Like the competition throughout the team's roster, the fight for a roster spot at wide receiver for the Eagles is tightly contested. The race is fierce because there are only so few spots available. DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant are guaranteed to be on the team's roster come Week 1. Riley Cooper, scheduled to recover from his fractured collarbone right around Week 1, is also a likely member of the first iteration of the team's 53-man roster.
Under Andy Reid, the Eagles have historically kept five or six wide receivers. That leaves sixth-round rookie Marvin McNutt, incumbent Chad Hall and undrafted rookie Damaris Johnson as the primary candidates for the final one or two spots available for wide receivers. But they're not the only ones in the hunt, as two Eagles proved during Thursday night's 24-23 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While Johnson notched the first touchdown of the night for the Eagles, he wasn't the only one in the wide receiver race to hit paydirt at Lincoln Financial Field. Following Johnson's 70-yard touchdown that put the Eagles on the board, the Eagles scored another long touchdown on the team's very next offensive play, a 44-yard bomb down the left sideline from Nick Foles to Mardy Gilyard.
"Me and Nick have just been hooking up on that same play pretty much all camp," said Gilyard following the game. "So when the play came in, I just kind of licked my lips and looked at Nick and kind of made eye contact, like, 'I'm coming to you,' that kind of deal. He trusted me to do what I need to do. He put the ball in a beautiful spot. I couldn't ask for it to be anywhere else. I caught it in the sweet honey hole, tried my hardest to get in , got in, and it was pretty simple."
Much like Hall in the 2010, Gilyard was signed by the Eagles early in the offseason with little fanfare. Back then, Hall worked his way onto the practice squad, a luxury that Gilyard doesn't have after playing in 11 games with the St. Louis Rams in his rookie season. A fourth-round pick in 2010, Gilyard was released by the Rams during the team's roster cutdown last summer and was unable to latch on to another team during the regular season. For Gilyard, last night's touchdown was the culmination of the dedication he's shown to the game since his release last year, and it was obvious following the score that his teammates recognized the moment.
"I've been out of football for a while, sitting out all last season and then just being unproductive my rookie season," Gilyard said. "The guys here, we're like brothers. We call it just being turned up. So when I turned up, immediately Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nnamdi (Asomugha), (Brandon) Hughes, most of the DB's, Jason Avant, DeSean (Jackson), Jeremy (Maclin), these guys were so excited to see their brother, bigger and little brother, just kind of doing his thing. It was a positive feeling and a feeling that I just embraced. I liked it.
"It meant a lot. So much happened over that time frame to lead up to now. You always go through little valleys, but through the valleys you reach up to a peak. When you reach that peak man, it's not smooth sailing, but it's kind of like an easy way of life. So when you get into that end zone, the pressure just kind of releases away from you, the stress just slides away, all the worry, all the doubt that you had just kind of slides away. It melts away."
In the fourth quarter, with the team trailing 20-14 and facing a 4th-and-2 from the Steelers' 16-yard-line, Trent Edwards connected with Jamel Hamler for what looked to be a first down. Except that Hamler proceeded to juke two consecutive defenders out of the way before racing into the end zone, setting the team up to take the lead on the ensuing extra point. When Hamler got into the end zone, his emotional release was obvious, as he gestured towards the stands and celebrated with his teammates.
"It was a beautiful feeling man," said Hamler. "I haven't scored a touchdown in almost two years, sitting out last season. It was a great feeling. I just went out there and tried to play the game as hard and fast as possible.
"I just wanted the fans to feel me. The excitement and the joy that I was going through, I could see that they were going through the same thing, so I just wanted to embrace with them. And then my teammates, once I felt them behind me, I knew we all, as a Philadelphia family, were happy. So I just wanted to share that with everybody because I was excited."
After getting released by the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent last summer, Hamler signed with the Eagles' practice squad for the final three weeks of the season. He's impressed during Training Camp and finished with three catches for 34 yards, an improvement over his one-catch performance with the Broncos last season.
But for both Hamler and Gilyard, the road to the roster is still an uphill one. But as Gilyard says, the best that both can do is continue to impress on the field and let the roster machinations work themselves out.
"I don't get caught up in that because I don't have anything to do with that," said Gilyard. "I leave that stuff to boss man and them in the office. My job is to see ball, catch ball, see guy, block guy. My job's simple. As long as I do my job to a tee and be consistent and what I do, have consistent good play and make plays, at the end of the day that's the name of the game. Make plays, be a dynamic guy, that's what coaches look for in this league and that's what keeps guys around."
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