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Left Chilled By Draft

By Mike Wise
Sunday, August 31, 2008

If I'm Vinny Cerrato today, I really need Durant Brooks to be the next Ray Guy or Sean Landeta. Heck, I would settle for Dave Jennings. Because if Brooks, the rookie whom Cerrato surprisingly plucked in the sixth round of the NFL draft, 18 spots ahead of the now legendary Colt Brennan, doesn't at least approach numbers and performances better than his predecessor, well, Derrick Frost might turn out to be right.

Frost, Joe Gibbs's punter for the past three seasons, was a victim of cutdown day in the NFL yesterday afternoon, one of 22 players released by Washington to make the 53-player roster limit for Thursday's opener against the New York Giants.

And while he was not the biggest name in his own locker room looking for work today (veteran offensive lineman Todd Wade got his walking papers, too) or certainly league-wide (the Bengals sent Pro Bowl guard Willie Anderson packing because he wouldn't take a pay cut and they also got rid of leading rusher Rudi Johnson), Frost arguably made the biggest noise.

"I feel like I was dealt with dishonestly," Frost told The Post's Jason La Canfora in a telephone interview yesterday. "I think we all know who made the decision, and when you've got a draft that isn't starting to look so good, you're going to do whatever you can to make it look as good as possible."

Frost essentially said Cerrato's decision to keep Brooks over him had much to do with Cerrato trying to justify that several of the 10 picks he made in April, including a pair of hyped-up wideouts, are not panning out as well as the organization hoped. That waiving a punter, a position teams seldom address in the draft, would mean more criticism for a wasted pick.

Cerrato did not want to dignify the remarks, but a team spokesman did make sure that it be known the decision to cut Frost was made by Coach Jim Zorn and Danny Smith, the special teams coach -- thereby making them the fall guys in the team's great, summer-long Fourth-and-Long Debate.

The problem with assessing draft picks in the preseason is that they have yet to play a single down that matters. So anyone deciding to turn optional, offseason workouts and training camp into a referendum on Cerrato's maiden draft as the team's general manager should remember that.

Yes, there have been some discouraging signs. Whether it's Fred "Five Alarm" Davis sleeping through a workout or Zorn calling out wide receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas for their lack of conditioning, it's enough to make a fan base, excited on draft day about all the attention and money spent on upgrading the passing game, to have genuine worry.

Kelly obviously showed a glimmer of great potential early on, because Clinton Portis said of him in July: "We got a find a way to get this guy on the field; he's that good." But he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 4 and his knee became swollen before he was about to make his preseason debut the other night. Kelly might miss half the season before he plays.

Thomas averaged more than 20 yards a return in the preseason, but all I remember was him meekly fielding a kickoff against Carolina a week ago. I don't want to say the kid was scared, but he did not look like he wanted to be out there on at least two plays.

When every draft pick is held onto in the NFL, it normally means the franchise did its homework around draft time. But when the incumbent punter says he got fired because the GM is trying to make his draft-day résumé look better, well, that's a little extraordinary, right? To say nothing of keeping Justin Tryon, a defensive back outplayed by a number of others.

When I first wrote about the punting competition in training camp weeks ago, several readers responded by basically saying, "Write about something other than the punters, you sorry excuse for a columnist."

But after Frost's biting comments yesterday, my only response is, "Punt this."

Last word on the kicking game for now: Congratulations to Brooks for making this team. He had no allies in the locker room and however he won the job he's the guy now trying to be Guy, the great Raiders punter who was Brooks's family friend and mentor.

The truth is that Brooks was never brought in to compete for Frost's job; no, Frost was re-signed to the veteran minimum to compete for Brooks's job. The kid was pretty much ordained the team's next punter when Cerrato spent a sixth-round draft pick on him.

From all the buttery comments from Smith about the kid during training camp, to the way in which Frost wasn't even told he would be punting until the day of a game, this contest was rigged. Frost's lack of hang time, keeping the ball skyward until the return team could get down the field, was supposedly a constant concern for the franchise. Still, Frost had better preseason numbers than Brooks -- 45.5 yards per kick in 15 punts to 42.8 yards per kick in 13 punts. Frost kicked it a little longer (he got off a 65-yarder out of the back of his end zone against Carolina) and a little more accurately.

He was inconsistent in Washington at times, but he often got the job done when it mattered. Was it enough to beat out the kid? That's not the issue. The issue is whether he got a fair shake, and the answer is no. It would have been nice if they had released him two weeks ago, though, before everyone held onto a punter for their 53-man roster.

I know. The NFL is a business and hard, ruthless decisions are made every day that end up with people being out of work. But cut-down day comes in the midst of Zorn saying he hasn't "given up" on Jon Jansen as his starting right tackle, saying the competition is now open between he and Stephon Heyer to start.

It's no secret that Jansen, hurting with a sprained right foot, has had trouble in pass protection in the latter stages of his career; Al Saunders, in fact, had no use for him and didn't think he could athletically handle a quicker-paced offense.

But we're not talking about a 22-year-old, practice-squad regular whom Zorn hasn't given up on. We're talking about the most tenured player on the roster, a man who has had to work as hard in rehab as he has on the field just so he can still play this game.

In many ways, the NFL is like any cost-cutting American enterprise. Every employee eventually gets old and is replaced by someone younger and cheaper. But wouldn't it be nice if people who play a sport that is essentially a car accident in pads and helmet for 10 years were treated with a little more tact and respect?

Or a guy who worked hard to keep his job was told from the start, "Look, we used a draft pick on a punter. Unless the kid has a psychological break, we don't want to waste it." That way, nobody gets called out on cut-down day.

Direct and honest communication -- what a concept, no?

In the end, if Cerrato's first controversy as top boss is nothing more than Frost popping off on his way out of town, that's one thing. But if this is the first ripple in a locker room questioning his credibility, that's something to really worry about.

Called out by a punter?

Ouch.

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