Even exceptional NFL stays often don't last a decade. A player can crash from stardom into its unforgiving aftermath in a single play. The speed of football can take your breath away not only the field, but in the career arcs of the men who play the sport.
It was March of 2014. Nick Foles was fresh off earning the Pro Bowl MVP award. Jairus Byrd was the No. 1 overall free agent in the entire league. Victor Cruz was coming off the first season of a hard-earned big-money contract.
In football years, it feels like that spring happened in the Mesozoic Era. Now all three men are fighting to keep their jobs in hopes of extending their football lives as long as possible.
Training camp starts this week. It's a time of optimism around the NFL, and a time of anxiety for many players. Below is our incomplete list of notable guys at risk of being released in the coming weeks. Foles was released Wednesday. Other cuts will be updated as they come.
1) Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants: The organization is rooting for him. His teammates are rooting for him. Just about anyone who watched football between 2011 and 2013 is hoping for a rebound from one of the most popular players of this decade.
Sentiment only goes so far, though. Cruz already would be an ex-Giant if he didn't accept a pay cut from $7.9 million to $2.4 million in March. The undrafted slot receiver tore his patellar tendon in 2014 and missed all of 2015 with calf injuries. There is no telling if he can ever regain his form, and the Giants aren't counting on it. General manager Jerry Reese drafted a younger Cruz clone in Sterling Shepard, another versatile receiver with excellent quickness and confident hands.
The Giants guaranteed Cruz's $2.4 million base salary, an extraordinary show of faith that most front offices wouldn't dare. After taking his recovery slowly in OTAs, Cruz must prove he can withstand the rigors of NFL play again, or his Cinderella run in Gotham could end.
2) Arian Foster, RB, Miami Dolphins: It is cruel to put Foster on this list just days after the four-time Pro Bowler muscled his way back into the league. The plan is for Foster to show he recovered from his torn Achilles tendon, then eventually compete with Jay Ajayi for snaps.
History shows that running backs struggle to return after this injury, and Foster showed signs of wearing down in 2015 pre-injury, averaging just 2.6 yards per attempt. The contract here is telling. Foster got "only" $400,000 guaranteed and $1.5 million base salary, the price of a low-cost backup.
So will the Dolphins flush that money away if Foster doesn't look right in August? The Patriots gave Reggie Wayne a $450,000 signing bonus last year before pulling the ripcord ahead of Week 1. Odds are that Foster makes the team, but he will need to look healthy, or that signing bonus could turn into an early retirement nest egg.
3) C.J. Spiller, RB, New Orleans Saints: When Spiller is right -- like when he gained 2,821 yards from scrimmage in Buffalo from 2012 to '13 -- his speed can make other pros look amateur. Spiller didn't look right in New Orleans last season as he struggled with a knee injury.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Spiller looked "noticeably different" this offseason, yet there is doubt that New Orleans will retain a No. 3 running back with a $4.5 million cap hit. Mark Ingram is the clear starter, and remarkable comeback story Tim Hightower might run too hard to be denied a job. Travaris Cadet offers a similar skill-set to Spiller, giving the Saints another option if Spiller doesn't shine in camp.
4) Jairus Byrd, FS, New Orleans Saints: Sean Payton signed Byrd against former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's wishes, then forced Ryan to change his system to suit Byrd's strengths. No defense gave up more points or yards in the two seasons to follow.
Byrd can't be blamed for all those problems, yet he's clearly on thin ice after 17 ineffective games over the last two years. No player earned more guaranteed money in 2014 free agency, and now Byrd's starting job isn't even safe. Rookie second-round pick Vonn Bell is ready to pounce if Byrd can't stay healthy after missing most of this offseason (again) with a knee problem.
It would cost the Saints more in cap room to release Byrd than to keep him, but sometimes a team knows when it simply has to cut its losses. The presence of Spiller and Byrd on this list is a reminder how poorly the Saints' front office has managed free agency and the salary cap in recent years.
5) Devin Hester, WR/KR/PR, Atlanta Falcons: One of the game's all-time-great returners, Hester rejuvenated his career in Atlanta in 2014. That magic ran out with the Falcons' coaching staff last season. He's no longer used on offense and could be a luxury item for the Falcons staff, especially considering he's 33 years old and carries a $3.5 million salary. (UPDATE: On Tuesday, a day after the initial publishing of this piece, the Falcons did indeed release Devin Hester.)
6) Nick Foles, QB, Los Angeles Rams: Coach Jeff Fisher spoke about Foles in the past tense this offseason during the quarterback's "mutual" absence from the team. That's not a great sign.
Foles was effective recently enough to inspire 1) a trade for Sam Bradford, 2) a three-year, $27 million contract in 2015, including a $6 million roster bonus paid this March and 3) a Pro Bowl MVP award. That all gives the Rams hope they could find a team desperate enough to trade for Foles (Denver? San Francisco?), but it's more likely he'll be cut.
First-round picks running out of chances
1) D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland Raiders: GM Reggie McKenzie's recent moves, including his extreme makeover in the secondary, have helped everyone forget about his initial first-round pick in Oakland.
2) Dee Milliner, CB, New York Jets: It's telling that Antonio Cromartie left town, yet Milliner is no higher than fourth on the Jets' cornerback depth chart. The No. 9 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft is a remnant of the glacial period under former GM John Idzik.
3) Matt Elam, S, Baltimore Ravens: It is conceivable that Ozzie Newsome's first- and second-round picks of the 2013 NFL Draft both don't make the Ravens. Elam's battling for a spot in the secondary, and Arthur Brown has one more chance to make an impact at inside linebacker.
4) Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns: Mingo could be anywhere from the starting lineup to the waiver wire. It's worth noting he had his best season under new/old Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton in 2013. If nothing else, he'll have always inspired this headline.
5) Justin Gilbert, CB, Cleveland Browns: Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Gilbert was drafted in 2014. The former No. 8 overall pick was the subject of offseason puff pieces about a "fresh start" under Hue Jackson, but Gilbert has yet to show the instincts or discipline necessary to cover professional wideouts.
Free agency deals gone wrong
1) Arthur Jones, DT, Indianapolis Colts: The Jones family's second PED suspension of the summer could be the last straw. Signed to a five-year, $33 million deal in 2014, Jones was already in trouble because of injury problems. Jones' presence is a Post-it note attached to GM Ryan Grigson's shaky résumé in free agency.
2) Alterraun Verner, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Once a metrics darling, Verner couldn't even keep his starting job last year. With Brent Grimes and No. 11 pick Vernon Hargreaves in the fold, the Bucs could move on from Verner two years after handing him a four-year deal.
3) Ahmad Brooks, OLB, San Francisco 49ers: Brooks seemingly has been on the bubble for years, yet some event always pops up to save him. That something this year could be the recent suspension of Aaron Lynch.
Running backs on the edge
1) LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots: The Patriots annually release a big veteran name or three few people see coming. Keep an eye on Blount, who wasn't re-signed to the team until April and wasn't healthy this offseason.
2) Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos: It is still strange that Hillman started 12 games last season, including the AFC Championship Game. C.J. Anderson is the starter now, and fourth-round pick Devontae Booker could render Hillman obsolete.
4) Tre Mason, Los Angeles Rams: After an offseason arrest, coach Jeff Fisher said the Rams "have to prepare ourselves that Tre's not going to be here." The magic number for Mason's off-field distractions is zero. Go over that, and he's off the team.
5) Andre Williams, New York Giants: This has been an offseason of incremental change for the Giants. Don't overhaul the coaching staff; just remove Tom Coughlin. Don't overhaul the beleaguered RB depth chart; just remove Coughlin's guy from Boston College.
The last six-pack
1) Bryce Petty, QB, New York Jets: Christian Hackenberg is the new quarterback of the future. Geno Smith is the quarterback of the awkward present. If the quarterback of 2015 and his beard show up again, Petty could be out of luck.
2) Greg Zuerlein, K, Los Angeles Rams: "The Leg" needs to be a lot more accurate in Los Angeles than it was in St. Louis.
3) Charles Johnson, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Like other players with no special teams value, Johnson could fall from a starting job to the waiver wire. Learning special teams as an NFL player is like learning computer science in 1994.
4) Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans: Dorial Green-Beckham seemingly has replaced Hunter as the toolsy wideout that drives the organization batty, just like Hunter once replaced Kenny Britt in this role. You can only have one.
5) Aaron Dobson, WR, New England Patriots: After a strong rookie season in 2013, Dobson has been the target of too many incomplete deep throws. This figures to be his last chance.