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‘Hard Knocks’ Finale: The Rams and Chargers Navigate Cut-Down Day

Being a fan favorite can’t save a player from getting cut. Plus: How Jalen Ramsey is helping rookie wideout Van Jefferson.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The season finale of HBO’s Hard Knocks didn’t hold back the fudging punches. Cut day finally arrived, and without a slate of preseason games, the decisions the Chargers and Rams front offices faced to cut their respective rosters down to 53 players were difficult. For regular Hard Knocks fans, it was at times gutting and other times heartwarming. Here are three takeaways from the episode:

Being a fan favorite can’t save a player from getting cut.

Let’s start with the Rams, who boasted three of this season’s darlings: linebacker Clay Johnston, safety JuJu Hughes, and cornerback Donte Deayon.

All three were cut, including Johnston, who’s family friends with Brett Favre. On cut day, Johnston had left the Rams’ facilities thinking he’d made the 53-man squad before Ray Agnew, Los Angeles’ director of pro scouting, called him back in the afternoon so general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay could break the news to him. Snead explained that the Rams intended to sign Johnston to their practice squad once he cleared waivers, but they never got the chance. Johnston, the seventh-round pick out of Baylor, was picked up by the Panthers, who hired former Baylor coach Matt Rhule this offseason. The move also reunited Johnston with his father, Kent, who’s Carolina’s strength coach. Earlier in the episode, some Rams scouts were shown mulling over cut-down decisions and posited that the Panthers might snag Johnston if he did hit waivers. Turns out they were right.

Deayon, the diminutive former Boise State defensive back, became this season’s first fringe roster star thanks to his bubbly nature and feel-good vibes. Apparently, the Rams front office enjoys his vibes, too. Deayon was cut, but after making a call to alert him of the decision, Agnew noted that while all calls to cut players are tough, “that one was really tough.” Deayon passed through waivers and joined the Rams practice squad, marking his third consecutive year with Los Angeles. McVay described him as “authentic” and “a glue guy,” so there are smiles all around knowing he’ll get a chance to at least hang around the franchise a bit longer.

Finally, there’s Hughes, who didn’t emerge until later in the show after we found out the rookie practices with a toothpick in his mouth. During an intrasquad scrimmage, Hughes was shown nearly intercepting a pass and lamenting the whiff. He later suffered a hamstring injury, which added suspense to whether he would survive cuts. He didn’t, but he handled his conversation with Snead and McVay with grace. He also went unclaimed on waivers and the Rams placed him on their practice squad.

Derwin James’s injury was so disheartening.

Last week, the Chargers lost star safety Derwin James to a torn meniscus that required season-ending surgery. Hard Knocks revealed that it was a noncontact injury.

The Chargers appeared to be going through team drills when James ran up to a ballcarrier, mimicking a stand-up tackle when his right knee buckled. He immediately fell to the floor. All his teammates could do was stand around him and watch. James managed to walk off the field under his own power, but the damage will cost the 2018 first-round pick another season of action.

Last year, the former All-Pro missed 11 games with a stress fracture of his fifth metatarsal. His latest injury is a brutal blow for the Chargers and for football fans, as one of the NFL’s top defensive players will yet again be sidelined. James also suffered a torn left meniscus in 2016 while at Florida State.

“We’re gonna miss that young man,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “ ... It’s hard to step up and replace that young man.”

Jalen Ramsey hopes iron sharpens iron.

Early in Tuesday’s finale, Ramsey took time to help Rams rookie receiver Van Jefferson with his route running, giving him tips on how to better stem his routes without getting jammed.

“You’re stepping too long on your slant,” Ramsey told Jefferson. “Hit it and go.”

Jefferson has impressed at camp, and has seemingly earned the respect of Ramsey, an All-Pro who’s one of the best cornerbacks and trash talkers in the NFL.