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The day before he reported to training camp in late July, Philadelphia Eagles center Hank Fraley and his wife, Danielle, stopped at a convenience store near their home in South Jersey. Fraley is a recognizable guy, a 305-pound bulldog who has endeared himself to Philly fans by anchoring the offensive line since 2001--71 gritty starts--and queuing up for cheesesteaks at Pat's or Geno's like a native son. But Fraley missed the final eight games of 2005 with a torn shoulder tendon, and his backup, Jamaal Jackson, played so well that the coaches told the two this spring they'd be competing for the starting job in camp. � A man in the store stopped Fraley to say hello, then added, "I just heard about Jamaal's contract extension. Sorry about that." � Fraley was stunned. The Eagles had told him there would be a fair competition for the center job, and now they give the kid a contract extension? The next day, when Fraley reported to camp at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., he learned it was true: Jackson had signed an incentive-laden, six-year deal that, if he beat out Fraley for the starting job, would be worth about $14.9 million. Most significantly, the deal included a $1.75 million bonus, and the frugal club doesn't give bonuses to players they don't intend to keep. The 28-year-old Fraley was coming off eight months of grueling rehab and entering the final year of his contract, and the Eagles had said nothing to him about an extension. He was further shaken when Philadelphia offensive line coach Juan Castillo announced practice assignments at the unit's first meeting: Jackson would get most of the snaps with the No. 1 team. For the first time in five years Fraley would be practicing with the backups. When he called home that night he told Danielle, "I am so pissed off right now."
Dramas like these--the battles for jobs among the NFL's middle class, conducted for the most part far from the public eye--are playing out this month at 32 training camps. At least 80 players at each site are sweating through drills, hoping to be among the fortunate 53 to survive the final cutdown date, Sept. 2. Between now and then, 600 to 700 players will walk out of locker rooms jobless. Some will be re-signed to eight-man practice squads, but the majority, from long-shot rookies to aging veterans trying to hang on, will see their NFL dreams die at camps from Cheney, Wash. ( Seattle Seahawks), to Davie, Fla. ( Miami Dolphins).
At New York Jets camp on Long Island four quarterbacks are competing for three roster spots, and part-time 2005 starter Brooks Bollinger may be the odd man out. In Jacksonville two failed first-round tackles, Stockar McDougle and Mike Williams, are vying for one backup slot with the Jaguars. The Dallas Cowboys' top pick this year, Bobby Carpenter, is pushing veteran Al Singleton for the strongside linebacker job; if Singleton loses, he might be cut. Whittling down a football roster is like making sausage: The final product might look good, but the process isn't pretty.
"We all know every practice out here is nut-cutting time," eight-year veteran linebacker Hannibal Navies said last Friday night following a Cincinnati Bengals intrasquad scrimmage in Georgetown, Ky. Navies had been shown the door by the Carolina Panthers and the Green Bay Packers before he landed in Cincinnati last year, appearing in 15 games and making one start. He's trying to stick with the Bengals as a backup linebacker and special teams player. "The tough part of this game is the part people don't see," he said. "When the ax starts swinging, a lot of these guys won't be playing football anymore."
Says Marv Levy, the former Buffalo Bills coach who is now the team's general manager, "Cutting players was by far the most distasteful part of my job. When I coached under George Allen in Washington, he made getting cut sound like the best thing that ever happened to a player. He'd say, 'We're going to put you on waivers, but that means 27 other teams will have a chance to compete to sign you. Who knows how high the bidding will go?' It wasn't that way for me. Especially with the vets, it was a job that always hurt me--even though I'd say 80 percent of the guys you cut can see it coming."
If there's a bright side to the Fraley-Jackson competition, it's that neither man will be out of work on Sept. 2. The loser will back up the winner this season in Philly. But if Fraley, who'll earn $656,000 this season, doesn't become the starter, he'll likely end up somewhere else next year; a smart, feisty, healthy 29-year-old center with 10 playoff starts is worth as much as $2.5 million a year to a line-needy team.
The Fraley-Jackson battle is a perfect example of the NFL's circle of life. Both players were undrafted free agents out of small colleges--Fraley from Robert Morris and Jackson from Delaware State--and both took advantage of breaks early in their pro careers. Fraley was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2000 and was picked up by Philadelphia in August of that year. He won the Eagles' starting center job the following year after incumbent Bubba Miller suffered a season-ending leg injury in the final preseason game.
Fraley kept the job until last November, when he stuck out his left arm to stop a blitzing Washington Redskins defender and tore his shoulder tendon. He was still rehabbing in March when he reported for off-season workouts and heard he would have to compete for the starting role. "I was in a little bit of shock," he said. "I sat there and thought, Wow. I'm not getting my job back. This is one brutal game, on and off the field."
Jackson spent the 2003 season on the practice squad and didn't play in '04, but he made the most of his opportunity when Fraley went down. Over the final eight games of '05, Jackson impressed coaches not only with his strength but also with his athleticism. At 6'4", 330 pounds, the 26-year-old Jackson is bigger than Fraley, and his arms are several inches longer--a plus for a center, who must lock onto defensive tackles and middle linebackers and not let them loose. "Most centers are short, squatty guys," says offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "A strong, long-armed kid is an advantage inside."
Fraley must rely on experience. A critical responsibility of the position is to quickly analyze the defense after breaking the huddle and make the blocking assignments for each of the five positions based on where the rush is coming from. For five years Fraley and quarterback Donovan McNabb spent three or four hours a week watching tape of opponents to get the line calls straight. "A quarterback has to trust his center to make the right calls," McNabb says. "Hank is as good as anybody I've seen at it."