Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight
by Mike Tanier
The first player to touch a football this NFL season was a guy I had never heard of.
Chris Carr wasn't a top prospect as a defensive back. He wasn't even considered a top prospect as a return man, like Darren Sproles or Darrent Williams. He was damaged goods, a too-small player from a mid-major college coming off an injury that ruined his senior season.
He was a long shot to make a roster. But there he was in the Thursday Night spotlight, taking the stage after Tricia Yearwood and Ozzy Osbourne and the Rolling Stones, standing deep to receive the first kickoff of 2005.
He returned that kick 25 yards when it looked like he would go nowhere. He played well the whole game, well enough to be noticed, well enough to retain the return-specialist job for the Raiders for another week.
As a sportswriter, I find myself typing the same names over and over again: Favre and Brady, Vick and Lewis, McNabb and McNair and McAllister. But for every NFL superstar, there are dozens of players on the fringe who are just trying to hang on to their jobs. These players often earn the league minimum, they sometimes only stay on the roster for a few weeks, and they rarely show up on the stat sheet.
But sometimes a fringe player suddenly finds himself in the spotlight, leaving us to wonder. Where did he come from? How did he get here? And how long will he be staying?
Carr was a standout at McQueen High in Reno, Nevada. He was Nevada's Offensive Player of the Year in his senior season. University of Nevada recruited him as a tailback, but the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder wanted to play defensive back, so he chose Boise State instead.
He made the transition to defense so smoothly that he started several games as a true freshman. He was entrenched as a starter by his junior year, when he recorded 81 tackles and four interceptions while averaging 26.3 yards per kickoff return. He won WAC Player of the Week honors three times. Off the field, he earned a degree in political science in May of 2004, before the start of his senior season.
He was named a team captain in 2004. He opened the season by returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown in a lopsided Boise State win. A few weeks later, he returned a second punt for a touchdown against SMU. But later in that game, while hauling in a game-saving interception in the end zone, Carr broke his collarbone. He only played sparingly for the remainder of the season.
Carr was off the draft radar. He signed with the Raiders as a free agent. The Raiders had drafted a horde of defensive backs, including Fabian Washington and Stanford Routt. They had several possible kick returners on the roster, including Washington and speedy wideouts Alvis Whitted and Doug Gabriel.
But Carr made a name for himself. He returned a kickoff 28 yards in one exhibition game, a punt 36 yards in another. Against the Saints in the exhibition finale, he scored on a 101-yard kickoff return. The play was called back, but coach Norv Turner was impressed.
"I told the team before the first minicamp that somebody in the room was going to surprise them and make the team," Turner said after the Saints game, indicating that Carr had earned a roster spot. Turner also called Carr "one of the best punt catchers I have been around." Carr would be the Raiders' return man, but he was on a short leash: Gabriel, nursing a finger injury, would be available in a few weeks if Carr turned into fool's gold.
It didn't happen against the Patriots: Carr displayed sure hands, start-and-stop quickness, and excellent field vision. He was matched up against Dante Hall -- one of his role models -- in Week Two. Carr muffed the first punt he tried to return, but he did his best to make up for the mistake, returning a second punt 34 yards to set up a Raiders touchdown.
Carr's job appears safe for now, but one or two more muffs will land him on the waiver wire. The spotlight can be fickle.
Slopping Hogs, Stopping Patriots
Jordan Carstens was a 228-pound pig farmer's son from Bagley, Iowa without an athletic scholarship when he tried out for the Iowa State football team. Over the next five years, he would bulk up to 300-pounds, earn second-team All Big-12 honors, and make the academic all-conference team four times.
But he would go undrafted by the NFL. Carstens had a reputation as a high-effort player with great strength but limited athletic gifts. He only registered ten sacks in four college seasons, a testimony to his limits as a pass rusher. He also battled knee injuries and sprained ankles throughout his senior season, and scouts feared that he wasn't built to handle 300 pounds of mass.
Carstens was forced to walk on again, this time as a rookie free agent for the Panthers in 2004. His hustle impressed John Fox, but the Panthers had one of the best (and deepest) defensive lines in the NFL. Carstens made the practice squad and was activated in Week 5 of last season, after Kris Jenkins went down for the year.
Carstens was a little-used rotation sub. He started one game when Kindal Moorehead (Jenkins' replacement) was hurt. He had a fine game off the bench against the Cardinals, recording four solo tackles and recovering a fumble. Still, he played 12 games without recording a sack, and in many weeks he didn't even make a tackle. There was no reason to expect Carstens to keep his job when Jenkins returned in 2005.
Last week against the Patriots, Carstens was in the starting lineup. Jenkins is once again lost for the year; Moorehead is now Carstens' backup after an impressive camp. "He's a young player that we've seen a lot of improvement in," Fox said of Carstens. Added DT Brentson Buckner in a Charlotte Observer interview: "He knows what to do and he goes out and plays hard, and you can't teach a person to play hard."
Carstens was invisible on the stat sheet: no tackles, no assists, certainly no sacks. But the Patriots rushed just 16 times for 39 yards, so Carstens was doing something right. He plugged holes, maintained assignments, and took on double teams. In short, he did what high-effort fringe players are supposed to do. The Iowa pig farmer had a hand in taking down the defending champions.
Eagles fans who tuned in to Monday Night Football were stunned to find that Mike Labinjo was starting at middle linebacker. Labinjo was pretty stunned, too.
"That was a shock to me," he told the Philadelphia Daily News. "You never know what's going to happen, but I never expected that."
Labinjo spent 13 games on the Eagles practice squad last year. He was activated late in the year, when the Eagles clinched home field advantage for the playoffs and rested all of their starters. Labinjo played well in two late games - he had two tackles for a loss against the Rams -- but no one was watching except the coaches.
Labinjo, a starter for three seasons at Michigan State, played well enough in those meaningless games to enter camp as Jeremiah Trotter's backup. And he played well enough in camp to keep the job. A converted fullback, Labinjo went undrafted because he couldn't shed blocks and wasn't fast enough to pursue plays to the sidelines. Now, he was one disaster away from starting for the NFC champs.
That disaster struck when Trotter was ejected before the Falcons game. A surprised Labinjo would be asked to chase Warrick Dunn and control Michael Vick. "I was really nervous," he told the Daily News. "The first two series, I had trouble breathing." Labinjo didn't play poorly, but the Eagles clearly missed Trotter in the Monday Night loss.
Labinjo was back on the bench against the Niners. He may be a future star, or he may be driving a forklift this time next year. Fringe players don't get a lot of second chances. They have to make the most of their rare opportunities.
Worthy of the Spotlight
Fringe players are everywhere.
Ran Carthon had some good games at Florida, but NFL scouts weren't that impressed. The Colts brought him to camp in 2004 but released him. The Cowboys placed him on their practice squad and released him, even though Carthon's father, Maurice, was the team's offensive coordinator. The Colts gave him a second chance, and he saw limited action late last season.
Last Sunday, Carthon scored the game-winning touchdown against the Jaguars.
Jason Peters was a square peg, a 320-pound tight end from Arkansas. Scouts considered him an overgrown kid who ran like a tackle but blocked like a tight end; someone who lacked the mental discipline to succeed in the NFL. The Bills invited him to camp, placed him on the practice squad, and activated him for a handful of games in 2004.
This offseason, Peters earned a job as an extra tight end in the Bills' heavy-duty running formation. In Week One, no one bothered to cover big #71 when he leaked into the end zone. Peters caught the touchdown pass that iced a victory against the Texans.
And then there's Otis Amey. Amey was a Division I-AA All American, and he holds many receiving records at Sacramento State. But 5-foot-10 receivers from small programs don't get a lot of attention. Like Chris Carr, he came to the NFL as an undrafted rookie hoping to make a name for himself as a return man.
Amey did what rookie free agents are supposed to do. He hustled. He did the little things. And he got to know the other fringe players on the 49ers roster, players who could commiserate about their slim hopes of making the roster and continuing their football careers.
Players like Thomas Herrion.
Herrion, of course, passed away suddenly at the end of a preseason game, a victim of a heart condition. Amey performed a rap at Herrion's memorial service. He recorded his song, giving it to Bay Area radio and television stations so they could play it as a tribute to Herrion. "It's hard seeing people die," Amey rapped. "I never in my life saw so many men cry."
"Amey has something important in common with Herrion," Gwen Knapp wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. "He, too, was undrafted, an outsider trying to get into the NFL. The 49ers are just getting to know him as an athlete and a person. The song fills in a lot of blanks."
Amey helped his team to heal. Then he helped them to win. He returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in Week One, helping the Niners to an unlikely win over the Rams. For one week, at least, Amey helped the Niners put a nightmare offseason behind them.
And he scored six more points for the fringe players, the practice squaders, and the roster fillers. Players like Carr, Carstens, Labinjo, and Amey -- and Herrion -- are closer to us than they are to the superstars of the NFL. That makes them easier to relate to, and in some ways, more interesting to write about.