Lawlor: Winning in September begins now in April

The Eagles' voluntary offseason conditioning program began on Monday. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it sets the tone for the upcoming season. Second, young players get a chance to start improving.

Go back to the 2017 offseason. Head coach Doug Pederson wanted his team to be as hungry and competitive as possible. He knew his team was talented. He thought pushing the players would bring out the best in them. Since coaches have limited contact with their players in April, Pederson set up workout challenges so the environment was conducive to developing a winning locker room.

That turned out to be a brilliant idea.

Eagles players competed in the weight room for prizes such as T-shirts, parking spaces, or even the ability to choose which music got played during workouts. These may seem like trivial rewards, but the players completely bought into the idea. They competed just like they would on the field in the key moments of a game. They genuinely wanted to win.

That competition created a great atmosphere and chemistry for the team. The players pushed each other, and it also brought them closer together. The chemistry that was started in April proved to be crucial as the team had to overcome some tough injuries and other challenges.

The bonding that began in April never really stopped. Think about all of the players who were added in late April or even after that. Derek Barnett, LeGarrette Blount, Mack Hollins, Corey Clement, Ronald Darby, Jake Elliott, and Jay Ajayi all helped that team win the Super Bowl. Many of them played well in the big game.

Those players were able to fit in right away because the team was such a cohesive unit. There weren't a bunch of cliques. New players were embraced. They were made instantly welcome.

You don't overcome adversity by accident or luck. Eagles players were all taught they had value, whether as a veteran starter or an undrafted rookie. No matter who you were, you had to be ready when called upon.

All of this started because Pederson came up with the simple idea of pushing competition from the very beginning of offseason workouts. No one had any idea just how important that would be.

You can bet Pederson has some ideas about how he wants to motivate this current team. He has been masterful at knowing what to say or do to get the right message across.

While this time of the year is valuable for everyone on the team, it is especially important for young players. This is their chance to start sending the message to the coaching staff and front office that they are ready for a bigger role.

Nate Sudfeld was the third-string quarterback for the past two seasons. Now that Nick Foles is gone, Sudfeld has a tremendous opportunity. He could be the top backup on one of the best teams in the league.

Sudfeld can't prove himself on the field until the passing camps start in May, but he can show up in great shape and work his tail off in the workouts. He also can show key character traits. Quarterback is a position where leadership truly matters. Sudfeld can't think of himself as a backup. He's got to carry himself like one of the team leaders. You can do that in the locker room, in the weight room, and out on the field.

Coaches and teammates have said positive things about Sudfeld over the past two years. I think he'll embrace this opportunity and do everything he can to not only win the backup job, but also to play well any time he gets on the field.

A lot of eyes will be on Sudfeld this spring, but the young player who will get the most attention is Jordan Mailata. The rugby star-turned-football player will be out to prove he is more than an athletic project.

Mailata is huge at 6-8 and 346 pounds. He showed great potential last summer. He's now had a full calendar year as part of an NFL team. The sky is the limit for him. Mailata showed the kind of traits last year that you would want in a future starting left tackle. He is powerful. He is light on his feet. He's also got a nasty streak. The coaches can't wait to get him on the field. For now, they'll have to settle for watching him attack the weight room to get in top shape.

I've watched a lot of football in the last 40 years. I've seen workout warriors come and go. Mailata is a football player. He's not some former track star trying to become a wide receiver. He's not Brock Lesnar, the former pro wrestler who tried his hand at pro football. Mailata showed natural ability last summer. He improved more in three weeks than any player I've ever seen. Mailata is the real deal.

The Eagles traded for Jordan Howard and that made the team stronger at running back. It is easy to forget that undrafted rookie Josh Adams led the team in rushing yards last season. Adams wasn't healthy last spring and that slowed down his development.

Adams is healthy now and he's got a season of experience under his belt. It will be interesting to see what approach he takes this spring. Will he try to get bigger and stronger? Will he focus on speed and agility? Duce Staley has given Adams an idea of what he needs to do. They have a game plan for the offseason. The coaches think highly of Adams and want to see him get better this year.

Motivation should not be an issue for Adams. The Eagles have shown that they will play anyone at running back. You can be a rookie or a veteran. You can be big or small. The coaches will find a way to use everyone and to get the best out of them. As a player, that's all you can ask for.

This is Cre'Von LeBlanc's first offseason with the team. LeBlanc came out of nowhere to become the team's nickel corner and he played really well last year. The coaches loved what they saw from him and can't wait to have a full offseason with LeBlanc.

The challenge for him, as with other young players who got a taste of success, is staying hungry. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you've made it. You let up just a little bit and then someone steals your job. LeBlanc seems like a very focused player, so I don't expect any drop-off from him.

The Eagles have one of the best rosters in the NFL. The team can get even better if the young players develop in the coming months. That all starts with the volunteer offseason conditioning program.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Eagles Message Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. You can also find his work at IgglesBlitz.com where he is the site's editor.

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