Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has singled out big defensive end Brandon Bair for praise at all three of his press conferences since their first preseason game at Chicago. On Wednesday, he took reps with the first team during their rainy practice against the Patriots.
The little-known lineman now has a serious shot to make the Eagles’ roster.
If he does, it will cement a reunion with fifth-round draft pick Taylor Hart, who has also had a good camp so far. Back in 2010, Bair was Hart’s mentor when they were part of Kelly's best Oregon team, which went 12-0 before narrowly losing in the BCS National Championship to Cam Newton's Auburn Tigers.
Now they’re together again, even as they compete to make this Eagles roster at the same position.
Against Chicago, Bair was the second-team right defensive end. Following the loss, Chip gave the the 6-6, 290-pound lineman one of his highest compliments – “he was flying around” – and a three-play stretch in the second quarter demonstrated his playmaking ability.
On first down, Bair recovered a fumble on Chicago’s goal line, only to have the referees rule that Jordan Palmer’s arm had been in motion. Incomplete pass. Two plays later, rookie first-rounder Marcus Smith tipped a pass and Bair grabbed it at the Bears’ six-yard line. Again, however, the rules got in the way of a turnover, with the refs ruling that the ball touched the turf before Bair could control the interception.
He may have blocked Chicago’s field goal, too, as blogger/columnist Tommy Lawlor noted: “The Gamebook says Joe Kruger, but the video showed Damion Square and Brandon Bair getting penetration in that area and then getting a hand up.”
That’s quite a game for a player who has not played an NFL snap in three years of hanging around the bottom of rosters (at Kansas City, Oakland and, last year, on the Eagles’ practice squad).
Prior to Wednesday's practice, Kelly spoke about how some of the newer players, specifically Bair, have shown improvement.
"Brandon wasn't with us last year. We didn't get him until after the cut down dates and then we added him to the practice squad," the second-year coach said. "A lot of that development, never been through an offseason program with us or training camp with us."
"[Bair, LB Najee Goode and WR Jeff Maehl] missed the benefit of a whole offseason program. They missed the benefit of preseason training camp, and I think what you are seeing out of all those guys," Kelly continued. "I think it's just a situation where they understand what we're trying to get accomplished. Now last year they were probably playing catch up so to speak and now they are not playing catch up so they are getting a chance to really show what they can do to contribute."
Four years ago, Bair was a senior at Oregon. Behind him on the Ducks' depth chart was Hart, then just a freshman. The senior took notice of his hard work, but remains characteristically modest about how much he helped Hart develop.
"He's a hard worker," Bair recalled. "And anybody that’s willing to work hard, I’ll help them.”
Clearly, the relationship meant a lot to Hart, who didn't see it as something limited to the football field.
“[Brandon] taught me a lot in life, and a lot on football but mostly life," said Hart. "It was a great deal he did for me.”
Now, four years removed from their time together in Eugene, these two bash brothers are competing to make the team as depth defensive linemen.
The bond they formed, however, still remains.
“Taylor and I, we work well together," said Bair. "I’m always helping him out any time we need to.”
At 29, Bair is a bit of renaissance man and an entrepreneur.
A devout Mormon, Bair plays baritone saxophone, has a degree in Spanish and economics from Oregon, and owns a prize-winning bull named “Chief Big Dreamer.” He opened a sports training facility (“The Zone”) in his hometown of Rexburg, Idaho (not far from Yellowstone National Park), owns a used car dealership and fixes up old houses, which he rents out.
Hart grew up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, forklifting stacks of wood at his family’s lumber yard. Like Bair, he’s an avid hunter, something Hart has already discussed with veteran linebacker Trent Cole.
“Yeah, he’s right across from me in the locker room," Hart said. "So I’ve talked to him a little bit about it.”
Is Cole going to have the rookie on his cable TV hunting show? Hart laughed.
“No, I don’t talk about that. Just worry about trying to make the football team first.”
Focusing on making the team is crucial to both Bair and Hart, as neither is guaranteed a spot. They do, however, have the added benefit of knowing what Kelly likes in his players.
Both bone crunchers were Ducks during the team's miracle run in 2010. After a solid start in Chip Kelly’s first year, 2009, the squad had a disastrous offseason, with starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli dismissed after two arrests, future star Kiko Alonso suspended for the season after a DUII, and multiple other police incidents.
Then the team pulled together behind an unknown sophomore quarterback named Darron Thomas, who never made the NFL and is currently struggling to start for his Arena Football League team.
They went 12-0, beating USC and a Stanford team that featured quarterback Andrew Luck, tight end Zach Ertz, cornerback Richard Sherman and a coach named Jim Harbaugh, only to lose the national championship game to Auburn on a last-second field goal.
“It was amazing," Hart said of that 2010 season. "That was my redshirt [freshman] year, my first year playing, and being able to play behind some of those guys and watch them and how they prepared for games. It was a … fun deal.”
The following year, Chip Kelly had high praise for the young lineman. He told the Daily Emerald newspaper, “…he just works. Taylor’s been outstanding. His improvement, not only year-to-year but game-to-game, is really what jumps out at you.”
The NFL doesn’t have a lot of room for sentimentality. Hart and Bair know it’s a long shot for both of them to make the team, and as a fifth-round pick, the student has the edge over his mentor.
But the two Ducks-turned-Eagles are going to keep grinding - and flying - together.
Mark Saltveit is the author of "The Tao of Chip Kelly: Lessons from America's Most Successful Coach." He can be reached on Twitter at @taoish.