteran whose road to Monday was twisted – and far longer than many of the Jaguars' other young players.

Johnson, who played collegiately at Purdue, originally signed with San Diego as a rookie free agent following the 2013 NFL Draft. He was released by San Diego shortly before the 2013 season and spent the last two seasons with British Columbia of the Canadian Football League.

Saturday's cut-down day is brutal on young, "bubble" players. There's no more they can do. Their future no longer is in their control.

Perspective made Saturday a sweet day for Johnson. It didn't make it an easy one.

"I've been through this process before, where at the last minute you get a phone call," Johnson said.

A phone call typically is what you don't want, because a phone call is telling you you're not making the team. A player making the roster often hears nothing until the Saturday afternoon deadline passes.

Johnson heard nothing for a long time Saturday, and that was good.

He got a text from defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker shortly after the deadline, and that was better.

"Coach told me congrats," he said. "It was a sigh of relief."

Images from Monday's practice as the Jaguars begin preparations for Green Bay.

Happy was a common theme Monday. Over here was Smith, who seemed to some a longshot to make the roster in organized activities in May and June but whose preseason performances earned him a spot as the team's third Leo pass rusher.

And over here was Sterling, who made the roster as a reserve tight end six months after switching from wide receiver. Sterling had never blocked before this season – certainly not the way you need to block in the NFL – and he said Monday he initially was skeptical at best about the move.

On Monday, that skepticism was replaced by a smile.

"It's a complete 180," Sterling said. "Right when I switched I was thinking to myself, 'I don't know if I can do this, switching positions in the NFL, going against the top guys.' I'd never experienced a day of blocking in my life. I feel really comfortable at this position now."

That's half the story, the smiles – but for every one of those at the 'Bank on Monday, there was an empty locker. Those lockers are vivid reminders of friends released. That's the other side of the Monday before the regular season – that for every player smiling Monday there are multiple players facing futures suddenly uncertain.

Defensive end Ryan Davis. Safety Josh Evans. Linebacker Thurston Armbrister. All played significant roles last season. Davis had been with the team four seasons; Evans, three. All were released over the weekend.

And then there was running back Joe Banyard, who made team Saturday only to be released on Sunday when the team acquired safety Marqueston Huff and linebacker Arthur Brown off waivers.

"You never get used to it," cornerback Davon House said. "I hate it. It's the toughest day of the year."

It is, of course, a necessary day – and a symbolic one. When veteran players walk onto the practice field on the Monday before the regular season they do so knowing another regular season is at hand – and that the players around them are pretty much that year's team. For better or worse. The preliminaries are over and the regular season has arrived.

That makes this Monday an exciting day – the best of days, a happy day.

Even if it is one of the oddest days of the year.

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