Life as a fringe player in the NFL

Nick Eubanks had just finished a practice session Tuesday in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., when his agent called with positive news.

The Texans were interested in signing Eubanks to their practice squad and needed him to travel to Houston on Wednesday. They had booked a 5 a.m. flight for him from Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and towards Hobby Airport. That was all Eubanks needed to hear. He had been a free agent since the Cincinnati Bengals cut him in August, and he was looking for another opportunity. He packed his things that day and was ready the next morning.

For Eubanks, the move was pretty smooth. He is from Fort. Lauderdale, owns a house there and plans to keep it.

But for his counterparts — other players on the practice squad, fringe players and free agents — the move can sometimes be stressful, especially if you’re unprepared. Practice Squad players can be added to another squad’s active roster at any time. When this happens, they have to pack up their things and move out the next day.

The Texans are Eubanks’ fifth NFL team since not being drafted from Michigan last year. So he tried everything when it comes to finding the right life situation. He signed short-term leases with apartments, lived in hotels and AirBnbs, and stayed with friends and family. He never knows when he might be released or if another team wants to sign him to their roster.

While competing for a spot with the Bengals last summer, Eubanks shared an AirBnb for six weeks with his former college teammate at Michigan, Chris Evans, so the two could split rent and save money. the money. The bill was $600 a week, and Eubanks earned $1,200 a week after taxes.

“It’s a lot cheaper,” Eubanks said of AirBnb. “It costs a lot more to stay in a hotel. Teams pay for it, but only up to a point.

It’s the life of a fringe player fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster or practice squad. One week he may be in Los Angeles playing for the Chargers practice squad, and the next week he may be signed to the Carolina Panthers’ 53-man roster, having to relocate and figure out his living situation. in the next 24 hours. For undrafted players or late picks, it comes with the territory of trying to live their dreams. They often have to earn a living.

But even when players make lists, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Jonathan Owens spent three seasons as a practice squad player for the Texans before landing on the 53-man full-time roster this year.

Godofredo A. Vásquez/Staff Photographer

“You must be hungry”

Security Jonathan Owens clarifies this fact when a reporter brings up this topic.

“Oh, I never feel safe,” said Owens, a former undrafted player.

Owens originally signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 as an undrafted rookie. But he was waived in 2019 towards the end of training camp. Every day he practiced in a park next to the Cardinals practice facility to try and stay in shape, hoping for another opportunity. He would see his former teammates enter the same building he used to enter.

“As far as pride goes, it’s like, ‘Damn, I don’t want them to see me practice,'” Owens said. “Sometimes you don’t even want to hit them, because you’re like, ‘Damn, you’re all part of the team I was. ”

The Texans signed Owens to their practice squad a month later. He spent the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons in their practice squad. He was elevated to the active roster and waived a few times before finally making it to their 53-man roster this season. In four games, he leads the team with 42 tackles.

As a practice squad player, Owens stayed late after practice and did extra reps to get his coaches to notice his work ethic.

He was willing to do whatever it took to make the team, even if it meant getting reps in positions he didn’t know. Whatever the coaches needed, Owens was ready to deliver.

That’s the approach defensive back Grayland Arnold tried to take.

He was set to join the special teams unit and in doing so he impressed the coaching staff and then was signed to the practice squad’s 53-man roster last week. He still has the same mentality and is ready for anything because he knows his place is not guaranteed. He has one of the last places on the list.

“You must be hungry,” said Arnold, who was not drafted from Baylor. “You can’t be complacent. You can’t be cool. You can’t be, ‘Oh man, I’m on the practice squad; I’m fine.’

“Because every Tuesday there’s another guy coming in who wants that spot on the practice squad, it’s going to be desperate, it’s going to be humble enough to do whatever the coach asks and do it at a high standard.”

Special teams coordinator Frank Ross said that’s the mentality he respects most in fringe players. He often trains them on special teams.

“I like it because it’s the mentality of a blue-collar worker,” Ross said. “These guys have to earn it and show it every day. Guys like Grayland Arnold have to earn it every day, and whatever their role, they have to find ways to improve.

Receiver Davion Davis bounced between the Texans and Browns and is back with the Texans.

Receiver Davion Davis bounced between the Texans and Browns and is back with the Texans.

Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle/Team Photographer

In the blink of an eye

Last season, wide receiver Davion Davis was on the Cleveland Browns practice squad when his agent called and told him he had been signed to the Texans’ 53-man roster. His agent told him to pack his bags. The Texans had booked him on a flight out of Cleveland later that evening.

Davis said he was shocked. His then-fiancée was on a flight from Houston to visit him while his teaching job was on fall vacation, and he was unable to reach her until she landed. When she finally landed, Davis was there to pick her up with her suitcases ready.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I got picked up in Houston,” he replied.

The couple didn’t even make it to Davis’ apartment. They now had to catch a flight with a 2.5-hour layover in Detroit to Houston – his new home.

He had a nine-month lease on his $1,800-a-month two-bedroom apartment in Cleveland, but he had only been living there for a few months. “It was the only thing I could find at the time,” he said. He had to pay the rest of his lease — three months’ rent, or $5,400. He also had to return the rental car he was using and find a flight for his fiancée so she could sit next to him on the plane.

“That day was crazy,” Davis recalled.

Davis is currently renting a house in Kingwood. But he has a plan in case another team decides to sign him to their 53-man roster. He said he planned to stay in a hotel for as long as the team paid him. Once this time has elapsed, he, his wife and child will then stay in an AirBnB.

“You have to be ready at all times because things can change in the blink of an eye,” Davis said. “To go from Cleveland to here so quickly was an eye opener for sure. You must be ready at all times.

Tight end Mason Schreck (left) knows that every week someone tries to replace him.

Tight end Mason Schreck (left) knows that every week someone tries to replace him.

Brett Coomer/staff photographer

Have a backup plan

Teams constantly make adjustments to their rosters throughout the season as injuries arise. The Texans placed seven players on injured reserve before the season and currently have two players on the reserve/non-football sick list. When those players went to IR, the Texans had to sign players on their 53-man roster to replace them.

When those players come back from injured reserve — like defensive end Mario Addison and linebacker Christian Harris — someone will be cut. They may or may not be brought back to the practice squad. Such was the case this week for wide receiver Chris Conley, who was cut for the third time this season. Every Tuesday, teams bring players in for training in hopes of signing them – hoping they can help improve difficult positions.

“I fight every day to try to stay on the team,” said tight end Mason Schreck, currently on the Texans practice squad. “They try to replace me every week.

“It’s a very competitive business. It’s just the reality of what it is. You have to come to work every day, do a play, and give them a reason to keep you around.

Salaries are also different for players on the practice squad and those on the 53-man roster.

Players with two or fewer seasons accumulated in the NFL earn $207,000 for time spent on the practice squad, or $11,500 per week. Players with two or more cumulative seasons earn a minimum of $277,200 for the season. By comparison, the minimum wage for a recruit on the active roster is $705,000.

Because of that, Schreck says he knows he has to save his money.

“I think people think if you’re in the NFL you make a lot of money, which really isn’t the case,” said Schreck, who was previously with the Bengals for five seasons at a time. in the practice squad and in the active roster. “It’s my sixth year, so I’ve seen both sides of it.”

Schreck, who owns rental properties in Florida, has a post-football backup plan. He plans to become a real estate agent when he retires.

Until then, players like Schreck and Eubanks are fighting to make the roster and live their dream.

But as practice squad players, they always have a backup plan. Eubanks, who in two years spent time with the Cowboys, Eagles, Lions, Bengals and now the Texans, is currently staying at a hotel while the team pays. He’s ready in case another team calls.

“You never know when your agent is going to call,” Eubanks said, “so you always have to be prepared.”

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