Given a chance, Nick Cole pushed aside the lack of respect the NFL showed him for years. Not invited to the Scouting Combine, not drafted, Cole was largely an unknown player on the Eagles roster for 2 1/2 seasons until Max Jean-Gilles suffered a year-ending injury late in November of last year. Then, all of a sudden, Cole was a starting player on the offensive line, and things may never be the same for him.
Cole started seven games at right guard, including the team's three preseason games. He played well enough to convince the Eagles that they needed to retain him in his restricted free agent year, so they tendered him a contract that he signed on Tuesday that will pay Cole more than $1.5 million in 2009. What happens beyond that is anybody's guess, but Cole's future -- both with the team and in the NFL -- appears bright.
At 6-feet, 350 pounds, Cole does not look the part. He isn't a pretty guy in a football uniform. But Cole plays the position well with his quick feet, his powerful core and the ability to use his leverage to take on bigger defensive tackles and stunting defensive ends. Cole is able to get out in the screen game and wall off linebackers and defensive backs.
His is a success story, one that any player who comes from a modest background who is given even a glimmer of hope should emulate. Cole fits into to the Eagles' offensive line picture for 2009 either as a starter at one of the guard spots or at center, or he will provide great depth at all three positions.
And Cole's sudden ascension reminds us all of this: You just can't predict how much some players will improve from one season to the next. And it got me to thinking: Which players on this roster now that you aren't counting on this year could step forward like Cole did in 2008? Here is a list of the possibilities ...
*LORENZO BOOKER, running back *
He was a major disappointment last year, no question about it. Lorenzo Booker was terrific all through the spring and into training camp, but once the preseason games started, Booker's numbers went down and his effectiveness waned. By the time the regular season hit the midway point, Booker wasn't much of a topic of conversation at all and he hardly played at all.
So are the Eagles giving up on Booker? A lot of the pre-draft buzz is that the Eagles will draft a running back and hope he becomes a big part of the running game, but Booker is still here and is expected to be here into training camp. He has a lot to prove and could be a more important factor now that he is better versed in the offense.
It is a critical period of time for Booker, who must play in games with the quickness he shows in practice. He also has to show that he can pass protect in the passing game and be physical enough to play in the rugged NFC East. There are no guarantees for Booker, who is absolutely going to get a second chance with the Eagles.
*DIMITRI PATTERSON, cornerback *
Added to the roster in January during the playoffs, Dimitri Patterson is an interesting candidate to make the team at cornerback. He is in his fourth NFL season, having been in Kansas City and Washington for some reasonably extensive playing time. Patterson did a good job on special teams as a member of the Chiefs, and he has good size (5 feet 10, 190 pounds) and some experience.
The Eagles have an open competition for the fourth cornerback job. Second-year man Jack Ikegwuonu is a leading candidate, and the Eagles could address the position with one of their 12 draft picks, but Patterson is also somebody who needs to be considered.
He is a Joselio Hanson-kind of prospect. Hanson was signed off the NFL's scrap heap a few years ago and has since signed a lucrative long-term contract. It's asking a lot to think that Patterson has that kind of upside, but you never know how a young man will respond to a chance.
*MIKE McGLYNN, offensive guard *
A fourth-round draft pick last year, Mike McGlynn played a little bit down the stretch after the injury to Jean-Gilles and then was hurt himself (hamstring) in January. McGlynn is healthy now and he has something to build on after his taste of game action last year.
McGlynn, along with Mike Gibson, needs to step into the guard positions and play very well from day one to make an impression. McGlynn is a physical, hard-working young man who has to demonstrate that he is athletic enough play well at this level. The Eagles have a glut of young linemen who will try to distinguish themselves in the months to come. There certainly appears to be a re-shuffling of the line in place here. McGlynn has to do his part to stand out.
*VICTOR ABIAMIRI, defensive end *
It is probably unfair to include Victor Abiamiri in his list, because the Eagles are counting on him for big things in his third season. But we'll keep Abiamiri here, just because he has a chance to blossom as a key piece of the defensive line puzzle. Abiamiri is expected to compete for a starting job at left end, and his size and technique makes him a bit different than the speed-rushing ends the Eagles usually like off the edge.
Injuries slowed Abiamiri in his second season, and clearly good health is a key for Abiamiri taking his next step. The Eagles need somebody to emerge as a complement to Trent Cole up front and Abiamiri is the kind of player who can be effective as an end or as a pass-rusher inside in the nickel.
KING DUNLAP, offensive tackle
Sidelined for his entire rookie season with an injury, King Dunlap is back to prove that the glimpse of talent he showed in training camp wasn't a mirage. Dunlap, at 6 feet 9, has enormous physical gifts. He is so tall and has such long arms, but what gets the Eagles excited is Dunlap's athletic feet.
Dunlap gives line coach Juan Castillo a lot to work with. And certainly, there is a lot of work to do. In a perfect scenario, Dunlap will emerge in the spring and give the Eagles a good prospect to think about at left tackle. People aren't talking about Dunlap as a starting candidate there, but who really knows?
Dunlap is in the team's off-season conditioning program and he is working hard to improve. His progress will be very, very interesting to monitor this summer.
*JOE MAYS, linebacker *
After such an impressive training camp and preseason, Joe Mays was inactive for all but two games in his rookie campaign. Mays was a tackling machine in the preseason, largely flying around and making plays on instinct. He couldn't possibly know his way around the scheme, so Mays just went after the ball and found it more than anybody on the defense in the preseason.
Now Mays understands the scheme. He should play faster football in 2009, and he should challenge for some playing time, even if it is on special teams. Mays is slated to compete at middle linebacker, and he must demonstrate that he has the sideline-to-sideline speed to make plays at this level.
Mays has done everything right in the off-season. He is in tremendous physical condition. When the pads go on, the Eagles want to find out how much Mays has progressed.
BRYAN SMITH, defensive end
As recently as a couple of years ago, Bryan Smith weighed 217 pounds as a college player. Now Smith weighs 248 pounds and is in his third full week of the team's off-season conditioning program. Smith had a good preseason and then sat and watched each week of his rookie season.
In a defensive end group that is in strong shape, Smith has a lot of work ahead of him to get into the rotation. Smith showed excellent quickness and a natural ability to get to the quarterback last summer, so how much more can he build his game in a year's time? Smith was a third-round draft pick in 2008 and the Eagles must find out about him this spring and summer.
The Eagles could certainly use another good pass rusher. Smith can be that player if he retains the quickness he showed last year and combines that with his added size and strength. They say that players improve the most from year one to year two in the NFL. Should Smith make that jump, he could really provide a boost to the Eagles defense.