It was Welcome To The Rookies Day on Friday at the NovaCare Complex, the first step on a journey that will end a various times for the 44 players in attendance. Not all of them are rookies, of course. The members of the 2011 practice squad from the Eagles and other teams -- among them, fullback Stanley Havili, tight end Brett Brackett, linebacker Monte Simmons and offensive lineman D.J. Jones -- are also permitted to attend.
This is the first year with such a format under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, so it's kind of a feel-as-you-go-along sort of thing. The coaches have the rare opportunity to work with the new kids from the ground up and to spend some valuable one-on-one time with them. Think about it: In the past a rookie would walk through the doors of the NovaCare Complex without ever a glance at the playbook and would have to step on the field among seasoned veterans hoping to compete well enough to earn a job.
Seriously, how much of a disadvantage does that put the rookies in? Is it fair? No, but life in the NFL is not fair.
This weekend, at least, the rookies can learn a foundation. There are 44 players lined up for practice including draft picks (9), non-drafted rookies (14) and players who were on a practice squad (9) at one time or another last season in the NFL. Add it all up --9 plus 14 plus 9 -- and you have 32 players, plus another 12 invited players here to try out -- and it's a good opportunity for an introduction into the Eagles way.
How many of these 44 players who actually make it to the 53-man roster remains to be seen, but all of them came with a story and visions of greatness -- for the weekend, at least.
"I'm going to do everything they want me to do, anything they ask," said cornerback Brandon Boykin, who also could figure in the mix as a return man. "I feel great after my injury (fractured fibula suffered during the Senior Bowl) and I'm excited to be here. Ready to go. I know there are a lot of great players here. I love to compete and that's what I'm here to do."
First impressions? A nice group of young men. If I tell you that Boykin looks jacked, and that he appears taller than his listed 5 feet 9, I mean, what does it really mean? They have to show what they can do on the football field.
This is a baby-steps weekend. I promise to refrain from heaping praise on any player based on his performance on the field, and nor will there be a rush to judgment on any player who is not quite there mentally.
It's exciting, I know that. And it's different. Used to be, prior to this 10-year CBA, the entire roster would be here for a full-squad mini-camp. Now, that mini-camp is held in mid-June. By then, the rookies should have a sense of the schemes and at least have a fighting chance to match up well against the established players who have been working out in the NovaCare Complex for nearly two months.
"I plan to keep my eyes open and work hard. I know that that is going to be expected of me," said first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox, the talented defensive tackle from Mississippi State. "I can't wait to get working with Coach (Jim) Washburn (defensive line coach)."
You know what the players did on Day 1? They landed at the airport, were picked up there and brought to the NovaCare Complex to take physicals, get fitted for their uniforms -- did you know that there are about three dozen different kinds of standard facemasks used in this league, not counting the custom requests? -- checked out their lockers, met with Harold Carmichael, the team's Director of Player Programs, talked to the media, ate dinner and heard from head coach Andy Reid in the building's auditorium, and then met with their position coaches and were handed playbooks to study for the in-classroom and on-field lessons of Saturday and Sunday.
"It's all business, I know that," said defensive end Vinny Curry, who spent a day here after he was drafted and, like any Eagles fan would, walked around in awe as Brian Dawkins retired an Eagle and had a big party here afterward. "It's time to get to work. I'm ready for football."
Aren't we all? I want to see how this whole thing comes together. It's been a wonderful last few months, what with the acquisition of linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the roster continuity, the draft weekend. There is a lot to feel optimistic about around here, and the enthusiasm level is sky high at the NovaCare Complex.
And it's fair to say that there are a lot of questions. Can the Eagles overcome the loss of left tackle Jason Peters? How do they fill in the production produced by cornerback Asante Samuel? Who backs up quarterback Michael Vick? Is Vick ready to be efficient, and will he hit the turf instead of taking a hit? How about Juan Castillo and the defense?
Oh, the fun of what is ahead ...
Now there is so much youthful energy as a draft class and some rookie hopeful push to get noticed in a positive way. Football is in the air and, finally, on the field all weekend at the NovaCare Complex as the future of the team, part of it, anyway, is on display to provide a tease of what is to come.