During Training Camp each year, Head Coach Nick Sirianni shares with his team stories of players who had humble beginnings in the league, but persevered to greatness despite having been overlooked or falling to a lower round during the draft. In a press conference this week, he cited his favorite tales – those of Pro Football Hall of Famers Terrell Davis and John Randle, noting that there is much to be learned from their tenures in the NFL.
But this season's undrafted rookies need not leaf through history books to find an underdog to draw inspiration from.
The Eagles' own middle linebacker T.J. Edwards is a poster boy for perseverance – he knows the challenges of an undrafted free agent well.
"I've worked my tail off to get to where I'm at and I've got so much more that I want to do," Edwards said following Thursday's practice, alluding to his formative years in the league.
Edwards is one of many who did not hear their name called on draft night, despite starting 52 games and recording 367 tackles during his collegiate career at Wisconsin. The Eagles signed him after all seven rounds were completed in 2019.
He was one of only two undrafted rookies to earn a spot on the Eagles' 2019 opening day roster, used mostly in special teams play throughout the season.
From there, his role steadily grew. By the 2021 season, he'd graduated from special teams where he earned player of the week honors to the defense.
His role was solidified in an explosive trio of games midway through the 2021 season, culminating in the Eagles' Week 11 win against the New Orleans Saints. He recorded a team-high 10 tackles, two passes defensed, one fumble recovery, and a pace-setting interception that set up a go-ahead touchdown drive.
His playmaking ability didn't go without notice – the Eagles signed him to a one-year contract extension the next day. He finished the season with a career-high 125 tackles, which ranked second on the team and tied for the sixth-most by an Eagle since 1991. Edwards has continued that excellence in this year's camp, establishing himself at middle linebacker so far.
"Going on into Year 4, I've seen a lot in terms of routes and where everyone should fit. And I worked my tail off in the books, man," Edwards said.
"I'm studying as much as I can. It's really given me an edge because I think instincts are everything in this game, and being able to do that is something I pride myself on."
He credits his continual progress to playing in company with long-tenured defensive leaders, namely Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. Now inching toward veteran status, he has the chance to pay it forward to younger players like Dean, who's competing for snaps with the other fresh faces in the linebackers room.
"Being here, especially around this group, and learning from the things that I've taken from those guys that were here before me and trying to give that to the guys that just got here and also realizing that I want to be that guy," he said.
"I want to be the guy in the middle, still taking my game to the next level as well."
His focus is to have another successful season as a defensive playmaker, and given his strong start to camp, a starting position appears to be well within reach.
"Obviously making plays is nice, and I want to be consistent with that. That's the biggest thing – day in and day out to be a guy that's counted on to make plays. That's what I want," he said.
"I just want to keep growing and also make sure as a whole as a unit, especially the linebacker unit, that we're steadily improving."