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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Bills safety Aaron Williams had tears welling in his eyes and wore his emotions on his back upon learning the team had cut Fred Jackson.
Rather than wear his blue No. 23 jersey for practice, Williams hit the field wearing Jackson's No. 22 white jersey — with Jackson's name printed on the back — to pay tribute to the veteran running back, who was among 11 players released by the Bills on Monday.
"It's just like having a brother be gone," Williams said.
"To me, Fred was the Governor of Buffalo. Everybody looked up to him," he added. "It's a deep blow for us in the locker room and people in the community. But at the same time, we can't dwell on it. I can't dwell on it. Nobody else can dwell on it. We've still got a season to get ready for."
For the first time in nine years, the Bills will open the season minus Jackson, a respected team leader whose blue-collar approach and perseverance made him a fan favorite.
The Bills' decision was a mild surprise after Buffalo restocked its group of running backs by acquiring LeSean McCoy in a trade with Philadelphia this offseason. And yet that didn't make it an easy decision for general manager Doug Whaley, who referred to Jackson as "the heart and soul of the Buffalo Bills."
"A decision like this doesn't come lightly," Whaley said, noting he even consulted with team owners Terry and Kim Pegula. "Everybody was on board, reluctantly, because of the magnitude of this player, and what he means not only to the Buffalo Bills but to the community of Buffalo.
Whaley said Jackson was expendable in part because of the Bills depth at the position, and the $2.35 million base salary he was scheduled to make in the final year of his contract.
Jackson didn't return a message left on his cellphone, but did post a message on his Twitter account in which he thanked Bills fans for their support.
He ended the note by writing: "The Old Man isn't done yet!!"
Rex Ryan called it one of the toughest cuts he's made in seven seasons as a head coach. And he acknowledged that the Bills roster is weakened without Jackson.
"I'm not going to say that we're a better team because Fred Jackson's no longer here. I certainly don't believe that," Ryan said. "But it's part of the process. ... Sometimes you can't everybody you want to keep."
The Bills' depth chart at running back includes Boobie Dixon, Bryce Brown and hard-hitting rookie fifth-round draft pick, Karlos Williams.
The cuts were made two days after Jackson made his preseason debut in a 43-19 preseason win over Pittsburgh on Saturday.
After missing three weeks with a hamstring injury, Jackson was greeted by loud chants of "Freddie!" when he was introduced among the starters. On the first play from scrimmage, Jackson broke off on a 41-yard run, and scored on a 1-yard dive two plays later.
The offseason additions left Jackson aware that his days in Buffalo might be numbered.
"You have to prove yourself every time you step out on the field, and I'm included in that," Jackson said Saturday. "I wanted to go out and make some plays today. And I was able to put up something that I could be happy about."
Jackson was the NFL's oldest active running back last season. He was an undrafted free agent out of Coe College, and playing in a second-tier arena football league when the Bills signed him to their practice squad in 2006.
Jackson made the active roster the following season and proceeded to win the starting job in 2009, when he had a career-best 1,062 yards rushing, added 371 yards receiving and combined for four touchdowns.
Injuries slowed Jackson's productivity over the past few seasons.
Also cut by Buffalo were defensive backs Ross Cockrell, Kenny Ladler, Ellis Lankster and Wes Miller; defensive linemen Michael Buchanan, Justin Hamilton and Cedric Reed; offensive linemen Terren Jones and D.J. Morell; linebacker Andrew Hudson and running back Ricky Seale.
Receiver Austin Willis was placed on the waived/injured list. Cornerback Cam Thomas, who opened training camp on the active/physically unable to perform list was transferred to the season-ending reserve/PUP list.
The Bills returned to practice and prepare to play at Detroit in their preseason finale on Thursday night.
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