The labor dispute between the owners and players has delayed offseason activity so far this year, but until now it had not really affected football activities. That changes as this weekend was supposed to be the Eagles' post-draft mini-camp. While it isn't a crucial event, it does give the rookies their first taste of life in the NFL and it really begins the process of player development for the upcoming season.
The Eagles' top five picks all have a chance to start and/or contribute to the team in 2011. All of them are very talented and most of them are very experienced, but they are still rookies and that means they need NFL coaching. Never underestimate the impact that assistant coaches can have on young players.
Back in 2005, I remember reading NFL.com one day to see what Gil Brandt was reporting about pro day activity. He mentioned that a lineman from Saginaw Valley State had drawn quite a few offensive line coaches to his workout, as well as the normal contingent of scouts. The coaches and scouts came away raving about the prospect's footwork and overall potential. The player was some guy named Todd Herremans. I'd never heard of him. I didn't have any game tape of him from the season, but did have a copy of the Division II all-star game called the Cactus Bowl.
Herremans played in the Cactus Bowl and I was excited to pop it in and take a look. I watched the game and took some notes. I came away impressed, but noted that Herremans had zero chance to play left tackle in the NFL. He was beaten a couple of times by pass rushers in that game. If a guy can't block rushers coming from D-2 schools like West Virginia Wesleyan, Colorado School of Mines or Eastern New Mexico, how the heck is he going to have any chance against NFL rushers? I was so focused on results that I lost track of watching Herremans' raw ability.
I went up to training camp at Lehigh a few months later to watch the team practice. I looked out on the field and was shocked to see Herremans at left tackle with the starters. To quote the great Vince Lombardi, "What the hell is going on out there?" Tra Thomas wasn't healthy so Juan Castillo had to put a backup on the field. He decided that Herremans was the next best fit. That really blew me away. Herremans got beat a few times, but held his own for the most part. How was it that the guy who gave up sacks in the Cactus Bowl could now function as a left tackle in the NFL?
Herremans had the raw tools. He was big and pretty athletic. He did have good feet. He was experienced, so he had a solid understanding of blocking concepts. Herremans was smart and coachable. Castillo was able to teach Herremans the Eagles' blocking system and the specific techniques needed to make it work. I learned a valuable lesson that day up at Lehigh. Don't underestimate the importance of coaching.
The current Eagles coaching staff would love a chance to work with the rookie class. Danny Watkins should be the starting right guard at some point this year. He's not nearly as raw as Herremans, but Watkins does need coaching. He would also benefit from getting as many snaps as possible. That would help him to get mistakes out of the way early on and then have plenty of time left to build on what he's taught. Luckily, Watkins is a quick learner and he faced his share of big-time players so his adjustment period can be shorter without causing major setbacks.
Jaiquawn Jarrett could also be in the mix for a starting job. Missing time hurts him more. Jarrett is slated to play strong safety. That is the guy who generally runs the Eagles secondary, which means the player has to know the Eagles playbook inside out and also needs to have a firm grasp of the opposing offense. Jarrett did a terrific job of running the defense at Temple, but he's now starting over.
Jarrett was probably able to get a copy of the playbook, but that alone isn't enough. Jarrett needs extensive coaching if he's going to push for a starting job this year. Just rewind to last spring. Nate Allen ran with the starting defense very early on. The Eagles knew they needed him on the field and worked aggressively to get him up to speed. Allen did well, but even he had some bumps in the road.
I'm sure Jarrett will do everything he can to learn the playbook. Taking those ideas and making them come to life on the football field is the real challenge. Jarrett can't simulate that without being part of a full-team practice session. You need an offense to look at and teammates to work with. You also need the supervision of a coach to make sure everyone is doing the correct thing.
Third-round pick Curtis Marsh has the most room to grow, but he's not expected to be an immediate contributor at least on defense. The lockout may affect him the least in the sense that he was viewed as more of a long-term project. Still, you never know how players will respond to NFL coaching. Green Bay had a rookie cornerback named Sam Shields that was raw last year. He had moved from receiver to corner late in his college career. Shields managed to start six games and help the Packers win the Super Bowl. I'm not holding Marsh to that standard, but you just don't know how players will respond to the challenge of the NFL. Some guys thrive. While I think of Marsh as somewhat of a project that doesn't mean he can't blow those expectations out of the water. The sooner cornerbacks coach Johnnie Lynn gets a chance to work with him, the better off Marsh will be, for 2011 and beyond.
Casey Matthews is a player I go back and forth on. There are times when I think he'll challenge for a starting spot right away. Then I back off and see him needing time to develop. I know one thing, Matthews will do everything in his power to get on the field right away. He's so competitive that he'll want to fight for a job or at least playing time. Sitting on the bench will drive Matthews crazy. Matthews is really hurting from the lack of mini-camp. I think the coaches are undecided about the best place to play him. That isn't a knock on anyone so much as a compliment to Matthews' versatility. He's got inside linebacker experience from Oregon, but played outside at the Senior Bowl and looked pretty good. He might challenge for the starting weakside job right away. Mini-camp gives the players and coaches a chance to see some simple things. Figuring out where to put players is one of the key benefits.
Matthews should pick up on the scheme pretty quickly when things do break. He was a heady, instinctive player at Oregon. He also comes from an NFL family. Matthews understands that pro football is a job that must be worked at. Some guys think making the NFL was the hard part. Wrong. Getting into the league is like getting to base camp at K-2. It is just the foundation for a long, hard journey.
Finally, kicker Alex Henery has a lot to learn. College teams tend to have pretty simplistic special teams coaching. There just isn't enough time for them to develop kickers and punters in a thorough way. Colleges only get to practice a certain amount of hours in the week. Few staffs have a full-time special teams coach. Colleges do their best, but few punters and kickers come to the NFL with great technique.
I'm sure special teams coach Bobby April is excited to work with Henery. April knows his rookie has a huge leg. Now, April has to refine some things to help Henery to succeed in the NFL. Kickers need time to become comfortable in their new environment. A lot of kicking is mental. There are plenty of guys who can kick a ball 50 yards. The hard part is finding a guy to do that accurately, under intense pressure, and in an almost instantaneous fashion. Henery has those tools. Now, he needs April to work with him on technique and ironing out any potential flaws.
The other rookies all have the potential to step up and contribute in 2011, but they don't necessarily have the same kind of expectations as the early picks. The first five guys need to show us something. They must have coaching so they can help the team this year, even if just as a role player. Fans and the media won't be very patient. They'll gladly attach the "bust" label to a player who is coming along slowly. That label means nothing to the coaching staff, but players are human beings and that kind of criticism can affect them. Let's hope the labor situation gets resolved quickly so the coaches and players can get together and get to work.