FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Wayne Chrebet didn’t own a cellphone at the time, so he used a pay phone outside the New York Jets‘ locker room to call his family with his excited thoughts and details of his first NFL preseason game.
It was August 1995, a steamy night in Jackson, Mississippi, where the Jets played the Philadelphia Eagles in a special exhibition. Chrebet — an undrafted rookie, the 10th wide receiver on a 10-man depth chart — debuted in the fourth quarter and managed to catch three balls for 25 yards. No one, certainly not the anxious sportswriter waiting behind him to call in quotes for a deadline story, could have predicted this was the start of one of the great careers in Jets history.
Chrebet got more playing time the following week, then cracked the starting lineup in the preseason finale. Those games, coupled with physical, two-a-day practices in training camp, were the auditions that launched him on an 11-year, 580-catch career.
Now, with no preseason games and a scaled-down training camp because of the coronavirus pandemic, he feels badly for the current long shots burning to accomplish what he did 25 years ago.
“I think it’s a massive disadvantage,” Chrebet said this week. “If I was coming out of Hofstra [University] now, I’d have a zero-percent chance to make the team. There wouldn’t be enough opportunities to showcase myself. It would’ve been tough for me. I don’t mind admitting that.”
It’s fair to ask: If there’s another Chrebet out there, will he go unnoticed because of the altered landscape?
The Jets signed nine college free agents after the NFL draft, eight of whom remain on the roster. Maybe one will make the team. A couple probably will land on the practice squad, which was expanded to 16 spots as part of the new “pandemic” rules. Jets coach Adam Gase said there’s enough time to get solid evaluations on each player, but he won’t get a chance to see them under the lights, competing against another team. And that’s too bad.
“I know for me, being an undrafted free agent, preseason was my everything, training camp was my everything,” said Jets nose tackle Steve McLendon, who came out of Troy in 2009 and made the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ roster. “Now, I feel like those guys that were undrafted free agents, they’re really at a disadvantage. They have absolutely nothing to put out so they can get in.”
For now, the Jets’ coaches are challenging the players to treat practices like games.
“I tell them, ‘Every rep you get out there, that is your preseason game,'” receivers coach Shawn Jefferson said.
Jets cornerback Lamar Jackson has embraced that mindset, knowing the margin for error is slim. Despite ideal size (6-foot-2) and solid production at Nebraska, he was ignored in the draft, probably because his 40-yard dash at the scouting combine was nearly 4.6 seconds. He was so disappointed by the draft snub that he cried (“I was distraught”), but he regained his focus and decided to channel his emotions into a sole purpose.
He’s supremely confident in his ability, but he recognizes the enormity of the challenge.
“I’m a talented player — I have a lot going for me — but who knows? I might not make the team if it comes down to a numbers game,” Jackson said. “It’s my job to show the coaches what I can do.
“I know it can be done. Chris Harris [of the Los Angeles Chargers] started out undrafted, and now he’s a Pro Bowl corner who’s been paid twice [with big contracts]. ‘Undrafted’ is just a title. It doesn’t define you.”
Of the Jets’ college free agents, wide receiver Lawrence Cager has garnered the most attention, mainly because of his size (6-foot-5) and penchant for winning contested passes. Because of injuries at the position, he’s getting more practice reps than expected. That’s how it goes in the cutthroat world of the NFL; doors open because of someone else’s misfortune.
Then fate did an end-around. On Wednesday, Cager suffered a potentially serious knee injury. That could change everything, considering he had trouble staying healthy in college.
“I just come with the mindset that I’m just going to put what I can do on film every day and try to attack everything with perfection, whether it’s the training room, whether it’s the meeting room, whether it’s on the field, walk-throughs, anything I know I’m being evaluated at,” Cager said before the injury. “I try to be perfect — or near perfect — and do the best I can.”
After three seasons at the University of Miami, Cager transferred to Georgia and was the Bulldogs’ leading receiver when he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in practice. In eight games, he made 33 receptions for 476 yards and four touchdowns. He missed the SEC championship game, the Sugar Bowl and the pre-draft process, causing his stock to plummet.
“It’s hard to find guys that are that big that run as smooth as he does and are as sharp as he is,” Gase said. “He obviously came here with a very big chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove a lot of people wrong.”
They all do, of course. Chrebet talked about that chip throughout his career, saying he approached every season as if he were still that undersized receiver with the name that was often mispronounced.
Chrebet, who lives in New Jersey, follows the NFL and his old team closely. He reads about the minicamp stars who fade away once the pads go on in training camp. That, he believes, is what separated him from the other receivers on the Jets’ ’95 roster — his toughness, the ability to absorb contact day after day in training camp.
“Anybody can look like Lynn Swann in shorts and a T-shirt,” he said of the Hall of Fame receiver. “How you handle contact is what separates the boys from the men.”
After his fourth-quarter debut in the Mississippi sauna, Chrebet got an early call against the New York Giants. He still remembers coach Rich Kotite barking his name on the sideline, calling him “Chevette.” As in:
“Chevette, get in there.”
He went in, and stayed in for a decade, a small-school dreamer who now resides in the Jets’ Ring of Honor.