Driving on Route 32 to Sykesville, Md., NFL tight end Joel Gamble was venturing to a local high school in Frederick, MD for a private workout, similar to many players as they all are preparing their bodies at facilities for the upcoming 2011 season; anticipating the lockout to be over any day now.
When the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is signed—ending the lockout that spanned over a hundred days—the signing of free agent players will begin immediately.
Veteran free agents, rookies, and undrafted rookies will be reporting to training camps all across the league, with a group of players yet to be recognized—those on the practice squad.
Gamble represents the many players who were on NFL squads last season breaking a sweat during the week with their fellow mates while being no more than cheerleaders on Sundays.
Gamble, a Shippensburg graduate, currently faces the same question that has haunted him and others day after day: Will some team come along and offer a deal?
Some veteran players will re-sign with their previous clubs while many will sign with new teams. Rookies and undrafted free agents will be signing new deals altogether.
Other than the veterans who will re-sign, the rest of the free agent players will have to learn their new systems at such a quick pace—due to the NFL lockout—that they may easily get discouraged.
However, free-agent players who were a part of a team’s practice squad last season may have an advantage over unfamiliar players because they understand the game, are familiar with their teams, and in most cases—and most importantly—know their playbooks.
This is the hope that Gamble has in his heart.
“Actually, [the lockout] kinda gives me hope, actually,” said an excited Gamble over the phone. “I’m thinking somebody is out there feeling down about the lockout and players may not be working as hard. Normally, around this time of the year, players are working out at their teams’ facilities, but due to the lockout, they can’t. So I feel as though it’s given me the momentum to get ahead of some of those guys, which I’m confident about.”
After Gamble graduated from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania (better known as Ship), he went undrafted in 2005 and landed in the Arena Football League (AFL) circuit where he played for the Tennessee Valley Vipers, Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz, and Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings.
However, it was not until his stint with the D.C. Armor—a member of American Indoor Football Association (AIFA) before the franchise folded after one season—that Gamble’s dream came true, and he played his way onto the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad in 2009.
Gamble did crack a spot on a team’s active roster as his work ethic landed him with the Cleveland Browns for the preseason in 2010. However, he was later released and was quickly signed to practice squad of the Tennessee Titans.
Having tasted what the NFL has to offer and what is expected from him, Gamble is confident that his hard work will land him somewhere soon.
“I’m just pushing hard and working as hard as I can, man,” said Gamble. “I’m working twice a day, ever since I came back from the season with the Titans. I’m still pushing and putting God first in my life, staying in good condition.”
“Hopefully something will happen,” he continued. “I’ve spoken to a few teams before the lockout and once the lockout is over, I’m sure—pretty positive—that God has plenty in store for me. So I’m feeling optimistic about things.”
Gamble is a soft-handed, hard-blocking tight end, and his talents landed him a tryout for the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League (UFL) at the invitation of the brilliant-minded former NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer (the Destroyers’ head coach).
As NFL defensive ends get quicker from the edges, and as clever as defensive schemes are, solid, every-down tight ends are desperately needed. Gamble’s talents—especially his ability to block—are well suited for teams to counter offensively against today’s defensive attackers.
“I’m a complete tight end…I take pride in my blocking ability,” said Gamble. “Tight ends are looked as bigger receivers, bigger targets going across the middle. But being on the field on every play, my blocking ability will allow me to be on the field for running plays, being that every down tight end like [Tony] Gonzalez and [Antonio] Gates, who can block and catch the ball.”
“Shannon Sharpe was about my size—6’2”, 240 lbs.—when he played,” he continued. “He was the ultimate. His work ethic was phenomenal and he’s one of the players I look up to and try to mold my game as his. I want to be that guy when coaches say, ‘We can put Joel on passing plays. Teams know he can block, so keep him in and maybe throw him a play-action pass to throw off their defense.’”
Gamble has been working out with trainer Troy Jones—owner of Training Zone Sports (TZSports) in Eldersburg, Md.—focusing on speed, circuit training, conditioning, and athletic workouts.
“It was a great experience, working one-on-one with Mason on running routes and catching some passes from Flacco…It was great working with a couple of guys from my hometown team,” said Gamble.
Gamble represents a large group of individuals just waiting for the day when a franchise commits to them. When the lockout is over, a frenzy of transactions will take place unlike anything that has happened in the league, in terms of free agency.
Other than signing outstanding talent, who would have a better opportunity than former practice squad players, who can learn playbooks at a quicker pace than others?
Honestly, no one.
During a regular NFL offseason, rookies (mainly lower draftees and undrafted free agents) need the entire summer to prove to a coaching staff that they belong in the league. With this soon-to-be-shortened offseason, rookies will have less time to impress coaching staffs that are less patient.
Here’s where practice squad players come in, as Gamble and others have an edge due to their previous experience and knowledge of NFL playbooks.
“From being a part of a NFC East team in the Eagles, a AFC North team in the Browns, and a AFC South team in the Titans, [I’m] very familiar with knowing and learning a team’s playbook because I know how to apply it,” said Gamble. “I believe when I get that playbook in my hand, I will pick it up quickly and be ready to help a team to win.”