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Drama of landing an NFL roster spot plays out in prime time for BYU’s Jordan Leslie, Utah’s Tim Patrick

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In NFL preseason finales, recognized names are typically hard to find.

Those final exhibition contests, which take place hours before the league’s annual roster cutdown weekend, are usually reserved for players hoping to get one (or more) last good piece of game film.

Two wide receivers with local ties — former Utah wide receiver Tim Patrick and former BYU wideout Jordan Leslie — played their own unassuming storylines out on the football field at University of Phoenix Stadium on Thursday night as the Denver Broncos beat the Arizona Cardinals 21-10.

The future, though, can still be tenuous, whether a player on the bubble makes the 53-man active roster or sticks on a team’s practice squad somewhere.

Leslie had the striking numbers Thursday: five catches (on five targets) for a team-high 70 yards to go along with a touchdown for the Broncos. He also had a special-teams tackle while playing 31 offensive snaps, most among Denver wide receivers, and seven on special teams.

“I’m more excited about the tackle than I am the touchdown. Anything you can do to help the team, you’ve got to show it in this game,” he said.

Friday morning, though, Leslie shared the news on Twitter that he was cut. He finished the preseason with nine receptions for 110 yards and one score.

"Back to back years of leading a team in receptions/reception yards and still being cut ... Crazy business," Leslie tweeted.

Patrick, meanwhile, added two catches for 18 yards for Denver and was targeted a team-high five times in the first half. He played 26 offensive snaps and four on special teams and, like Leslie, earned the start at wide receiver.

“I made one big catch that I’m happy about. It was my first time to be able to show I could take a hit and make the catch at the same time, so I’m glad I got to do that,” he said. “There were a lot of other things I wanted to show but overall, I was happy with my performance.”

As of Friday at noon MDT, there was no news on if Patrick was released by the Broncos or not.

The uncertainty surrounding this weekend is palpable for those players who find themselves on the back end of the depth chart. By Saturday at 2 p.m. MDT, NFL teams must cut their rosters to 53 players. With 90 active roster players allowed prior to that point, more than 1,100 athletes will be looking for a team by week’s end.

With each team allowed as many as 10 practice squad players, a few hundred will be back on a roster and earning an NFL paycheck.

Heading into Thursday night’s game, Leslie found himself buried deep on the wide receiver depth chart for Denver. Patrick, meanwhile, headed into the night sitting third at one wide receiver position on the depth chart.

Both players acknowledged the importance of becoming strong special teams players, a vital skill for NFL receivers at the back end of the 53-man depth chart.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Jordan Leslie scores past Arizona Cardinals defensive back Travell Dixon during the second half of a preseason NFL football game Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Denver Broncos wide receiver Jordan Leslie scores past Arizona Cardinals defensive back Travell Dixon during the second half of a preseason NFL football game Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri, FR157181 AP

After spending more than half of last season on Denver’s practice squad, Patrick has made special teams play a point of emphasis.

“I definitely learned from (being on the practice squad); it slowed down the game for me,” Patrick said. “Last year I didn’t take special teams too seriously. … This year it was something I wanted to do to elevate my game, to be a complete special teams player.”

Leslie’s touchdown, a 16-yard catch in the third quarter, gave Denver the lead for good and came on a third-down play in which quarterback Paxton Lynch rolled to his left before finding Leslie in the end zone.

“Anytime you score, you feel great,” Leslie said. “Paxton threw a great ball and I was lucky to get under it.”

That touchdown came just minutes after his other important play: the special teams tackle, when he stopped Arizona kick returner Corey Willis for a minimal return at the Cardinals 13.

“For a guy like me, right on the edge of making the team or not, it’s hugely important. That’s usually what the fifth, sixth wide receiver is, the special-teams guy,” Leslie said. “For me to be able to go down there and make a tackle, I was happy about that. Hopefully I have the chance to make more plays like that.”

Denver Broncos wide receiver Tim Patrick, right, catches a pass under pressure from Arizona Cardinals defensive back Rudy Ford during the first half of a preseason NFL football game Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Denver Broncos wide receiver Tim Patrick, right, catches a pass under pressure from Arizona Cardinals defensive back Rudy Ford during the first half of a preseason NFL football game Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri, FR157181 AP

Those moments on the field were the final reprieve for both players before the dreaded cutdowns and the anxiety that can ensue.

Patrick emphasized he wouldn’t sit at home waiting for news, and said he’d take in Friday’s Colorado-Colorado State football game.

And for other plans: “I’ll probably just go see a movie or something, just get away from my phone and get away from everybody until I figure out what my destiny is,” he said.

Leslie said Thursday night — before he received the news he was cut — that it's a stressful experience, going through cutdown weekend.

“You just sit there and dread a phone call. You never want to get that phone call,” Leslie said. “No matter what you do, you think you did enough, and it can always be not enough. It’s obviously stressful.”

Broncos head coach Vance Joseph broke down just how important those four preseason games can be for players fighting to make a roster.

“I told the guys in the locker room, this game is a good game for young guys because it’s your résumé game,” he said. “So, if you don’t make it here, you can make it somewhere else. And it doesn’t take but a couple plays, just to put it on tape that you can play in this league.”

Leslie, who has practice squad NFL experience with five different teams since 2015 and a little regular-season work, understands these late-exhibition performances can be a powerful stage for players, even when they are on the wrong end of cutdown day.

“Any preseason game where you can go out and make plays, you’re making plays for your team and 31 other teams,” he said. “Everybody watches this film, everybody sees who’s playing well, who’s making plays. It’s all about getting opportunities and making the most of those opportunities.”