Dayton Fliers: Thin line of NFL destiny

One of the harshest aspects of cut down day is the not-so subtle reminder of just how thin the line can be between never playing in the NFL and a long career.

Ten years ago, Brad Hoover emerged on the favorable side of that line as an undrafted rookie free agent and ended up playing more than 100 games for the Panthers. In that first camp, he refused to be ignored through hard work, effort and performance. Today, it is hard to remember just how close he was to never playing an NFL game.

Late-round draft choices are also not immune to the delicate balance of football unemployment and a well-compensated career. Kris Mangum came to Carolina as a seventh-round draft choice and played in 127 games, sixth most in team history, before retiring.

Many others have found themselves in similar situations. More than 30 years ago, wide receiver Steve Largent found himself against stacked odds after being traded from the Houston Oilers to the expansion Seattle Seahawks as a rookie. At that time, teams regularly brought more than 100 players to training camp, but Largent ended up not only making the Seahawks, but also making it to the NFL Hall of Fame.

For every Hoover, Mangum or Largent, there are hundreds who never reach the field on Sundays.

Sometimes a player simply makes the most of the opportunity. Other times the situation does not work regardless of the player's dogged determination. It can be an injury at an already thin position or the release of a player from another team that tips one's destiny one way or the other.

Like Hoover a decade earlier, defensive tackle Andre Neblett was one of the players facing the longest of odds when the Panthers reported to training camp in late July. Yet, his name was on the Panthers' 53-man roster announced Saturday.

Whether Neblett will be in the NFL for a week, a month or 10 years is still to be determined, but the fact that he is here now shows again how razor thin the margins of football fate can be.

Neblett, an undrafted rookie free agent from Temple, at 6 foot, 295 pounds is huge by ordinary standards but small for those playing defensive tackle in the NFL. Although surrounded by larger bodies, Neblett stood out when he got his chance to play.

After second half auditions in the first three games, Neblett saw his most extensive play in the preseason finale at Pittsburgh and secured his place with six tackles – including two for losses. While not recording any sacks, his pressure up the middle was a constant.

"He just always made his presence felt," general manager Marty Hurney said. "Even when he did not get credit for a tackle, he might do something that enabled someone else to make a play."

Like 10 other Panthers rookies, he went to Spartanburg at the end of July with a dream and was able to turn the dream into reality.

Will Neblett turn out to be a Brad Hoover? Check back in 10 years, but at least he is already on the side of that thin line that may as well be the Grand Canyon for those who don't make it across.

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