We don't yet know the particulars, but we know that we're in a unique setting ahead of the 2020 NFL season and that the preseason is going to change. The four-game schedule from past preseasons is on the way out for 2020 as talks center around a shorter slate of games, or even none. Stay tuned for the details.
The upshot is this: As the Eagles and the other 31 teams prepare for on-field football in late July and into August with an eye on the scheduled September start of the regular season, they've got to maximize every moment on the field, in the meeting rooms, and with their evaluation process as they pare a 90-man roster to 53 players, plus a 12-man (up from 10 in 2019, more on that later) practice squad.
But it's going to be different. And the preseason, usually such an important part of the evaluation process, won't offer nearly as many live-game repetitions for players who are battling to impress the coaching staff.
"I know that when I played, I would not have made the team if I didn't have the chance to play in the preseason games. I actually didn't make the team at first," said Eagles Hall of Famer Seth Joyner, an eighth-round draft pick in 1986 who was released at the initial roster cutdown and added to the active roster during the season. He then, of course, went on to have a brilliant NFL career through 1998, finishing career as a Super Bowl Champion with Denver. "Preseason is where you show what you can do in a game situation. Some players, they show you flashes in practice and then it's completely different in a game. Preseason games are where you make the roster. Or don't."
Said former Eagles defensive tackle Hollis Thomas, signed as an undrafted free agent from Northern Illinois in 1996 who made the roster that season and played 178 games in 13 NFL seasons: "Without preseason games, I would not have made the Eagles. The coaches didn't know who I was. They needed to see me in preseason games. It's that simple."
We're in a new world, and with that comes a new dynamic: Never has practice been more important. How will Head Coach Doug Pederson play it out at the NovaCare Complex as he balances the importance of keeping his players healthy and at the same time evaluating the roster? Will the Eagles keep 90 players throughout the summer? Who will play in the preseason games, if there are any?
There are a lot of questions here, with the overarching objective, of course, of keeping the players and the coaches and everyone at the NovaCare Complex safe as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues in this country.
The Eagles are working with NFL guidelines and state and local health officials to provide a positive working environment for Training Camp. It's new territory in every way. Flexibility is essential. Coordination and communication are key.
As far as building a roster, the Eagles have the same objective as they do every season, and that is to establish the best 53 players and a 12-man practice squad. With that in mind, here are some things to know about the practice squad and who is eligible:
1. Players with less than one accrued NFL season (six games on an active roster)
2. Players who have been on an active roster for fewer than nine regular-season games during their only accrued season(s)
3. Players who have earned no more than two accrued seasons with any number of games
4. Players with any number of accrued seasons
Nos. 3 and 4 are new to the Collective Bargaining Agreement that was ratified by the players in March and here is the deal with them: Both of them have a limitation – a team may only have four practice squad players whose eligibility is based on No. 3 – and only two based on No. 4. As we learned last season, a practice squad has never been more important.
First things first, though. Training Camp is only a few weeks away and coaches want to get their players on the field. There is league-wide talk that rookies will report early for a "rookie camp." Some form of camp will follow for the full roster. A preseason, or not, comes after that and then we're in September and the scheduled start to the regular season.
It makes me think of a player like running back Corey Clement, one of many undrafted Eagles on the current roster. He made the team in 2017, signing with the team following that spring's draft and contributing throughout the season, ultimately playing a starring role in the Super Bowl LII victory. Clement suffered an injury in 2018 and wasn't a sure thing to make last season's roster, so he needed a preseason game tune-up before heading into the regular season. He got it, carrying seven times for 25 yards against Baltimore, knocking off all the rust.
"Oh yeah, it felt good. Getting into the mix again, getting things early right out the gun," he said following the game. "We knew the game plan coming into this game was I was going to be starting the game off and I was excited. I couldn't really sleep so today was a good day to be back out there playing football."
Fast forward to 2020. Clement had an injury-riddled 2019 campaign. He was released in this offseason and re-signed a month later. He isn't a sure thing to make this roster. He needs the preseason.
Will he get it?
"I know that you just have to take things as they come and make the most of your opportunities," Clement said earlier in this offseason. "You have to be ready when they call on you. Every chance I get, I'm going to be productive. I feel like I'm back to my old self with how my body feels. I'm healthy. I'm ready to go."
The question that lingers is, how will he, and many others, have a chance to show the coaching staff and the personnel evaluation team that they belong?