I remember a conversation with former Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent, so many, many years ago, during which he expressed his philosophy on a team relying on rookies to make an impact in the NFL.
"If you're doing that," he said, "then you haven't built your roster the right way. It takes time to make the transition into the NFL. This is a grown-man's world. Rookies making an impact right away, that's not easy to do."
Vincent said this during a Training Camp back when the Eagles held it at Lehigh University, in a casual setting long after the second in-pads session of the day. He was always worth the wait because Vincent was honest, thoughtful, and insightful. And, generally, spot on with his comments.
Even then, back in 2001, rookies had it tough. We were discussing Freddie Mitchell, the team's first-round draft pick, and I had gone to Vincent to get a feel for the kind of progress Mitchell made through the early portion of camp. Mitchell had participated in the team's offseason camps and signed his rookie deal just prior to the start of Training Camp, so he had made about as much progress as a rookie could be expected to make to that point.
After that, there wasn't a whole lot of contribution from Mitchell in 2001. He caught 21 passes (he was targeted 43 times) for 216 yards and a touchdown. Minimal impact. Vincent was right.
Fortunately, the Eagles employed an offense that spread the football around in a passing game that produced 27 touchdowns, using tight end Chad Lewis heavily (41 catches, 6 touchdowns) getting a career year out of James Thrash (63-833-8), mixing in a lot of Duce Staley (63 catches, 626 yards), and working Todd Pinkston (42 receptions, 14 yards per catch, 4 touchdowns), and, hey, the Eagles advanced all the way to their first NFC Championship under Head Coach Andy Reid before losing at St. Louis.
So, here we are, 19 seasons later and I am reminded of Vincent's words as the Eagles' rookie class gathers at the NovaCare Complex. As the newbies have met the media – Jalen Reagor, Jalen Hurts, Davion Taylor, and K'Von Wallace so far – the natural question is: How much do you think you can contribute in 2020?
A better question, from an overarching Eagles perspective, is this: How much will the Eagles need the rookie class to produce in 2020?
"My goal," Reagor said, "is to make progress every day. That's what I want to do. If I do that, I'm going to be where I want to be."
That's fair and reasonable and, given the lack of on-field practice reps and the absence of preseason game action ahead, sustainable. The Eagles did an excellent job addressing the roster prior to the NFL Draft so there wasn't a glaring need for an immediate starter from the rookie class. Of course, anything can happen. Jason Kelce was drafted in 2011 in the sixth round and he reported to Training Camp and promptly earned a starting center job even though he didn't have the benefit of studying the playbook or having a virtual offseason program, as this rookie class has had, due to the lockout.
At wide receiver, it's reasonable to think that DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Greg Ward are the leading candidates to be on the field the most at Washington, if all are healthy, on September 13. They know the system, they have chemistry with quarterback Carson Wentz, and they are all hungry to prove themselves to doubters. They fit what the Eagles need to have an outstanding passing game. Reagor is going to make progress and perhaps that will earn him playing time, but it's not like the Eagles are in dire need of him to become a Day 1 starter.
Hurts, the second-round pick, is a long-term addition who is likely to be, although I'm just projecting here, the No. 3 quarterback for much, if not all, of this season. Nate Sudfeld is here for a reason.
Taylor is an athletic linebacker who should have his best football days ahead of him. He has a lot to learn, of course, and he's eager to put in the work. Same with Wallace, the fourth-round draft pick who projects to be one of those "positionless" players that Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz loves who enables the Eagles to match up in a variety of ways with the spread-'em-out offenses in the 2020 NFL. Remember that the defense loaded up before the draft, trading for cornerback Darius Slay and adding nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman along with safety Will Parks in free agency.
The remainder of the draft class? Let's see them on the field before making any kind of projections. All of them are going to have an opportunity to carve out playing time on special teams, of course, as they are in the midst of taking crash courses in learning their positions. One of the trickiest parts of camp ahead, when the pads go on August 17, is determining special teams. In years past, Special Teams Coordinator Dave Fipp would have "tempo" reps for the kicking game, but there would be no tackling. He used the preseason games as a better evaluation tool. How does he proceed this summer?
Look, there are a bunch of questions here. It's all new territory. The Eagles are in a new world, along with the 31 other teams. The message here is to heed the words of Vincent from 19 seasons ago and keep your expectations for the Class of 2020 reasonable, realistic, maybe even conservative. The NFL is a game of repetition, and without those reps, just how much progress can a young man entering a grown-man's world make? We're going to find out in the days ahead. September 13 is only six weeks and a few days ahead.