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?

Compact Carr

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.

Suddenly Starting

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.


26 comments, Last at 29 Sep 2005, 2:55am

1 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Interesting and well-written article. Nice job. I would love to read an update on these gentlemen in six weeks/end of the year to see if any of them manage to (at least at that point)solidify their roster spots.

2 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

It's appropriate that the first fringe player you mentioned was a special teams player, as that's where a lot of guys really make their mark. Even some formerly good players end up falling out of grace (like Mark Simoneau, whose name Jimmy Johnson couldn't even pronounce, even though he was a starting linebacker for the past two years) and having to work back through special teams.

That's the reason that Labinjo stood out last year, too - Harbaugh really liked the way he played on special teams.

That's one of the reasons why the Eagles' new running back has been inactive for the first two games - because he's not as valuable to them on special teams as, say, Reno Mahe.

3 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

I had already noticed Carr, thanks to my fantasy league playing IDPs and counting return yardage. He's starting for me this week. Count me as one fan rooting for him to keep it up.

4 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

I loved the play calling to give Carthon the ball on the third-and-goal from the six. I think the Colts are the only team in the league that would have run that play, which is funny considering how many people are convinced that Peyton Manning tries to pad his stats by throwing near the goal line. I'm sure those same people will now say the Colts had to run because Manning sucks and he wouldn't have been able to throw a touchdown pass.

6 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

"For one week, at least, Amey helped the Niners put a nightmare offseason behind them."

And in Week 2, Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens kick started that nightmare all over again.

7 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

"He had a fine game off the bench against the Cardinals (...)"

Could one say that about every bench player in the NFL who doesn't practice in Arizona?

8 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

RE #$
MDS, don't be silly. Manning is a stat-hogging megalomaniac. The only reason he handed off to Carthon was because he has a secret deal with the NFL... starting next year, every TD run gives half credit to the QB who handed it off, further padding his bloated stats. I hear the rules change would be retroactive, so Manning is just claiming to be selfless when really, it's just the same old me me me.
And you know they flew a planeload of supplies down to Louisiana last week just to look good for the media while secretly scoring some looted beignets and crawfish. And his contract is full of dirty little secrets like this, for example, did you know that any OL who gives up two sacks in one game has to surrender his first-born? Now you know why he has such low sack totals. Sure the NFLPA hates it, but what can they do? After all, he's a Manning.

9 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

I know that it's just because I'm a smarta$$ accountant, but I believe this guy was technically the first to touch the ball in the 2005 season. I've heard of him.

10 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

pawnking, unless he kicks barefoot, I don't think he touched it first DURING the season. I know he touched it to put it on the tee (or does an official do that?), but has the season actually started before the kicker's foot makes contact? The clock doesn't start until then...

Carr was the first person to make skin-to-pigskin contact during the season. That's if you're being TECHNICAL... ;-)

12 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

My favorite story in Denver is Nick Fergeson, who in his 10th NFL season just entered and exited training camp as the starter for the first time. Talk about perseverance. I can't imagine how he could stick with his dream for that long after that much discouragement.

I know Denver's actually had a lot of success with "fringe players". Matt Lepsis, Dwayne Carswell, and Rod Smith were all undrafted. Ed McCaffrey was cut from his former squad. Even recently, Bert Berry spent a season out of football after the Colts cut him as a fringe player, and last year he lead the NFL in sacks. Lenny Walls and Kelly Herndon were both undrafted. I remember during the last 6-8 games of the 2003 season, 8 of Denver's 11 starters were either undrafted free agents, or guys who had been cut from their former squad as "washed up". Denver's defense finished the season among the top 5.

Another great story is Charlie Adams, who was a practice squad receiver for Denver last year. All the press during the preseason was on whether Watts or Rice would win the #3 job, and very quietly Adams worked his butt off, outperformed both of them, and dropped them down to #4 and #5 on the roster.

I don't know if it's just that I never hear as much about the players on other teams, but I think Shanahan has had extraordinary success with "fringe players" (guys taken in the 6th round or later, undrafted, or cut from their former teams). For all the knock on Shanahan as a GM because of his draft skills, he more than makes up for it when it comes to finding cheap (and effective) talent outside the draft.

13 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

RE # 9 & 10:
How can we be sure that he made skin to skin contact? I believe most return men wear gloves. He could have cradled the ball between his gloves and his shirt and there wouldn't necessarily be skin contact. That would make the ref the first person to make skin contact. If only players count though, that makes the center next in line. I have also seen centers wear gloves on a number of occassions. In the end that leaves Kerry Collins as the first player to make skin to ball contact.
My point is this: it was a great article that I really enjoyed, but it was written to make us think about the human side of football, not the stats. Therefore, do the little details really matter?

14 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

BTW, I also enjoyed the article. It highlights the players who sacrifice as much as the big name-ers, but get almost nothing out of it.

My fiancee once worked with a man who played for the Eagles as a back-up tight end. He said all he had left was a limp, a pension, and a health care plan. How about some serious looks into post-NFL carreers of fringies? I believe they might have some things to say about the game today, what it was like to practice and play in the biggest show on earth, and how it affected their lives, either good or bad.

At any rate, a great article! Thank you.

16 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Your skin doesn't have to make contact with something in order to "touch" it. Vinatieri was the first guy to touch the football. But if you want to say "catch" or "hold," Carr was the first.

17 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Re #12:

I don’t know if it’s just that I never hear as much about the players on other teams, but I think Shanahan has had extraordinary success with “fringe players� (guys taken in the 6th round or later, undrafted, or cut from their former teams).

I think a lot of it has to do with the team you follow. From the team I follow, everybody now knows about Willie Parker (and if the Patriots had signed him, we'd never hear the end of how he was more evidence of the genius of Pioli and Belichick), and you may remember James Harrison, who stepped in when Joey Porter was ejected for last year's pre-game fight and filled in admirably at linebacker.

Having said that, it shouldn't be too hard to count up games started by "fringe players" to see which teams have had success with them.

18 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

In 2003, the Eagles had six undrafted rookies make the team. Two seasons later, they're all still there. Two are starters (Artis Hicks and Greg Lewis), and two more are major contributors that play about a third of the snaps in every game (Rod Hood and Sam Rayburn). Quentin Mikell backs up both safety positions, and Reno '911' Mahe, well, he sucks, but for some reason he's hung around. All told, the Eagles have thirteen players on the 2005 roster that went went undrafted and were signed by the Eagles (that's not including players like David Akers and Hank Fraley, who went undrafted but were initially signed by other teams). By comparison, there are a whopping four players on the team that were drafted by the Eagles in rounds 5-7. Not sure what that says about the Eagles or about the draft.

19 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

The Colts have had a decent run of undrafted guys. Jeff Saturday, Gary Brackett, Raheem Brock are all starters. They found Nick Harper in the CFL. Dominic Rhodes and James Mungro have filled in well at RB, and the jury's still out on Carthon.

20 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

The Colts had to run because Manning sucks and he wouldn’t have been able to throw a touchdown pass. Don't you know that he can only throw TDs against pathetic teams when they're already up by 30 (how they built that lead I don't know, but it's obviously not by Manning throwing TDs) and is selfishly looking to pad his stats by throwing on every play. Manning is the Kliff Kingsbury of the NFL - he really, really sucks, but because he's in such an incredible system that throws on every play, and they only play the worst teams in the league, he gets good numbers.

Also, his contract is so monstrous that nobody else on the team can make more than minimum salary. He made the state of Indiana raise taxes, with the increased revenue going straight to him. He eats puppies for breakfast, then for dinner he takes orphans to the best restaurants in town - and makes them watch, starving, while he eats three steaks. He also controls ESPN's 'talent' selection and storylines, so he is responsible for the Sunday Night crew, Bayless, Stu Scott, Salisbury, Steven A, Paige, et al, and the constant Yankees/Red Sox mambo jambo. Now I really hate him.

21 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Re: #19 -

Actually, Raheem Brock was drafted - he was a 7th round pick of the Eagles, who never signed him because of a disagreement of around 20k in signing bonus (the Eagles may have been limited by the rookie pool). He then signed on with the Colts and was a regular by the end of that year. This is a sore subject among certain Eagles fans. (Specifically, the kind of fans that get sore over Raheem Brock)

22 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Thanks for the clarification. I knew the Colts didn't draft Brock, and just saw they signed him as a FA on the roster.

23 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Since a "touch" in football requires neither "skin-to-skin contact" - ask any player on a punt return team who's had a punt bounce off their leg and get recovered by the kicking team - nor posession, I think we have to conclude that Mr. Vinatieri was the first player to "touch" a football this NFL season.

The first player to "carry" a football this NFL season, OK.

25 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

Re: #18 -

Matt what it means is the Eagles draft well, they know talent and they love to save money. They might say that the salary cap causes them to do this and the perception of the Eagles front office is that they are cheap. They are cheap just ask T.O., Westbrook, Duce, etc. Banner/Reid will never break the bank. But their business moves have not left them lacking in talented players for "this" team.
The difference between the Patriots and Eagles is that certain Patriot players are more willing to stay with the team for less pay (i.e. Bruschi, Troy Brown) and still be effective on the field. And win! The Eagles draft well enough and sign their talent to long term deals with great effect. Prime example of this is the 2002 draft.
Two corners and a safety in the first two rounds. Taylor and Vincent were effective corners "for the Eagles" although Vincent had to deal with some injuries. Sheppard and Brown play sparingly, but learn. Taylor and Vincent are allowed to bid their services to the open market in 2004. Sheppard and Brown are starters and before week 8 of the 2004 season they both have new long term contracts. Barring major injury or poor play sheppard and Brown will play to the end of their contracts (2011 and 2012 respectively) and be able to bid their services with another team.
But not the Eagles. Why? Because the the Eagles signed two rookie free agents in 2010 who are talented and much cheaper!

26 Re: Too Deep Zone: Fringe to the Spotlight

"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."

How about a KCW award for running out the clock and ending your team's (admittedly slim) hopes?