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The View From the Outside Looking In

The Jets' Practice Squad is a Revolving Door of Dreamers Who Earn $5,200 a Week as They Compete for Their NFL Lives.


Robby Felix had just finished lifting weights with the rest of the Jets' practice squad last month when he spotted a team employee whom he knows as "the grim reaper." That nom de guerre belongs to Brendan Prophett, the team's director of pro personnel, and Mr. Felix, a 295-pound center, eyed him warily as he entered the locker room.

Mr. Prophett was searching for his prey. "And sure enough, he comes in and grabs Chad," Mr. Felix said.

Mr. Prophett soon informed Chad Rinehart, an offensive lineman, of his release after he spent 16 days with the team as a glorified tackling dummy. Mr. Rinehart was picked up four days later by the Buffalo Bills, but the episode was another cautionary tale for Mr. Felix, who owns one of the more tenuous occupations in all of professional sports. "It would be pretty devastating if they cut me," he said.

At last count, 19 players had circulated through the Jets' eight-man practice squad this season. Each player earns $5,200 per week during their employment—however long that lasts—to participate in workouts, lift weights, study film and essentially do everything their higher-profile teammates do except dress for games.

This is their shared goal, of course, though being on the practice squad can feel like the equivalent of gridiron purgatory: one step from the glamour and lucre of a productive NFL career, one step from being out of football completely.

"There's always someone coming, always someone going," said linebacker Josh Mauga, who was recently promoted to the active roster.

By rule, players can only be on practice squads for three seasons, tops. After that, they must be on a 53-man active roster or find another line of work. Mr. Felix likened his job to a college player "redshirting" for a season, or two, or three.

"Practice is your game," said Logan Payne, one of two wide receivers on the Jets' practice squad. During the week, Mr. Payne matches up against All-Pro cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. On Sunday, he watches them play on television. Such is life on the margins.

The concept was introduced in 1989, when the NFL allowed each team to sign a maximum of five players to so-called "practice squads." That number was expanded to eight in 2004. And while practice squads will never be considered pipelines to NFL stardom, they do produce players who wind up contributing to their teams in significant ways.

Brandon Moore, the Jets' standout right guard, began his career on the practice squad, and Jets coach Rex Ryan now considers Mr. Moore the best player at his position in the league. (Not to mention "tough as a boot.")

Joe Andruzzi, before he retired in 2006, won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots as one of the team's more dependable offensive linemen after he toiled on the Green Bay Packers' practice squad. According to the league, approximately 15% of all active NFL players have served on a practice squad at some point in their careers.

"It's an invaluable tool for teams to have the ability to do this," said Joe Linta, a New Haven-based agent who represented Mr. Andruzzi, "and it creates opportunities for kids who might otherwise be out on the street."

At the same time, there is a perception that practice-squad players are mercenaries for teams that want information on future opponents. Mr. Payne, for example, had spent training camp with the Minnesota Vikings before they released him in September.

The Jets just happened to sign him two days before they played host to the Vikings on Sept. 11. While Mr. Payne said he shared his knowledge of his former employer with the Jets, he also thought coach Ryan was genuinely interested in him. In his mind, he was more than just a scouting report. And he has managed to stick around.

General manager Mike Tannenbaum said the Jets view their practice squad as a collection of players they hope to develop. In that sense, "practice squad" is a misnomer—or at least creates the wrong impression.

Mr. Tannenbaum said each player on the squad typically has "one dominant, redeeming quality" that intrigues the staff. It might be strength for a lineman or speed for a skill player. In Patrick Turner's case, he has terrific size for a wide receiver at 6-foot-5. Jarron Gilbert, a defensive tackle who was promoted to the active roster this month, has rare length and athleticism.

"We want guys who can contribute," Mr. Tannenbaum said. "Rex talks all the time about wanting to leave one or two spots open each week, so we try to set things up where practices are competitive and guys can distinguish themselves."

When Martin Tevaseu, a soft-spoken, 325-pound defensive tackle from UNLV, broke his left hand at training camp, he said he knew he had no choice but to play with a club-like cast for five weeks. The reality is that he would have gotten cut. Ultimately, Mr. Tevaseu's cast became a sort of symbol for his toughness, which Mr. Ryan referenced throughout camp.

These days, Mr. Tevaseu still does not feel confident enough to sign a year-long apartment lease. Instead, he pays $322 per week to live at a hotel near the team's practice facility. Anxiety tends to be one of the job's side effects, and the feeling is universal.

Tyler Reed was an offensive lineman on the Chicago Bears' practice squad for three seasons before an injury forced him out of football in 2009. He never got to dress for a game, a distinction he describes as "unfortunate."

He recalled how the Bears had their own version of the grim reaper, a team employee who was the low man on the front-office totem pole, and he would stand at the entrance to the locker room after practice every Saturday. That was his designated day to hand out pink slips.

"My first year there, I'd try to avoid to avoid him by going through the weight room, wait for him to leave, whatever," Mr. Reed said. "After a while, I just said, 'Screw it.' I remember talking to him once, and he was telling me, 'You'd be amazed the things players do to avoid me. Do guys really think we won't cut you if we can't find you?' But he was a nice guy. He had to have the worst job in sports."

This season's success story is Mr. Mauga, who has overcome a string of serious injuries. As a senior at Nevada-Reno in 2008, he played through a torn pectoral muscle but went undrafted. After Mr. Mauga spent months rehabbing from surgery, the Jets signed him in August 2009. But the team waived him 12 days later, in large part because he was having trouble with his back.

He got another shot this summer when the Jets invited him to training camp. Then he collied with John Conner, a hard-hitting rookie fullback who gave him a concussion. That was the end of Mr. Mauga's camp, and the Jets released him on Sept. 3.

The silver lining: Despite Mr. Mauga's many problems staying healthy, the Jets felt he had potential. So they signed him to the practice squad. Without that option, who knows where Mr. Mauga would be right now? Even he acknowledges the hard truth that his football career might be dead. Practice squads allow peripheral players second, even third chances.

One day before the Jets played host to the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 31, Mr. Ryan pulled Mr. Mauga aside at practice and told him he was getting a promotion: He would dress for the game and play special teams. "Let's see what you can do," Mr. Ryan told him.

It was an important conversation. Mr. Mauga's promotion meant he would suddenly make the rookie minimum of $18,823 per week, a significant raise. But he said that was far from his mind at the time. He just wanted to play.

And so, after an uneventful debut, Mr. Mauga took the field again to defend the opening kickoff against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. He sprinted down the middle, found a seam and made the first tackle of the game—and the first of his career.

He bounded toward the sideline to celebrate the moment with his teammates, who understood the ruthless path he had traveled. The rest watched him on TV.

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