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July 23, 2020

John McMullen: Eagles’ roster hopefuls will be most negatively impacted by COVID-19

The changes to training camp during the pandemic will make it harder than ever for a long shot to make the roster.

Opinion Eagles

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Carroll - Sua Opeta Eagles Training Camp Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Eagles players work out during training camp last August.

The Eagles’ rookies and first-year players “reported” on Tuesday and just like everything else in our current COVID-19 world, that took on a very different meaning.

It wasn’t about getting reacclimated to the playbook or the surroundings in South Philadelphia before the veterans arrive next week, it was simply the start of the deadline-driven NFL/NFLPA pre-entry testing protocol agreed upon earlier this week.

And for some of the lesser-pedigreed players hoping to attract the attention of Doug Pederson and his staff, all the testing to come is in preparation for an “opportunity” that may no longer exist.

For 10 players, it’s almost a foregone conclusion it won’t as teams around the league have been operating under the assumption that training camp rosters will be limited to 80 players, not the typical 90, a slight dent to help in the Herculean task of social distancing in cramped quarters.

Howie Roseman has already started paring things down and the first true victim locally of what will be a 320 strong class of COVID-attrition league-wide was Khalil Tate, the former Arizona quarterback who was about to embark on the Greg Ward-project path in an attempt to shift to wide receiver.

Tate's pink slip was quickly followed by first-year center Keegan Render and futures cornerback signing Trevor Williams, a former Penn State star.

Render, a 2019 UDFA from Iowa, spent much of last season on the practice squad while garnering a positive sentiment or two from offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland along the way. At just 24, Render probably still has a future somewhere in an O-Line deficient league but, for whatever reason, he walked away.

“After a lot of thought and discussions with my wife and family I’ve decided to step back from the game that’s given me so much,” Render wrote on Instagram. “Football has been my life for the past 15 years and has provided me memories and friendships that will last forever. Thanks to everyone who has helped and supported me along the way, I’m looking forward to where life will take me next!”

The Eagles are now at 88 players and have a roster exemption for International hopeful Matt Leo, so seven more have to go before ever getting the key code to the NovaCare Complex.

More so, the young, lesser-known hopefuls who are likely to weather the first storm — think Western Michigan center Luke Juriga, Michigan State defensive tackle Raequan Williams and Oregon State tight end Noah Togiai, who each got $100,000 or more in guaranteed money to sign, along with players who could be in the mix for roster spots like Cincinnati running back Michael Warren and versatile Baylor defensive back Grayland Arnold — are projected to get about two weeks of real practice to make any kind of case. 

Jim Schwartz has explained the modern football calendar is set up in three phases when it comes to players in any program. The offseason is for teaching, training camp is for evaluation, and the regular season is about preparation for the next opponent.

The 2020 UDFA class lost out on the teaching part of that, at least the hands-on aspect, and the evaluation period is shaping up to be so small teams will almost surely have to rely on their prior homework when judging a player.

“It’s going to be difficult,” one UDFA who signed with an NFC team told PhillyVoice. “Coaches always tell you ‘control what you can control’ and that’s the way you always have to approach it. You can’t get caught up in worrying about other things.”

That’s sound advice, but the projected training camp setup reveals just how slight the opportunity to open eyes will be.

Consider that before any player is allowed into any facility across the country they will have to pass two COVID-19 tests that will be done 48 hours apart.  The pre-entry testing schedule, per a memo sent to all 32 NFL teams and obtained by PhillyVoice, is as follows:

Day 1: COVID-19 Testing

Day 2: No Testing

Day 3: No Testing

Day 4: COVID-19 Testing

Day 5: Daily COVID-19 Testing begins and players who passed the first two tests may enter the facility for the first time.

For rookies and first-year players, that final part remained up in the air, however, because the league and the union are still working out the mechanics of camp as a whole and what it will look like, particularly the acclimation period which the NFLPA has argued should be three weeks of strength and conditioning after an offseason in which players did nothing in a structured format as most of the country was in and out of various stages of lockdown.

“The joint task force agreed on an acclimation period for our guys to get them ready for football, and a lot of that frankly was influenced by what we learned coming back into camp after the 2011 [lockout] and the number of injuries, the spike in injuries because we didn’t feel there was the right acclimation,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a video conference call last week. “So, we’re going to insist and continue to fight for the right acclimation period.”

The testing process is going to be staggered in Philadelphia. Players that reported on July 21 would in theory be able to enter the NovaCare Complex on July 25 if the all-clear is sounded for them. Quarterbacks and selected veterans (rehabbing players like Brandon Brooks and Alshon Jeffery) are due in on Thursday and would be able to enter July 27. The rest of the Eagles en masse have to report on July 28 and would not be cleared until August 1, which would be the real start of the acclimation period agreed upon, according to an NFL source.

As far as on-field work, the latest league offering was unveiled Tuesday as the rookies reported and would include strength and conditioning plus walk-throughs thru Day 12 of camp followed by an off day before helmets are added to the mix from Day 14 through 18. Another buffered off day would precede Day 20 and pads.

That schedule would not be staggered and would start from the August 1 date, meaning the helmets would come on around mid-August, and pads would follow a week later with no preseason games already stipulated. 


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No matter what the finished product for training camp ultimately looks like, however, 2020 is going to be about the veterans, something Pederson foreshadowed back in the spring.

"I think early on in this season, this becomes a veteran-laden football season," the Eagles coach admitted. "Football teams are going to have to rely on their veteran players."

As for preseason games being eliminated, to be blunt, they were becoming less and less meaningful anyway since coaches figured out about midway through the 2011 CBA that the cost-benefit analysis had been shifted from evaluation to health.

More than one NFL coach has explained to me that you can’t prepare how you want anyway so why not get to Week 1 as healthy as possible? That, along with the realization that scripted practices are a better working environment to teach than hoping a situation you want to work on pops up in a dress rehearsal, was turning exhibitions into nothing more than necessary evils.

That said, human nature is still a part of all of this and if a player did flash in a preseason game, the opportunity to get noticed remained in play. That was proven last summer in Philadelphia when Daeshon Hall entered camp as a long shot and dominated so thoroughly in the preseason that the Eagles were forced to keep him.

An undrafted free agent or a young unproven player who needs to make a splash this time around to earn a roster spot simply no longer has the pool provided in which to make it.

Like a lot of avenues in life, however, when one door is slammed shut, another just might open. In this instance that will be expanded practice squads. Already set to jump from 10 to 12 under the terms of the new CBA, a further COVID-19 adjustment is coming with maybe up to four additional spots and the ability to hand them to players with significant experience.

So, while it’s true personnel departments will be relying on their original evaluations to make early roster decisions, a foot in the door will unveil an opportunity, just in a different fashion than we’re all used to.

“The goal is about getting better each day and the rest should take care of itself,” a first-year player with the Green Bay Packers told PhillyVoice.com. “You can’t worry about the numbers.”

The path might be different but the sentiment behind finding it never changes.



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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for PhillyVoice and SI.com. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com.

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

You can listen to John during the week on @SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on @SBNationRadio. 

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