Training camp is upon us and that's great news. This is the beginning of a six-month roller coaster ride that hopefully will leave on top of the world. Keep in mind that this is the starting point. A lot will happen between now and opening day. Some players will emerge. Some will fade. There will be injuries. Our group of 80 players will morph into a team as they practice together and become a cohesive unit.
Training camp means different things to different players. Someone like Trent Cole knows the scheme inside-out. He's in good shape and is an outstanding player. He will focus on shaking off some rust and being ready for the season. Not all players have it that simple.
Let's start with the rookies. They have spent the last few months getting acclimated to life in the NFL. They've gotten a crash course in the schemes. They've had practice time at mini-camp, passing camps, and other OTAs. That was helpful and good preparation, but this is real football. The days of non-contact are over. The practice sessions of April, May and June will seem easy by comparison with what the players have to deal with up at Lehigh.
The first order of business for the rookies is handling the rigors of camp. This will be unlike anything the rookies have ever had to deal with. The physical nature of camp can be brutal. Hit, hit, and then hit some more. The length of practices can be challenging. Learning the schemes and honing technique can be mentally taxing. Then, you mix in the heat of July and August.
I don't think enough people appreciate the mental side of things. Think about the rookies. They were team captains, all-conference players, record holders and some were even All-Americans and now those very same guys are on the second- or third-string, fighting for reps. It is easy to lose focus and get discouraged as you struggle through long, hot practices. These guys rarely have known these kinds of problems before. The players who handle it best are able to compartmentalize things. One play at a time. One day at a time. One week at a time. Forget about the big picture and focus on whatever is happening right now.
It is good for rookies to go through this kind of grind because that is life in the NFL. The season is 17 weeks long. The preseason is four games. If your team makes the playoffs, that eats up another month if you're lucky. A rookie could play in 24 games all told. That is two years in college. I've left out all the training and conditioning sessions, camps, OTAs and training camp. NFL life is hard. It is year-round. The sooner players learn that the better off they'll be.
The next group of players to discuss are the veteran additions to the team. These players were signed or traded for. They know how to play in the NFL. They don't yet know how to play for the Eagles.
Obviously, the first order of business is learning the playbook and schemes we run. That is easier for some players than others, based mainly on position. Defensive end Darryl Tapp should have less to learn than linebacker Ernie Sims. The veterans have spent the last few months learning what to do in theory. As Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody's got a plan until they get hit in the mouth." That certainly applies to football. Players can study at home or do things at mini-camp, but everything changes when the hitting is live and competition is fierce. That's when you find out who really knows the playbook and who doesn't.
Veterans also have to get used to the Eagles way of doing things. Andy Reid runs one of the toughest, most physical camps in the league. Players come here and can be caught off guard by the intensity of the practices. There is a professionalism with the Eagles that doesn't exist with all of the other 31 teams. Anyone who has watched the ""Hard Knocks"" series knows that some teams are more lackadaisical than others. The Eagles practices are very organized and things are done in a regimented fashion. Some veterans love that sense of order. Other guys are in for a rough awakening.
Training camp is the first chance veterans have to really show what they can do. Running around in pads is nice, but we've all been fooled before by mini-camp stars. These guys get to full practices and fade very quickly. Other players are physical by nature and are less likely to stand out in the shorts 'n shirts practices. I expect running back Mike Bell to be a guy that comes alive with the hitting of camp. He is a physical player. Full contact should bring out the best in him. The flip side of that is a guy like Sims. He looked great in the spring practices where he flew around the field. Now we get a chance to see how he handles shedding blocks and tackling runners/receivers.
Returning veteran players break into a couple of groups. You have one set of players that will come to Lehigh looking to earn starting positions. Think of Mike McGlynn trying to become the starting center. You have guys like Macho Harris, Dimitri Patterson, Joselio Hanson and Ellis Hobbs battling for the right cornerback spot. These players all look at training camp as a huge opportunity for themselves. Starting positions in the NFL aren't easy to come by. When an injury or the departure of a veteran player opens a door you have to take advantage of it.
The other group of returning veterans are fighting for their jobs. Hank Baskett is our number four receiver right now, but he hardly has a lock on that role. Baskett needs a strong showing to fight off rookie Riley Cooper and other challengers. Joe Mays is entering his third camp. He faces a lot of competition at middle linebacker. Stewart Bradley is back as the starter. Omar Gaither is the primary backup. Rookie Jamar Chaney played the middle in college. Mays needs a great summer to carve out a spot for himself. You shouldn't write-off players. Last season Winston Justice went from fringe player to starting right tackle and completely turned his career around. He's the exception and not the rule, but anything is possible in training camp.
Here are the 10 players I'll be following the most closely:
FS Nate Allen - Allen is going to be our starting free safety unless he has a terrible training camp. I think he's got a chance to be a good player for us. Macho Harris was solid last year despite having less than a full off-season at the position and having to adjust there after playing cornerback in college. Harris limited his mistakes, but didn't make any big plays for us. Allen played free safety in college and has spent virtually the entire spring at the top of our depth chart. He should be well-prepared and I expect him to have a good rookie year. Any struggles in training camp will get us all nervous.
LB Moise Fokou - Last year at this time Fokou was a backup weakside linebacker. Now he's the starter on the strong side. He showed potential last year when he got on the field, but was also more reckless than a bull in a china shop. We want Fokou to be aggressive, but not reckless. Lose the penalties and make some plays. Fokou lacks ideal size, but has the right build for the job and should cover better than Chris Gocong did.
LB Ernie Sims - As I mentioned earlier, Sims had a great spring. He impressed everyone with his speed and athletic ability. There is no question that he can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Now comes the real test. We need to see Sims as a run defender. Can he take on blockers and hold his ground? Can he shed blocks? Sims will be playing in a really aggressive scheme for the first time in his NFL career. It is going to be interesting to see how he responds.
C Nick Cole - The center is critical in our offensive line. We ask him to make all the line calls and blitz adjustments. Cole played center for almost three games late last year and the results weren't great. He hadn't practiced in the middle very much so the rustiness made sense. Now he's had a whole off-season to get ready. This is Cole's first chance to be a starter from day one. The coaches have faith in him.
RB LeSean McCoy - Last year, McCoy was a rookie running back hoping to earn some touches. Now Brian Westbrook is gone and Shady McCoy is ""the man."" He impressed us last year at times (Kansas City, Chicago, first Giants game), but there were other times when he wasn't as good. This summer we need McCoy to show that he's ready to handle the role of being our primary runner. He did a great job at Pitt of being a workhorse back. Now he gets that chance at the NFL level. Any struggles by him will open the door for Mike Bell and Charles Scott to get more touches.
G Stacy Andrews - 2009 was not a fun year for Andrews. He was hurt, on a new team, in a new scheme, and never got going. Andrews has to be dying to get on the field and answer his critics. He now knows the offense and what Juan Castillo is looking for. Andrews' knee should be in good shape. He can now line-up and go play football. I think fans will be impressed with his run blocking. If Andrews can improve his pass blocking he could go from question mark to good player very quickly.
CB Ellis Hobbs - I'm sure some of you will question why I put a cornerback this low on the list. We have so many guys in the mix at right corner that it will really divide our attention. Hobbs starts off at the front of the line. He's been a starter on playoff teams in the past so it isn't as if he's the complete unknown that some think. That said, he's unproven here in Philadelphia. He suffered a neck injury last year, but is reportedly ready to go. Hobbs doesn't lack confidence (something that you do want in a cornerback). Now he has to deliver on the field.
TE Cornelius Ingram - Don't say ACL if you're near Ingram. He missed the last couple of years due to knee injuries. Now he's in line to be our second tight end. Ingram has a good frame and he's a real athletic pass-catcher. Sounds like a pretty good fit for our offense, huh? Ingram can be solid at Lehigh and secure his spot. If he plays at a high level, Ingram will force his way into the playbook. Reid will always welcome a new playmaker to the mix.
WR Chad Hall - The Air Force is now in the past. Hall is an NFL player hoping to push for a roster spot. He had a terrific spring and opened some eyes. This isn't just a feel-good story. Hall expects to come in and make the team. If he plays at Lehigh like he did in the camps and OTAs, Hall will have a legitimate chance to make the final roster. He is a slot receiver, but offers value as a running back in some packages as well. Hall also can help in the return game. He lacks ideal size and speed, but Hall is ultra-competitive and is about as focused as a player can get. Danny Amendola almost made the roster last year. Hall is a similar type of player that should be fun to watch.
DE Brandon Graham - We need Mr. Graham to please sign a contract so he can report and practice. Once he does get on the field, I think Graham will make his presence known. Graham is quick and athletic. He's also relentless in going after the quarterback. I haven't been this excited about a rookie defensive end since Derrick Burgess. Graham's burst and athleticism will help him to stand out on the practice field. We need another pass rusher to help us be more consistent at pressuring the passer. Graham might not start this year, but we'll find out this summer if he's got what it takes to be a good NFL pass rusher.