Up and Out: NFL Veterans Are Expected to Train the Lower-Priced Players Replacing Them

Chris Myers has been mentoring Ben Jones, who'll likely take his place.
Chris Myers has been mentoring Ben Jones, who'll likely take his place.
Photo by Max Burkhalter

When Chris Myers got the phone call on March 4 asking him to come to NRG Stadium, he knew. He knew that the Texans weren't asking him to come in and help lay out their draft board or shoot a video for Texans TV. It was his time, and time was up.

Seven seasons a Texan, 112 consecutive starts in the middle of the Texans' offensive line, the Houston chapter of Myers's decade in the NFL was coming to a close. The Texans informed Myers that they would be releasing him with one year remaining on his contract. The move would absolve the Texans of Myers's $6 million salary in 2015 and, more important to the team, create an equal amount of valuable salary cap space to sign some free agents.

This is the business of the NFL. Capable veteran players over the age of 30 get cut every off-season, not because they can't play but because they're scheduled to get paid too much. In a league where the average player's career is less than four years, players like Myers, who just finished his tenth season in 2014, are fortunate to get to this stage of the NFL life cycle, but that doesn't make getting released any less harsh.

"The key is to be understanding and accepting of the process," Myers said. "If you pay attention and know how the league works, you'll handle it better when your time comes."

Unlike in baseball and basketball, contracts in the NFL are not fully guaranteed. They're year to year. Also unlike in baseball and basketball, a vast majority of NFL players leave the sport with some sort of permanent injury to manage for the remainder of their lives, from multiple knee surgeries to the progressive, degenerative CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and post-concussion syndrome. It's the cruelest irony -- the most brutal, dangerous sport provides the least amount of contractual security.

Navigating the Darwinian minefield of surviving for ten years in the NFL is one of the most underrated complexities in sports. Guys like Myers make it look and sound easy. It's not. Football is the most militaristic of the major sports, one in which leadership and mentoring of the younger players from the veteran players is a requirement for winning. Consider each position group a platoon, with the older players serving as the sergeants. Unfortunately for the older players, they are also typically way more expensive than the younger ones.

So the functional upshot of the NFL machine is one of the most backwards workplaces in America, where essentially the older, more expensive players are tasked with grooming their less expensive replacements, essentially sharpening the blade on their own employment guillotine.

Myers, for example, will likely be replaced at center on the Texans' offensive line by fourth-year player Ben Jones, the Texans' starting left guard a year ago but a natural center coming out of Georgia in 2012. Myers is a flat-out better football player than Jones, but Jones's 2015 salary is nearly $4 million less than Myers's would have been. Hence, say hello to your new starting center, Texans fans -- his name is Ben Jones.

During their three seasons together, Myers was instrumental in helping Jones adjust to life in the NFL, and Jones adjusted so well, he is now being given Myers's job. Myers, for his part, sees the mentoring process of shaping the younger players as his duty, despite the eventual outcome for him individually.

"It's the brotherhood of the NFL," Myers said. "It's your duty as a player to be able to give back and pay it forward. It's what guys in Denver like Tom Nalen and Ben Hamilton early in my career did for me. It's what I wanted to do with Ben Jones. Ben is a great guy, the smartest guy on our offensive line, and I think he'll do great."

For NFL players, competition is inescapable. It comes from across the line of scrimmage on Sundays, but it comes internally from your fellow teammates as well. Every guy is gunning for your job, and the year-to-year insecurity of the contracts, generally speaking, makes every job available to some degree.

"I'm always paranoid about losing my job," Myers recalls. "But at the same time, you have to be a leader of your group; you have to lead by example."

 

Appropriately perhaps, the Texans are benefiting from the other end of the same bizarre groom-to-get-let-go dynamic that's made Myers a former Texan in their signing of former New England Patriot nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Wilfork had spent the past 11 seasons patrolling the trenches on a two-time Super Bowl-winning defense.

Wilfork went to Pro Bowls, was a bedrock in the New England community and was a leader in New England's locker room. Truthfully, you could've just Mad Libbed most of what we just said about Chris Myers and used it for Wilfork, up to and including their cap hits for 2015.

For the past two seasons, Wilfork has served as a mentor along the New England defensive line to, among others, Chris Jones, Texans sixth-round pick in 2013. At the Super Bowl this past February, Jones said that Wilfork has been instrumental to his growth as a player.

"It's been great," Jones said. "Even after Vince got hurt last year, he was helping us out. It was tough as a rookie to get thrown into a new system, and he really eased it."

A couple of weeks ago, less than a month after leading the Patriots to a victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, and with a year left at more than $8 million in salary on his contract, Wilfork was released by the New England Patriots. Jones, who will be part of a committee that will replace Wilfork, will make $565,000 next season.

The Texans were able to get Wilfork on a very reasonable two-year, $9 million deal, only $5 million of which is guaranteed. The expectation is that Wilfork, in addition to upgrading the Texans' run defense, will be able to help second-year nose tackle Louis Nix III become a better pro.

Nix struggled with reported work-ethic issues during an injury-marred rookie season. The Texans traded up into the third round to draft him in 2014, and want a positive return on that investment. Having just been let go in New England for younger, cheaper talent, how willing is Wilfork to embrace the leadership role again, this time helping a knucklehead second-year guy?

Ted Johnson is a former teammate of Wilfork's in New England, and he doesn't think there's any question that Wilfork will help Nix. "Vince is as professional a guy as there is," Johnson said. "I have no doubt that he will want to make Nix a better player, because that's what leaders do. Vince is at that stage in his career where he's won at the highest level. Nix should be attached at Vince's hip."

If Wilfork is able to help turn Nix into the player the Texans envisioned when they drafted him out of Notre Dame, then it's worth noting that, in 2016, Wilfork is slated to make a non-guaranteed $4 million, while Nix is slated to make $710,000. Math is a veteran player's worst enemy.

The NFL is the only place on earth where leadership is simultaneously essential and detrimental to longevity. Job security is minimal, bodily harm is rampant and permanent, and if you inspire enough of your young teammates, eventually you'll inspire the one who takes your job.

Chris Myers begat Ben Jones, Vince Wilfork begat Chris Jones, Andre Johnson begat DeAndre Hopkins and so on.

On the day he was cut by the Texans, Myers was greeted by a familiar face as he cleaned out his locker. Duane Brown, his longtime running mate on that offensive line, had heard the news and wanted to go check on his friend face to face. The two had started 106 games together on the offensive line, and with wide receiver Andre Johnson already on the way out, Myers and Brown were the two most tenured Texans until that afternoon. The two are close friends. Brown routinely calls Myers "the salt of the earth."

"Duane met me up at the stadium; he had heard the news through the media," recalls Myers. "It was sad, but it wasn't really good-bye. It was more like 'See ya later.'"

Last Monday, NFL draft expert Mike Mayock was on Sports Radio 610 and predicted that the Texans might draft a tackle in the first round of this season's draft. "They need to begin the process of finding Duane Brown's replacement at left tackle in a couple years," Mayock declared.

Brown turns 30 this August. Two years from now, he will be slated to make nearly $10 million. If the NFL wheel spins the same for Brown as it did for Myers, Brown will take that rookie under his wing, groom him, bring him along, teach him the ways of the NFL world and then watch the kid take his job for about a tenth of the cap hit to the Texans.

That's life in the NFL, where your thank-you note is ultimately a pink slip.


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