How The Practice Squad Makes An Impact

You may have seen Joe Ostman’s name a lot of places lately.

He’s the practice squad defensive end who made headlines when head coach Doug Pederson spoke highly of the work he does to prepare the offensive linemen for their coming challenges. He’s imitated Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and J.J. Watt in practice in the last few weeks. It may be no coincidence that those players in real life were each held without sacks against the Eagles.

His teammates all speak highly of him. Tackle Lane Johnson said he’s the hardest worker he’s ever seen. But what does Ostman himself think of his role?

“Honestly, I feel like all of the guys on the practice squad work really hard,” Ostman said Thursday after practice. “That's why I was surprised when I heard about all of this because all of the guys work hard every day. We have a pretty hard-working group as a team.”

The practice squad is comprised of 10 players who line up against the top units in practice but don’t suit up for a game. They can be signed by other teams at any time to move up to an active roster.

It’s a job that comes with the satisfaction of improving one’s craft and helping a team win, just without the glory doing it in front of millions on television each Sunday. But for many on the grinding crew, the opportunity to play in the NFL is worth the lack of air time.

“I think it's huge, especially being a younger player,” said offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson. “You come in, you learn from these guys, especially being in the meetings. Everything they're doing, I'm getting that same work, that same culture. It's huge.”

Johnson believes that everyone on the practice squad grinds daily and does their best to be a sponge with the talented players around them. That grind has been especially tough for Johnson, who was just signed to the practice squad on December 14 and is suddenly practicing with a team in the midst of a playoff run.

He has learned a lot from practice squad center Anthony Fabiano, who came to the Eagles on November 20. Johnson singled Fabiano out as an intelligent, hard-working competitor who gets everyone on the scout team lined up and relays important signals. Both of them had to learn the offense quickly and experienced the difficulty of blocking the Eagles’ defensive line.

“Fletcher Cox, he’s a piece of work,” Johnson said. “One day I was playing right guard and he straight bull-rushed me. I was like, ‘All right let's do it.’ It's like trying to stop a school bus. But it's making me better and I appreciate it.”

“Cox is like a refrigerator with legs,” Fabiano said. “Obviously, Fletcher Cox is Fletcher Cox. And Timmy (Jernigan) is very fast off the ball and that’s not easy in practice but it makes me a better player.”

This is Fabiano’s eighth practice-squad stint and seventh different team since going undrafted out of Harvard in 2016. He wasn’t even sure of the correct number of teams when thinking back. Each time, he’s had to move to a new city, meet a new group of teammates, and get right to work.

“I'm pretty used to it,” Fabiano said. “Whenever I got to a new place, I get my nose in the book immediately and focus. We have a great coaching staff here that got me up to speed very fast, took the time to do that for me, which is really nice. And it's been fun to go to the playoffs for the first time in my career.”

It’s not the most glamorous part of the NFL lifestyle, but Fabiano said he loves what he does. In Philadelphia, he gets to learn from “the best center in the game” in Jason Kelce, as well as another experienced versatile lineman in Stefen Wisniewski.

But Fabiano singled out the wide receivers as some of the hardest-working members of the practice squad. He said they don’t get enough attention despite the grind they put in by emulating big-time receivers before each game. This week, they’re hustling through the Saints’ up-tempo offensive style.

Wide receiver Dorren Miller said that everyone on the practice squad grinds, not just the wide receivers. But like Ostman imitating All-Pro pass rushers, Miller was tasked in Week 16 to be DeAndre Hopkins so the defense could get a taste of the three-time All-Pro’s style.

The key was to run crisp routes and be automatic with catches. Miller said it only made him better as learning different wide receivers’ styles allows him to add more to his game. And at the end of the day, the goal is to make the starting defensive backs better.

“In practice, I work hard and when I see Rasul (Douglas) go out there on Sunday and get a pick or (Malcolm) Jenkins go out and make a big play, it's like they've seen that before because we did what we were supposed to do in practice,” Miller said. “So, that's a good feeling. That's what it's about.”

Tight end Will Tye was assigned to be Trey Burton last week as the Eagles prepared to take on the Chicago Bears. Although Burton was ruled out after suffering a late injury, Tye had the defense prepared by learning Burton’s routes, the intensity at which he runs, and how he attacks the defense. Eagles players who played with Burton last season even helped correct Tye and teach him Burton’s tendencies.

“Full speed. Full speed. All of his routes are full speed. But that's nothing too much for me … just those small little details always matter,” Tye said. “It is definitely difficult but you push yourself as well. Like, hey, if I do this right, my team can get better. Also, I'll get myself better learning new techniques and then having more of an arsenal.”

Starting cornerback Avonte Maddox said that the practice squad receivers push him, even tire him out sometimes, every day. When Tye was preparing to be Burton last week, he leaped up and caught a ball in the back of the end zone for a touchdown while Maddox was covering him. Of course, some friendly trash talk ensued.

“Yeah, he'll definitely throw the ball around, spin it, yell, push me,” Maddox said with a laugh. “So, he'll give a lot of energy and that's what makes it fun, being able to compete and have fun.”

Sometimes, players are asked to go above and beyond on the practice squad. Wide receiver Braxton Miller was a star quarterback at Ohio State who won the Big Ten Most Valuable Player Award two years in a row (2012-13). He transitioned to wide receiver in his final year of college before entering the NFL.

But when the Eagles faced dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers in Week 7, a different style quarterback than backups Nick Foles and Nate Sudfeld who typically run the scout team offense, Miller was tasked with going back to his college days and playing quarterback to give the Eagles a taste of what Newton would bring.

His teammates gave glowing reviews. Miller himself said he made a few big plays.

“It was fun. They were putting the ball in my hands a lot and just letting me make plays,” Miller said. “It’s a chance to go against a number one defense, showcasing what you can do, different techniques, different types of things.

“Everybody works hard,” he added. “Everybody brings something different to the game and everyone makes an impact for sure.”

Pederson’s big shoutout of Ostman may finally bring some attention to a massive part of NFL teams’ success that often goes unrecognized. Eagles players on the active roster consistently speak highly of the practice squad competitors and what they add to the team’s preparation.

And in a playoff push when practices are the most intense, the juice they bring is crucial for a team’s success. It’s why the practice squad guys say they are treated just like any other teammate on the active roster.

“Everybody gets a ring,” Johnson said. “So I feel like I'm as much a part of it as Nick Foles or all these guys, man. It's an honor.”

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