For fans of most NFL teams, the last preseason game is an afterthought – a low-profile, bench-the-starters, no-one-should-have-to-pay-full-price-for-this glorified-scrimmage type of deal.
For Ben Boulware though, this game is essential.
Boulware, a rookie linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, knows his fate with the team dangles by a thread that could be snipped at any time between now and Saturday at 4 p.m., when all NFL squads must slice their way from 90 players down to the regular-season limit of 53.
So Carolina’s fourth and final exhibition – against Pittsburgh, kicking off at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Bank of America Stadium – means a lot to Boulware. For the undrafted free agent who was a key part of Clemson’s national championship team less than nine months ago, Thursday night could be a crossroads.
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“I’m ready for Thursday,” Boulware said this week in an interview. “I’m ready to make some plays and just keep my name out there.”
When I asked him what he thought his chances were to make the cut when the Panthers go from 90 to 53, Boulware said: “I feel good. I feel like I’m a trustworthy player, an accountable guy, and every time I’ve gotten in on defense or special teams, I’ve done my job.”
Zero tackles so far
The reality of the situation, though, is that all of that may not be enough. Boulware is trying to crack the Carolina roster at the very place where it is the most loaded. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are the best linebacker tandem in the league, and there are a number of young, talented players who already have NFL experience not too far behind them.
Also, Boulware’s preseason so far has not offered much in the way of big plays. In fact, it has offered zero big plays. And zero official tackles. Boulware has only been on the field for 20 defensive snaps and 25 special-teams snaps total through the first three preseason games, but on none of those plays has he been credited with his first official tackle in the NFL.
It bears repeating that Boulware has barely played on defense – he didn’t play a single defensive snap, in fact, in Carolina’s most recent exhibition. This is common for rookies who weren’t drafted, although Boulware knows some fans don’t realize that.
“I think a lot of people don’t follow undrafted guys like they do me,” Boulware said. “So they’re just like ‘Oh, he sucks. He’s not playing at all.’ But every undrafted guy is in the situation I’m in. The reps are very limited. I know that.”
‘The hottest ugly guy’
Boulware is followed more closely than most undrafted free agents because he is a larger-than-life character who also grew up in South Carolina and starred at Clemson. He won the Jack Lambert Award as the nation’s top collegiate linebacker as a senior in 2016, and he was the defensive MVP of the championship game when Clemson upset Alabama.
Boulware’s engaging personality also has won him fans. He sports a wild beard that would look at home on a lumberjack. He called himself “the hottest ugly guy on the team” earlier in August because of that beard.
Boulware was so anxious to get to the Panthers’ rookie minicamp in May that he arrived early and then took a nap in his car. He is a major Panthers fan and has been for years. So when Kuechly texted him a “welcome to the team” message in the spring, Boulware took a screen shot of the text and delightedly sent it to all his friends.
Boulware has also handled his rookie duties with aplomb and humor for the past several months, including his frequent purchases of coffee for the linebackers’ meetings.
“They’re all like – old!” Boulware said earlier this month. “TD (Thomas Davis) is like a grown man with kids. So he has to drink coffee. So we got so much coffee. And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re literally going to have to go to the bathroom every five minutes at practice.’”
A Clemson prediction
All of that has been fun, but fun isn’t enough to keep Boulware around on the 53-man roster (although if he doesn’t make the team, a spot on the practice squad certainly would be a possibility). Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Boulware has been doing a good job but that the coaches now have a decision to make among the slew of young linebackers they have.
“He’s a very conscientious young man,” Rivera said of Boulware. “He studies, he works hard and he practices hard. ... He’ll get some big opportunities (Thursday). We’re going to play the young guys as much as we can.”
So Thursday, for Boulware, needs to be showtime. “When it’s your time to shine, you need to shine,” he said.
Boulware is an optimistic sort, so he thinks he will shine. More evidence of that optimism: He pooh-poohs all doubters of his alma mater, saying that Clemson can make the College Football Playoff once again in 2017.
“We reload every year,” Boulware said. “Obviously (new quarterback) Kelly Bryant is not Deshaun Watson, but that’s what they have been preaching to him. Just be you. ... I feel like we can have another special year. I feel like we can win the ACC and get to the playoff again.”
Boulware, though, hopes he is on an NFL roster and thus has to watch most of the Clemson games on TV. The next step in his career is going to be difficult – it always is for an undrafted rookie free agent.
But if Boulware is going to take that step, he better find a ladder on Thursday.