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NFL preseason games are meaningless, except for players on the roster bubble

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Injuries to star players in preseason are a problem, but players fighting for a roster spot have every reason to play hard.

NFL: New York Giants at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries to key players in meaningless preseason games can change the course of entire seasons. But for players who are fighting for roster spots, these games do matter.

Odell Beckham Jr. sprained his ankle in preseason action against the Browns after a low, but legal, hit from safety Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Beckham isn’t expendable for the Giants, but Boddy-Calhoun is a 2016 undrafted free agent fighting for playing time in Cleveland. The preseason experience is very different for these two players.

Beckham’s roster spot is a lock, and his injury ignited a discussion on the wisdom of playing superstars in preseason games. But for Boddy-Calhoun, who started six games for the Browns last season after they claimed him off waivers from the Jaguars, his NFL future isn’t guaranteed. He’s trying to make an impression.

Boddy-Calhoun said he was trying to stay within the rules.

“I was just trying to hit him low, hit him in the target area, which is from the neck to the knee,” Boddy-Calhoun said via Cleveland.com’s Dan Labbe, “just anywhere in there, but I wasn't aiming at anything specific or anything like that.”

There’s another big difference between Beckham’s and Boddy-Calhoun’s careers. Beckham’s making over $3.3 million this year (and has his sights set on being the league’s highest-paid player), while Boddy-Calhoun’s making the league minimum. That’s also the case for Eagles wide receiver Bryce Treggs, who also went undrafted in 2016.

Treggs was fined $25,000 for a block on Packers cornerback Damarious Randall in preseason play. Treggs hit Randall high and gave him a concussion. He wasn’t flagged, and he wasn’t happy about the fine. He tweeted, and later deleted, that he was going to start a GoFundMe to pay the fine.

Randall was unsympathetic.

But Treggs knows he’s on the bubble. He has to make an impression.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy asked the NFL to review that play, along with one that resulted in wide receiver Malachi Dupree being carted off the field.

"If I turned them into the league, I don't think they're legal hits," McCarthy said via ESPN’s Tim McManus.

Ben McAdoo had a different perspective when he spoke to the media after Beckham’s injury.

“You can’t hit a guy high, you can’t hit a guy low, you try to hit him in the middle,” McAdoo said. “It’s one of those balls that Eli (Manning) had to drive it and he left his feet. It’s a tough play for a DB.”

There’s no question that the quality of preseason games is below the level of competition we see in regular season games. Some of that can be blamed on vanilla schemes and a general lack of game planning. But it’s also the drop-off in talent from NFL starters to guys who are crossing their fingers for a shot at a roster spot.

Marcelis Branch, an undrafted rookie out of Robert Morris University who is competing for a spot on the free safety depth chart with the Falcons, told SB Nation why preseason games matter to a guy like him.

“As a guy trying to make a roster, preseason games are a great opportunity to prove that you can play at a high level,” Branch said.

Roger Goodell said during an Arizona Cardinals fan forum that the quality of the preseason doesn’t match the regular season “by any stretch of the imagination” and he’d consider eliminating one of the four games. Although Mark Maske of The Washington Post said owners don’t seem willing to shorten the preseason, it’s still hard to justify risking serious injury to star players for games that mean nothing to them.

But these games do mean something to those players who are long shots to make NFL rosters. And asking them to take it down a notch could mean asking them to choose between unemployment and seeing their NFL dreams come true.