Much of the focus throughout the Eagles' array of spring practices and leading into this week's minicamp has been either on the likely starters or on the newcomers, be they rookies or free-agent acquisitions. But the amount of work put in this offseason has also been especially helpful for a group of returning veterans who are looking to take their next step in the program.
Here are three players who joined the Eagles at separate points in 2013 – one signed in the early stages of free agency, one rookie signed in the summer and one veteran was signed off another team's practice squad.
The Eagles announced five signings on the very first day of free agency last spring. Among those new additions was Phillips, a veteran linebacker with a reputation of being a menace on special teams. During Training Camp, however, Phillips was one of four players to have his season ended because of a torn ACL.
So while the Eagles raced to their division title in Chip Kelly's first season, Phillips,
"It was a little rough having to watch," Phillips said Tuesday. "That's always miserable. But you want to stay around the game. It's a hard thing to stay on IR because you don't get to play, so staying around the guys and the facility helps out a lot.
"Like I said, being on IR is kind of miserable, so having those guys helped. They were both very optimistic and fun to be around."
Though he never got into a game last season, Phillips said he was able to learn most of the intricacies of the defense. So coming off his first torn ACL (he had also suffered a torn meniscus in the past), Phillips has used the spring to regain trust in his body.
"It's feeling good," Phillips said. "It's good to be back out there instead of watching and all that. The first couple weeks were a little rough. Mentally is the hardest part. Now that I've got that down, it's smooth sailing."
Now, the 28-year-old Phillips is looking to earn his spot as a core special teamer and reliable inside linebacker.
"I back up DeMeco (Ryans) probably a little more than (
"I'm a pretty good player. I'm going to play hard. I'm going to go 100 miles an hour. If those two guys are starting, I'll be a menace on special teams."
Travis Long has plenty of his own experience returning from a knee injury. Considered a likely mid-round pick during his senior season at Washington State, Long's collegiate sendoff was cut short when he suffered a torn ACL that ended his season after racking up 9.5 sacks. Because the injury occurred so late in the year, Long not only went undrafted, but he didn't even receive post-draft interest as a free agent.
Upon finally receiving clearance to return to football from a doctor last July, Long worked out for the San Diego Chargers before he chose to join the Eagles midway through Training Camp. So Long's first real football action after his injury came not only in a brand new defense in a brand new league, but with pads fully on as well.
"Last year in Training Camp, my first practice here was with pads," Long remembered. "No warming up or anything, just thrown right into pads … Training Camp had already started, so I was already behind. I didn't know the defense. I was just thrown in there. It was a big challenge."
And yet, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound outside linebacker (who did stand up during his senior season at Washington State), found a way to impress enough to earn his way onto the practice squad. You can imagine, then, how eager Long was to practice this spring, feeling fully healthy and comfortable.
"This offseason has been great for me, just getting reps in that I didn't get last year and it's really helped me out knowing the defense," said Long, who added that he has been working at both outside linebacker positions. "That's my thing, I've always known the defense and where I was supposed to be. I never had any trouble picking up anything. So when I came here, I kind of got frustrated with myself when I couldn't pick it up just immediately. Now that I know it, it's much easier."
As a result, Long has caught the eye of head coach Chip Kelly.
"He's really improved," Kelly said Tuesday. "I think obviously when we got him, he was coming off of an injury. Spent a year on the practice squad and didn't miss any time, but you could tell he was still recovering from the injury, but has really made some great strides and is a guy that's really pushing hard to make this football team.
"I think he'll be able to contribute from a special teams standpoint, obviously adding some depth at the outside linebacker spot. So he's definitely a guy you have to keep an eye on right now."
Like Long, Roc Carmichael was thrown into the mix upon joining the Eagles. A former fourth-round pick of the Houston Texans, Carmichael was released by the team that drafted him during the final roster cutdown last September. After two weeks on the Texans practice squad, the Eagles came calling.
Unlike Phillips and Long, Carmichael would make an immediate impact, playing in 13 games and starting two, despite no prior knowledge of the defense. So it would stand to reason that Carmichael too could take a step forward this year with more familiarity with the scheme. But with the team addressing its cornerback depth this offseason with the signing of
"I've been watching Nolan, he's an ACC guy, and (Watkins), of course, coming out this year, we know a lot about him as well," Carmichael said. "I think they're both guys that are going to help us as a whole. We're a team here. Especially in practice, we get a lot of reps, and come game time we get a lot of reps because our offense moves the ball so fast. I think we all will get a shot to play and whoever comes out on top is, you know, the best man."
Meanwhile, the Eagles have added a new dimension to Carmichael's game this offseason. Despite his unimposing 5-foot-10 size, Carmichael has always been an outside cornerback – until this spring.
"They moved me inside to nickel a little bit," Carmichael said. "(
While he still works on the outside on occasion, Carmichael's spring has primarily been about adjusting to life inside.
"Really just understanding the terminology, because when you get in there, you're closer to an outside linebacker than a defensive back, so you have to understand what the D-line is doing and different gaps and things like that," Carmichael said. "For me and my personality, it's pretty fun. I like to be on the inside. I kind of feel tough in there.
"Once you get an understanding of it and you learn the terminology of this defense, it's the playmaking spot. You see Boykin with all those big plays. You get a lot of free room on the inside, working with corners, working with linebackers, working with defensive linemen. There are a lot of guys and you're allowed to put yourself in position to make plays."
Of course, while Phillips, Long and Carmichael have all enjoyed important steps forward this spring, the real test will come once Training Camp opens in July. With the pads on, perhaps they won't be so ignored.
Make sure to follow us on Twitter @EaglesInsider.