Brian Dawkins had a few questions for Jeremy Reaves. It’s likely the Eagles great player and current team executive asked the same of the other prospects who visited the NovaCare Complex before the draft. But Reaves’ answers may have resonated more with Dawkins, once also deemed too small to play safety.
It takes one to know one.
“He asked me why I do what I do. Why do I enjoy what I do. What makes me wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to go to practice.’ ” Reaves said. “I just told him my situation. Told him where I came from. Told him how I lost the game for a while, and it gave me a different perspective on everything.”
During his senior year of high school, Reaves woke up one morning with a stinging pain in his back. He had inexplicably broken the L5 vertebra in his lower back and was given a 12-month timetable for recovery. A return to football wasn’t guaranteed.
But Reaves, who attended Pensacola Catholic High (Fla.), didn’t need the entire year. He came back in six weeks.
“They called me the ‘Miracle Kid’ back home,” Reaves said Friday after the first day of Eagles rookie minicamp. “It was my humbling experience. That was something I needed to go through to make me the player that I am today.”
Reaves has had a few other humbling moments since. He wasn’t highly recruited by Division I-A programs because of the injury. Despite a stellar four years at South Alabama, including his senior season in which he was named Sun Belt defensive player of the year, he wasn’t invited to the NFL combine. And most recently he wasn’t drafted.
But Reaves is in the NFL now, after signing with the Eagles as a rookie free agent, and the playing field is even – or about as level as it gets in professional sport. The past snubs and the slights about his size mean little to the coaches here, but the 5-foot-11, 206-pound Reaves will continue to wear the grudges like strings on his fingers.
“I’ve never been the 6-3 kid. I’ve never been the 225-pound kid. I’ve never been the freakishly-athletic kid with the 40-inch vertical and the 4.3 time,” Reaves said. “That’s never been me. My arms are short. My hands are small. I’m undersized.
“That’s something when I wake up every morning I remember, and that’s been my driving force since I started. That’s something I always go back to when things get hard.”
Reaves’ road to the Eagles’ 53-man roster should be difficult, but he may have the easiest path of the rookies aside from second-round tight end Dallas Goedert. And that includes the other four draft picks. The Eagles have just four returning safeties, and only starters Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are virtually guaranteed spots.
They didn’t draft a safety for the second straight year, and one of their first calls as the seventh round wound down was to Reaves. He said that it didn’t take long to choose the Eagles over several other teams.
“Overall, coming here seemed like the best fit for me as far as looking at the secondary, looking at the depth chart,” Reaves said. “And just from the vibe when we came up here, I could tell they wanted me.”
The Eagles could still sign a free-agent safety. They didn’t acquire Corey Graham until last August, and he would go on to play in nearly 50 percent of the snaps – as the third safety in nickel and dime personnel — in the games he was active.
Graham is still on the street, but the Eagles likely want young blood. Jenkins and McLeod had strong 2017 seasons, but they aren’t getting any younger (30 and 28, respectively by the Week 1) and their contracts escalate without any guaranteed money. Chris Maragos should make the team. But he’s become almost exclusively a special-teams player, and he’s coming off knee surgery.
Tre Sullivan spent last season on the practice squad, but the second-year safety has three other undrafted rookies, aside from Reaves, to contend with – Stephen Roberts, Dominick Sanders and Ryan Neal.
Robert and Sanders were invited to the combine, but only Roberts ran the 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds). At his Pro Day, Reaves had the phrases “no combine invite,” “too small” and “lacks speed” written on his cleats. He ran the 40 in 4.66 seconds.
But size and speed have never been his calling card. After playing at cornerback his first three seasons, South Alabama moved Reaves to safety. He packed on 20 pounds in three months. The weight didn’t slow his explosiveness, Reaves said, and it only added more oomph to his hits.
Always a physical player, the Jaguars built their defense so that plays funneled to him whether he was in the box, roving or the post. Reaves recorded 104 tackles, seven for loss, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and 1 1/2 sacks.
Southeast area scout Alan Wolking was on Reaves early, but the Eagles’ interest ramped up at the Senior Bowl when the 21-year-old safety notched 14 tackles playing on his home field in Mobile, Ala.
Reaves said he watched a lot of tape of McLeod in college because he, too, was considered undersized. “He got it from the mud, as we say,” Reaves said. But his childhood idol was Dawkins.
“Brian Dawkins was the dude,” Reaves said. “That’s why I hit like I do. That’s why I act the way I do, dancing and jumping around. That made me a lot of who I am, watching him play.”
When they first met last month, Reaves said he tried his best not to act like an adoring fan.
“The first thing he told me was how pissed off he was that he was drafted lower than he wanted to go,” Reaves said. “He went second [round]. I went undrafted. I feel that, what he was saying, times a million.”