Life as an NFL backup is 'one of the hardest things in this league'

Young believes in the Bengals (0:39)

Steve Young explains why if the Bengals lose to the Chiefs, he won't lose faith in them moving forward. (0:39)

CINCINNATI -- Bengals defensive end Jordan Willis didn’t even know what teammates he was playing with toward the end of a loss to the Steelers last week.

Players were streaming in and out of the game. Nick Vigil went down with a knee injury, Darqueze Dennard injured his shoulder and Shawn Williams left with a concussion.

"All of a sudden, in the heat of things, we’re fighting for the game and it’s a different roster out on the field. ... I didn’t realize how many people were getting dinged up, then out of the play, and then back in the game," Willis said.

Backups such as Tony McRae and Clayton Fejedelem were left to defend the likes of Antonio Brown.

Now they might be starters this week when the Bengals travel to play the Chiefs in Kansas City.

Backups prepare all week not knowing if they’ll get a single snap and can be called upon in an instant. They're expected to fill that job without a hitch.

"If somebody gets hurt or something happens and you're thrown in ... [you have to] go out there and do what the starter was trying to do against a good team. Especially last week, there were so many backups that went into the game at the end of it,” Willis said.

Some, like longtime veteran Vincent Rey, are used to this kind of challenge. Others, like McRae, have never started a game before.


Rey knows how to relate to the younger players. He was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2010 who caught on to the Bengals' practice squad. He didn't start a game until 2013 but eventually became important enough to sign a three-year deal in 2016.

There’s a reason the Bengals continue to bring back Rey every year: his leadership.

Rey worked his way up to being a special-teams captain, and his main job is to man that unit. However, the soft-spoken and reliable Rey can be counted on in other ways as well. He can play all three linebacker positions, and for several years he was the first man the team looked to when Vontaze Burfict was suspended or out with an injury.

Rey, 31, would be the first to admit it’s not easy to make a career out of being a backup.

“One of the hardest things in this league to be is a backup player,” Rey said after he replaced Vigil against the Steelers last week. “You’re playing special teams but you always have to be ready to go in there and do your job. ... When somebody else goes down, it’s your time to shine, and you have to go out there and do your job.”

It’s unclear just how much playing time Rey stands to get on Sunday. Second-year players Hardy Nickerson and Jordan Evans have been getting more playing time this year on defense over Rey, although defensive coordinator Teryl Austin attributed that to a preseason ankle injury.

When Vigil went down against Pittsburgh, Rey was the only other player with a backup mic in his helmet. He immediately became the new defensive signal-caller.

“This was about the time we felt he was as close to 100 percent as he had been all year so we liked his veteran leadership in this game,” Austin said.


It sure looked like McRae was going to have trouble making the Bengals in 2018 after spending most of training camp injured.

That McRae made the final 53-man roster is a testament to how much the Bengals like him. However, his journey to being a potential starter this week has been about two years in the making.

McRae was an undrafted rookie free agent in 2016 who bounced around teams. He was waived after one week with the Raiders that year and spent the season on and off the Bengals' practice squad. He spent about a month on the Ravens' active roster last year. He also was cut after just two days with the Bills.

Eventually, he ended up back in Cincinnati again on the practice squad.

McRae said the hardest part for him wasn’t figuring out where he’d live next or what city he’d be in on any given day. It was the constant worry about whether he would get that close to his dream and not actually be able to live it.

“When you’re on the practice squad, you don’t know if you’ll ever get to play in an actual real game. You don’t know if the organization looks at you as a practice squad guy or a guy that just, if somebody goes down, we’ll bring him in and play him,” McRae said. “Or they might bring in someone else."

McRae might fill in for Dennard this week, or that role might go to fifth-round pick Darius Phillips. When Dennard comes back from his injury, McRae will go back to preparing and waiting for his turn to prove himself.

“You’ve got to prepare like you’re going in,” McRae said. “That’s the bottom line. Like your turn is coming that day. And if you prepare, you’re never going to have to worry about being unready.”


Jordan Evans’ first start was a doozy.

He was thrust into the national spotlight when tasked to start on Monday Night Football against the Steelers last year. He was partially responsible for a play that was the beginning of the Bengals’ blowing a 17-point lead.

Evans was running behind Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and gave him a shove, presumably out of bounds. As William Jackson watched, Bell kept running down the sideline for a 35-yard score.

“It was a lot," Evans said. "But I grew up since then. So we’re good now.”

Evans, a 2017 sixth-round pick, described the incident as “embarrassing” at the time. But he has grown leaps and bounds since that night.

“Oh, for sure,” Evans said, when asked if he felt more comfortable now. “Last year, it was just so much more. But obviously now I’m more settled in, I understand the defense and I just feel more mature with it.”

Evans started four games this season when Burfict was suspended, and he's the likely replacement for Vigil and will be matched against the speedy Chiefs offense. With Vigil expected to be out almost a month, Evans could be elevated to starter for the second time this year.

This time it will come with the added benefit of knowing what to expect for the week versus filling in during the middle of the game.

“You don’t get as many reps during the week, so a lot of times the first time you’ve seen a play is when you’re out there on the field,” he said. “But that’s just part of being a pro.”


Fejedelem said he’s always extra winded on the days he fills in on defense.

Most starting players don’t play special teams, but that’s Fejedelem’s main job. In Week 1, he filled in after Williams was ejected in the first quarter and played a combined 84 snaps. He also forced a fumble late in the game that was returned for an 83-yard touchdown.

“You have to know the entire game plan like the back of your hand,” he said. “You just have to be perfect in your execution of studying, but it is difficult. Extremely difficult.”

He was demoted to backup safety again the next week. However, Williams is in concussion protocol and that means Fejedelem has been preparing as if he’ll play.

“It’s almost harder going into a week when someone gets hurt in the game, because they’re the ones that have taken all the practice reps and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “Whereas it’s different when you actually get to prepare and get those all reps in practice."

Fejedelem wants to play, but when it comes at a teammate's expense, it's always an odd feeling.

“It’s just that competitor's edge,” Fejedelem said. "Nobody is happy that Shawn is down; the way you look at it is just an opportunity.”