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."
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
"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.
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
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."