Ford: Former Duck could catch on as Eagles LB

The NFL draft is no time for irony, but if it were Howie Roseman used it to perfection when he took Joe Walker with the Eagles eighth and final pick, the 251st of 253 draft selections, on a middle linebacker - from Oregon.

That was a fitting coda to the symphony of ascension Roseman orchestrated with the unseating of Chip Kelly and his return to a pinnacle that includes sitting at the head of the table on the league's most important three days of the year.

So, sure, why not? Oregon.

For his part, Walker knows that being three spots from undrafted is a tenuous enough situation for a rookie without commenting on franchise politics or the odd coincidence that he ducked in the door, you should pardon the expression, just after the previous regime came to an end.

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"I don't look much at that," Walker said after practice on Monday. "I'm not getting into hypotheticals. I'm super happy to be here and very happy with the coaching staff that's here."

He is one of five Oregon players in camp. Undrafted rookie running back Byron Marshall is here, along with three Kelly holdovers: running back Kenjon Barner, receiver Josh Huff, and defensive tackle Taylor Hart. Walker is the only one to never play a down for Kelly, who recruited him after one season of junior college ball.

"He brought me in, then left two weeks after I got there," Walker said.

Kelly opened the door wide for more than a dozen of his former guys in what became a running joke during his Eagles tenure, starting with quarterback Dennis Dixon, who arrived less than a month after Kelly was hired. Not all of them stuck - the sagas of Isaac Remington and Wade Keliikipi are not lengthy ones - but not from lack of getting a chance.

The funny thing about Walker's situation here, aside from the obvious, is that he probably has a better shot at making the team now than he would have in any of the three previous seasons, regardless of school colors. The Eagles are settled on their three starting linebackers, but the depth behind them is exceedingly thin, and all three of the starters missed multiple games with injuries last season.

Walker is primarily taking reps behind Jordan Hicks in the middle, although he has the versatility to play at either of the outside positions, too. Along with Walker behind Hicks is veteran Najee Goode, who took 349 of his 386 snaps on special teams last season despite injuries at various times to every other inside linebacker: Hicks, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, and Kiko Alonso. At the weak-side linebacker position behind Kendricks at the moment, there is Deontae Skinner, a 2015 practice squad player; and behind Nigel Bradham at strong side is undrafted rookie Quentin Gause from Rutgers. So, obviously there is opportunity all around for Walker if he can make an impression.

"Joe is a very instinctual player, very physical, a really good middle linebacker," Hicks said. "He understands football and is smart. He's able to call a defense. He kind of has all the tools you want and he's always calm. If he messes something up, he comes and asks about it, just like we've all done before."

Walker's journey wasn't always easy. He suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder during his senior year at Palos Verdes (Calif.) High School and had to sit out the 2011 season as he rehabilitated it. The injury caused him to slip through the four-year- school recruiting net and he played the following season at L.A. Harbor College, earning Scout.com's attention as the top middle linebacker recruit in the country. Once at Oregon, the 6-foot-2, 236-pound Walker established himself as the starting middle linebacker on a team that would win the Rose Bowl after the 2014 season in a national semifinal. As a senior in 2015, Walker led the Ducks in tackles and forced fumbles, and had both an interception and a fumble recovery that went for touchdowns.

It's not a bad resumé, not a great one, and there are dozens of fringe players in the NFL in his position. Walker wasn't invited to the NFL draft combine, but he made an impression at Oregon's pro day, where he ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and aced the strength and agility tests. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes him, particularly as he works to be more of a 4-3 attacker and less of a 3-4 container, but Walker will probably make the roster only if he can also contribute on special teams.

"He's just about as good as every rookie. They're going to make mistakes, but what you want to see is they don't make the same mistakes over and over. He's coming along well," said safety Malcolm Jenkins. "If you're not going to be a starter, the special-teams periods is when you look for the young guys to show up. It's the fastest way to make a team."

That part of it doesn't scare Walker, who finished his senior high school season despite the labrum tear, took a job on a construction crew during his recovery from surgery, and has a reputation among his former coaches as a dependable worker.

"Wherever the coaches put me, I'm going to try to be ready for that," Walker said. "The speed of the game is different, but a lot of it is mental. Once you get that part down, then the speed comes with it."

It is still early, and the meat of training camp, including a physical six-day stretch that begins Wednesday, is still to come. But as the Eagles go through their practice sessions, Walker looks as if he belongs with any of them.

Hey, irony or not, if it walks like a duck, that doesn't mean this one can't play.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports