The early reviews weren't very positive for rookie wide receiver Shelton Gibson. A fifth-round draft pick in April who left West Virginia after his junior season, Gibson struggled to catch the football with consistency in the Eagles' Organized Team Activities and then through the summer in Training Camp and in the preseason.
Everyone saw it. Gibson wasn't immune, either. He knew. And it got to him. He pressed. He worried. And he wondered if he would be around for the regular season.
"It was all in my head. I came in here and I felt like I was a baby learning to walk. Some people get it faster than others," Gibson said at his locker at the NovaCare Complex. "I'm just glad the Eagles gave me the opportunity to be here and make this team and I know they gave a second chance after I struggled so much in the preseason. I know that."
The Eagles believed in Gibson when they drafted him and they believe in him now. Even as he struggled in the spring and summer, causing many to wonder if he would make the 53-man roster, Gibson kept working hard and running extremely fast, and if you can do those two things in the NFL, you're going to get a very long look.
So the Eagles are still looking at Gibson. And Gibson has carved out a role on the field as a gunner on the punt team and a special teams contributor and that's a very positive step in the right direction for a young man who left West Virginia at the age of 22 and has grown up a lot in a year's time.
"This is my rookie season and to be here, to put in all this hard work, it is such a great feeling. It's been so rewarding. No matter what my role is, just being out there is a blessing," Gibson said. "First time I came in here, I knew I wasn't going to give up or anything like that, but I thought, 'What did you get yourself into?' Then I sat down and reminded myself why I'm here, why the Eagles believed in me. They liked my speed and they liked my work ethic and I just channeled that to get on the field.
"Anything I can do to get on the field, I'm going to do it. When you make that transition, no matter if it's into high school, or into college or now into the NFL, you have to make your first mark on special teams. It's very serious. You can change games."
Gibson has largely been very good as a gunner since earning the job after spending the first 10 weeks of the season inactive on gamedays. At 5-11, 191 pounds, Gibson isn't the biggest guy on the block, but he's among the very fastest Eagles.
Prior to the NFL Draft, NFL.com ran its draft profile on Gibson and quoted an AFC South team scout glowing about Gibson: "He will end up being one of the three fastest players at the Combine. He's got ridiculous speed. He runs by people like they are standing still like DeSean Jackson used to do at Cal."
We haven't seen that speed in the offense. Gibson caught his only two passes of the season in the regular-season finale against Dallas, a good chance for him to get a taste of the games that count in the standings.
The hope is that by the time the spring rolls around, Gibson is ready to make his best push to earn playing time. Serious playing time.
For now, he plays his role, an important one. Last week Gibson committed a costly penalty – fair catch interference – which cost the Eagles 15 yards. That can't happen again. He knows it.
"There is a lot to become a good gunner," he said. "To get down the field, to get that release, and beat your man down the field and make the returner call for a fair catch, it's like making a tackle. It's a big play. We're putting their offense in a bad position. Being a gunner, you have to stick to it. Be tough. It's man-on-man and so you have to win the battle."
Battles, sure. There are always battles. Gibson is ready for another challenge, this time doing his job in the Super Bowl. He's come a long way in his rookie season, with a lot more road to cover in the years ahead.