Graduation wisdom from the Eagles | Early Birds

Good morning, Eagles fans. The Eagles finished their first week of organized team activities and return to the practice field on Tuesday. Before that session, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will take questions from reporters for the first time since the Super Bowl and Mike Groh will have his first news conference as Eagles offensive coordinator.

This is an offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will come every Wednesday and Friday for the next few weeks. If your friends haven’t subscribed to Early Birds, it’s free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

Camera icon Maggie Henry Corcoran for the Philadelphia Inquirer
Chris Long spoke at Virginia’s graduation. (Photos by Maggie Henry Corcoran Philadelphia Inquirer)

Graduation wisdom from the Eagles

It’s graduation season, and three Eagles gave commencement addresses. Winning the Super Bowl comes with many requests, including the chance to offer graduation advice for Chris Long, Brandon Brooks, and Corey Clement.

Long spoke at Virginia, Brooks at Miami (Ohio), and Clement at Rowan. For Long and Brooks, it was a return to their college campuses. For Clement, it was recognition for a Glassboro native who made it big.

Brooks focused on equality and perseverance. He shared his personal story overcoming anxiety and also the bond with with his teammates. He explained how lessons learned from Long, Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Kelce, Nick Foles, and Carson Wentz could resonate with students.

“We have a saying in the NFL — our careers are like a car’s side view mirror that reads ‘things are closer than they appear’ — meaning the guy behind you is fighting to get your job just as hard as you are fighting to keep it,” Brooks said in his speech.

“Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Nick Foles, Carson Wentz are all role models to be emulated, not for their athletic prowess and the financial wealth it brings, but rather for their altruism, for their caring and compassion for the oppressed and those less fortunate among us. These are all life lessons. Working hard and standing together, backing up your colleagues in spite of the competition for the same job or the spotlight, team unity coupled with the quest for excellence and success in whatever path you chose. It all pays off — with love and honor, perseverance, and unity.”

Brooks spent two weeks working on his speech. He’s friendly with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, who set Brooks up with a speechwriter to help him organize his thoughts. Brooks was nervous at first, but became confident in his speech and the message he wanted to deliver. He was proud that he received a standing ovation after a transparent and honest speech.

“There’s a lot of things in life that seem like the end-all, be-all,” Brooks said when explaining what he hoped the students took from him. “But life goes on.”

Long was also transparent in his speech, explaining his vulnerabilities while in college and imploring the students to embrace fear and failure. Similar to Brooks, he shared the story of teammates – and Foles in particular, noting how Foles spoke about failure after winning the Super Bowl MVP. He also shared the origin of his philanthropic efforts and how he benefited from continuing to learn and grow.

“I wanted to be more complete, more balanced,” Long said in his speech. “While many people dream of playing in the NFL, I was jealous of people that traveled the world finding fulfillment. I daydreamed about having the freedom to wander.”

Long spent a month thinking about what he wanted to say, keeping notes about messages to deliver. He started writing 10 days before the speech, joking that he crammed just like he was in school. He described it as a “very stressful,” but a “good exercise” that he did not feel uneasy about because the students voted him to speak.

“It made me kind of look, ‘If I’m giving advice to a younger person, how do I try to live my life?’” Long said.

Clement’s message focused on beating the odds. He used the story of going undrafted as a lesson for the students.

“I began to realize that I couldn’t control other peoples’ opinions,” Clement said in the speech. “I could only control how hard I worked.”

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A familiar free agent to watch

One free agent to keep an eye on during the next few months is a player who was on the Eagles last year: Corey Graham. The veteran safety fits with the Eagles as a third safety and a special teams contributor. It’s a valuable role for the Eagles – Graham played 60 percent of the defensive snaps in the postseason. That was more snaps than the Eagles’ second linebacker. The Eagles can evaluate their internal options during the spring and also scan for a younger option on the open market (there’s still a lot of unsigned talent at safety), but Graham could be an intriguing option during training camp if the team is not satisfied with either of those avenues and Graham remains interested in playing another season. The Eagles signed Graham during training camp last year, too. Interestingly, they did not give out Graham’s No. 24 to a rookie.

“If it works out, we’d love to have him,” coach Doug Pederson said. “His veteran leadership brings a level of not only competition, but depth to the safety room, so if it works out, it would be great.”

Kickoff changes

The national anthem policy has received the most attention from the NFL’s spring meetings, but kickoffs have also been changed. The changes include:

  •  No running start for the kicking team
  • The wedge block has been eliminated
  • Blockers on the receiving team will run backward and not forward because they cannot cross the restraining line until the ball is touched
  • All kickoffs that land in the end zone are touchbacks

The objective is to make kickoffs safer. However, kickoff returns might be more exciting with this format because they could be more comparable to punt returns with more one-on-one blocks. The Eagles let top kickoff returner Kenjon Barner leave in free agency. They have Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood as kick return candidates, but I wonder if they go with Darren Sproles in that role because of the similarities to punt returns. Nelson Agholor could also be a good fit, although he’s going to have a significant offensive role.

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Could Corey Graham return to the Eagles?

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 From the mailbag

I don’t think the Eagles go down that path unless there’s an injury to Nigel Bradham or Jordan Hicks during the summer. Corey Nelson will get a chance to be the weak-side linebacker, and the Eagles will see how Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill develop. LaRoy Reynolds is also in the mix. As I wrote in the Wednesday newsletter, the third linebacker is only on the field for about 30 percent of the defensive snaps if Bradham and Hicks are healthy. Of course, it looks different if one of the top two linebackers are injured. But Nelson is a player I’m going to watch closely during the next three weeks.

This is going to be a key question throughout the spring and summer. I need to see them on the field first, but my guess is Wendell Smallwood will be the odd man out. He’s had his moments, but he’s entering his third season and fell down the depth chart last season. Between Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey, the Eagles might give Pumphrey a longer leash. He has not played in a regular season game yet and the Eagles could still try to mold him as a space player, similar to Darren Sproles. The wild cards are Matt Jones and Josh Adams. If one of them emerges, they could take that No. 4 running back spot. The Eagles could also carry five running backs like they did early last season.

The Eagles haven’t announced training camp dates, but you can expect the first full-team session to be July 26 – two weeks before the first preseason game. Assuming Doug Pederson brings rookies, quarterbacks, and selected veterans a few days early, their first practice will likely be July 23.