They were a collection of some of the NFL's best players, assembled in Philadelphia once the lockout ended last season. They came from all corners of the NFL world, each hoping to bring Philadelphia its first Super Bowl. After a year of missed chances and unmet expectations, the remaining members of last season's talent acquisition period are ready to prove themselves.
"Coming in here, reporting with everybody, you feel more part of the Eagles now," said defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, who signed a few days after the start of free agency in 2011. "Everything feels a lot more normal and natural than last year, where I was still trying to get used to everything; trying to get used to everybody. So it's just a lot more comfortable now."
When free agency began last July, the players who had been without a team all spring were forced to choose teams quickly. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement had been signed on the eve of many teams' Training Camps, and players were anxious to report to camp on time.
Before attending to free agency, the Eagles traded quarterback Kevin Kolb to Arizona for a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The Eagles would then snag the jewel of the free agent class in former Raiders corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Early reports had him singing with the Cowboys or Jets, but general manager Howie Roseman completed an impressive behind-the-scenes deal to bring Asomugha to Philadelphia instead.
The team would continue signing an impressive collection of players including defensive lineman Jason Babin and guard Evan Mathis.
Without a proper offseason, these players walked onto a team having virtually no previous experience on the team. This transition was especially difficult for Rodgers-Cromartie, who was shifted from his natural position on the outside into the slot position.
"Last year, just coming in, football was going to be football, that's the easiest part," he said. "Just understanding and knowing what's asked of you, that was the hardest thing."
In the aftermath of the signings, expectations skyrocketed. For Babin, the expectations were something that he embraced.
"I love pressure," Babin said. "I love when guys are like, 'Listen, we need this from you and we need it now.' Or it's a situation where it's a must-do or a must-win, and those are the moments and the kind of atmosphere that competitors thrive in."
Jenkins came to Philadelphia from the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. But even after overcoming the pressure of winning it all, Jenkins said he felt the heat in Philly.
"You always want to live up to expectations," Jenkins said. "You never want to be a disappointment. You always have pressure regardless, but that just put a little more added pressure on us because there was some talk to go with it. So now it becomes, 'Well, can they back up the talk, too?'"
Despite the talk, many of the new players had excellent seasons. Babin notched 18 sacks en route to his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. Mathis went from an unknown quantity to become one of the best guards in football. And Jenkins was a disruptive force in the middle, registering 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks. However, turnovers and poor play early contributed to what would end up a disappointing 8-8 campaign.
Still, Asomugha believes last year's expectations weren't unreasonable.
"There was a lot to deal with, but I don't think it was unrealistic," he said. "It just didn't come together as fast as we wanted to. But there were a lot of moving pieces. It wasn't just like a guy or a certain defense. There was a whole lot that we had to get together. I don't think it was unrealistic, but it didn't happen."
Now that the team has had a full offseason together, the defense is focused on righting the wrongs of last season and becoming a dominant unit.
"I think anything that was done wrong last year, either we've eliminated it or we've said we've got to do better at it this year," Asomugha said. "Our emphasis throughout the offseason is just to get better at the things that we struggled at.
"We always want to be the best. We're some guys who have been around and been on top defenses before, so we know what it takes to get there."
Familiarity with the playbook is only part of the transition. Bonding with teammates and settling into the Philadelphia community has helped the second-year Eagles on the field as well.
"Last year was a back-against-the-wall, do-or-die kind of thing," Mathis said. "This year, I know the offense; I know the system, the team, the coaches, the organization; the fans. It's home now, and it's very comfortable. And it's much easier to focus on the small things when all that stuff is already taken care of."
"You know guys now," he said. "It's not like last year, where you're trying to get a feel for everybody, get to know people. Now I know everyone besides the rookie or new people, but we even got time to meet with them in the offseason."
Going into camp this season, head coach Andy Reid said these players know what they have to do to be successful here.
"I think the guys that got last year as their first year, they have an idea of what's expected of them," he said. "They've walked in those moccasins. It seems they're getting around a little smoother."
"As a team, 8-8 was not the way any of us wanted to finish and we're doing everything we can to make sure we don't do that again," said Mathis.
That comfort level could spell trouble for the rest of the NFL. With a full offseason in the books and Training Camp in full swing, last year's newbies are ready to prove that not only are they great players, but that their team is better than last year's showing.
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