It happens fast in the NFL.

One year you're a rookie. The next year you finally get a chance to play. By the third year you're playing for your professional life.

That timeline essentially sums up Joe Mays' career to this point. Of course, the Eagles linebacker hasn't made it to Year Three just yet.

"They say that the average life span of an NFL player is three years," Mays said Tuesday. (It's actually 3.5 years, according to the league's players association.) "I'm going into my third year. So I think this is make-or-break for me. The Eagles have given me every opportunity. They're just waiting to see me emerge."

Players often have a hard time knowing what their coaches think. On this point, Mays was being clairvoyant.

"This is the year that you'd like to say, 'Hey, let's make progress, let's make our strides and let's have Joe Mays come into his own right now,' " said Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.

The expiration date on Mays' Eagles tenure is one reason the middle linebacker was required to be at workouts this week and last. But he's not the only third-year guy the Eagles have asked to attend rookie camp and not the only one the team is hoping to see some production out of this season.

Center Mike McGlynn, safety Quintin Demps, and tackle King Dunlap have participated in various parts of the first four practices. And even though he hasn't been on hand, it's safe to say the Eagles are hoping for more out of defensive tackle Trevor Laws. Of the six players remaining from the 2008 draft class, only one has been a regular contributor: wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

Mays got his shot at starting twice last year - when Stewart Bradley was lost for the season during training camp and when additional injuries and the failure to find a replacement led back to him in the middle of season. But he couldn't hold down the spot either time.

"I wasn't as comfortable as I should have been," Mays said. "I wasn't as confident as I should have been."

All of which brought Mays back to rookie camp. The Eagles are hoping the extra repetitions will entrench the former sixth-round draft pick as Bradley's backup. They didn't directly address the middle in the off-season, but added what McDermott called four versatile linebackers, trading for Ernie Sims and drafting Keenan Clayton, Jamar Chaney and Ricky Sapp.

Still, the competition to be Bradley's backup is between Mays and the seemingly unsinkable Omar Gaither.

"That's the way we have it right now," McDermott said.

"Really, we're looking for the three, six, or nine best based off the depth chart."

While Mays may not be the most versatile, his best shot at showing he is indispensable may come from his special-teams play. His performance on kick and punt coverage teams kept him on the game day roster late last season.

"I know that special teams is going to be my way to get on the field," Mays said. "That's my ticket to play."

Extra points

. Defensive tackle Mike Patterson's souped-up GMC sport utility burst into flames in the NovaCare parking lot as he worked out inside. No one was injured and the fire was extinguished by security before the fire department arrived. A malfunctioning battery was likely the cause. . . . Running back Mike Bell suffered a hamstring strain Monday, the team said, and will sit out the next few practices. . . . Punter Durant Brooks was released.

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.