Had the author of the gospel of Matthew been present at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4, he might have observed that the confetti fell equally upon the shoulders of Billy Brown, standing on the Eagles’ sideline at Super Bowl LII, as it did on Zach Ertz, the tight end who scored the game-winning touchdown.
But Brown, as a member of the Eagles’ practice squad, was not in uniform.
“Obviously, you want to be playing … but you’re with these guys every day, it’s like your brothers, your family,” Brown said last week, during the Eagles’ rookie minicamp. As a 2017 rookie who didn’t play in any games, Brown was among eight “first-year players” at the camp, in the confusing argot of the NFL.
“It was too close for comfort,” Brown said, when asked what he remembers from his day on the sidelines of the most memorable Eagles victory in 57 years. “Our whole team was ready to play. Everybody made plays when they needed to make plays. It’s a testament to the whole season.”
When the parade was over and fans and observers turned their thoughts to the offseason, Brown was a popular topic. He’d been a training camp phenom last summer, an athletic 6-4, 255-pound undrafted player from Division-II Shepherd University who was making the transition from small-college wideout to NFL tight end.
It was widely assumed that tight end Trey Burton, author of the “Philly Special” touchdown pass to Nick Foles, was going to leave in free agency, and he did, to the tune of four years and $32 million from the Chicago Bears. The other assumption was that unless tight end Brent Celek agreed to a second contract revision in as many years, the team’s longest-tenured player would be released after 11 stalwart seasons. That also happened.
So for a very short while, Brown was No. 2 on the hypothetical depth chart, behind Ertz. Then the team hedged its bets by signing Green Bay veteran Richard Rodgers, which complicated Brown’s situation a little bit. Then the drafting of tight end Dallas Goedert, with the Eagles’ first pick, 49th overall, complicated it a lot more.
So, two tight ends out, two tight ends in, Brown starts the spring as the fourth tight end on a team that is likely to only keep three. But Rodgers is not Celek; Rodgers’ one-year deal contains only $245,000 worth of guaranteed cash, and though Goedert certainly will make the team, his exact role is yet to be won. There is wiggle room for Brown, if he wows the coaches. And of course, if someone gets hurt.
Brown was Division II’s leading pass receiver in 2016, with 99 catches, for whatever that’s worth.
“He actually was about 185 pounds when he got here,” said Monte Cater, Shepherd’s head coach when Brown played there. “We thought he would either be a receiver or outside linebacker, and he continued to grow. … He just had skills catching the ball. … He just developed into by far the best receiver we’ve ever had here, and I can say that over 31 years that I was here.
“He ended up being a huge target, and I think one of the things that was overlooked, at least as a wide receiver – we tried to get him inside in sets that we liked, too – was that once he caught the football, whoever was on him was waiting for help, because he’d either get rid of that person or drag him for another 10 or 15 yards. He was a great target, whether it was short yardage, whether we would isolate him in one-on-one situations.”
[ Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up. ]
The thing Eagles fans noticed, in camp drills and in preseason games, was that Brown caught everything. Many were eager to see what he could do in the regular season, and they were disappointed when he didn’t make the 53-man roster.
“Everything,” Brown said, when asked what he spent the season trying to learn. “It was a new position – mental stuff, learning the playbook, technique, all that stuff. I needed to learn to do everything better. I don’t know how to grade [improvement], but I know I’m better than I was this time last year.”
Shepherd moved Brown around in the formation, but he didn’t do any in-line blocking. Asked last week what was hardest to learn, he said: “The linemen talk. All the adjustments and all that stuff. That was like learning a new language for me. I had no idea what any of that was.”
He was fortunate to be in a tight end room with three smart veterans.
“All three of those guys helped me. It was a blessing to be here with them,” Brown said. “You just watch the way [Celek] works every day and blocks, he’s like the ultimate teammate. He’d sacrifice anything for anybody. Ertz, seeing what he does in his route-running, his hands and all that. And then, Trey can do everything. … I tried to imitate them as best I could.”
In May, it’s impossible to predict what lies ahead for Brown. He could blossom and force the team to create a role for him. He could end up getting cut again at the end of training camp, but maybe this time somebody might be impressed enough to pick him up. (See Paul Turner, Ifeanyi Momah, and many other training camp darlings.) Or he could spend another year on the practice squad.
Brown knows he can’t waste energy and attention worrying about that right now.
“Competition never hurt nobody,” he said. “I can’t think too far down the road; it’s one step at a time.”
Columnist Mike Sielski contributed reporting to this article.