BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — A year ago, none of them were Eagles or had given much thought to becoming Eagles. They were preparing for the NFL draft. That process took them through the spring. Then they found out where they would begin their pro careers, and right away they were swept up in a whirlwind of learning new techniques, new systems, and new ways of looking at a game they had played most of their lives, but were now embarking upon as a profession.
To a man, the Eagles’ rookies are feeling incredibly blessed to jump into the NFL and then right into Super Bowl LII, but some of them also are a bit wrung out. They’ve been going full blast, pretty much since starting practice for their final college seasons, about 18 months ago.
Kicker Jake Elliott needs only to look to his holder, 37-year-old punter Donnie Jones, to grasp how fortunate he was to be cut by the Bengals at the end of the preseason after they drafted him in the fifth round, then to be plucked from their practice squad when Eagles kicker Caleb Sturgis tore a hip flexor in the opener.
“You talk to guys like Donnie, who’s been waiting 14 years for this, being here Year 1 is really special,” Elliott said.
Elliott said that a year ago this week, he was “just finishing up the Senior Bowl, trying to get ready for the draft. … It feels like it was a real long time ago. Obviously, a lot has changed in a year.
“Everyone always says the rookie season is the hardest one to get through, because you haven’t really taken a break. I’ve been kicking since camp before my senior year [at Memphis]. It’s been long, but it’s been a heck of a ride.”
Elliott allows himself to reflect, but only so much, with the grand prize still hanging in the balance.
“You obviously look back on it a little bit and just try to figure out where you were, and now you’re here, and it’s obviously a super-fortunate situation,” he said. “I won’t do too much thinking about it until this week’s over with.”
Sixth-round defensive tackle Elijah Qualls said he was in Arizona, training for the draft, a year ago this week.
“I was just trying to imagine getting drafted. I wasn’t imagining the Super Bowl. … For it to be in my rookie year is an unexplainable blessing,” Qualls said. “It has definitely been a long year, year and a month, whatever. For it all to pay off in this type of way? It’s definitely worth it.”
First-round defensive end Derek Barnett was named to the Pro Football Writers’ all-rookie team after notching five sacks, the most recorded by an Eagles rookie since the team’s last first-round defensive lineman to earn significant playing time, Fletcher Cox, in 2012. Bur when Cox was a rookie, the team was 4-12 and the coach got fired.
Barnett said he would have been training in Boca Raton, Fla., a year ago this week. His view of the road he traveled to get here is a bit different from what was expressed by Elliott and Qualls. Barnett had no way of knowing he was going to the Super Bowl, but he said he knew to expect an extra-long grind.
“I feel good. They told us it was going to be a long year. Everybody goes through it,” he said. “It’s a transition into the NFL; I embrace it, I run with it. … It actually flew by. A lot’s been happening, and it’s been fun.
“I appreciate it a lot. Everybody’s been telling me how hard it is. Everybody dreams about getting here. Everybody doesn’t get here. I’m very lucky to be in this position.”
Barnett marveled at how much he has learned in the time since April 27, the evening he was introduced to cheering Eagles fans on the steps of the Art Museum.
“I’m a completely different ballplayer from last year compared to this year, as far as understanding the game and understanding how offensive linemen are trying to tackle us,” Barnett said. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Barnett said his rookie season has been about “making mistakes and learning from mistakes.”
Fifth-round rookie wide receiver Shelton Gibson said that a year ago, he was training in Anaheim, Calif..
“Today’s Wednesday, right? Speed training at 11 o’clock [the time he was being interviewed Wednesday],” he said. “It feels like it was just yesterday, honestly. It went so fast, this year went by so fast, and I feel like I’ve grown so much from then to now as a player.
“I would have thought that it would take me a minute. But now, sitting here today, playing in the Super Bowl, on the biggest stage in sports, it’s crazy. It’s crazy.
“I’m so excited that we’re in the Super Bowl that I’m not feeling it, but I probably will feel it after the Super Bowl. It’s probably going to hit me.”
Gibson was inactive for the first 10 games of the season, but he dressed for five of the final six and has played on special teams in both playoff games. Asked what he has learned, he said, “How to be a pro.”
Undrafted rookie running back Corey Clement said that a year ago, he was “preparing for the combine, had just got done with the Senior Bowl. I went back to Wisconsin [where he went to college], last year today.
“It was a lot of ups and downs, this whole year, especially starting with the draft [and not being selected]. Now everything is going our way. I’m in a great environment. … Couldn’t wish for anything better.”
Clement, one of the most productive undrafted rookies in Eagles history, clearly is savoring the moment.
“Playing with these guys, coming out each week, I think when I look back, once the season really caps off, I can say this journey has really been awesome,” he said.
Second-round cornerback Sidney Jones said he also was training for the combine a year ago, little suspecting he would cement his spot as a top-half-of-the-first-round prospect there, then tear his left Achilles tendon at Washington’s pro day less than a week later. Jones spent most of the season getting healthy. He played only in the meaningless regular-season finale against Dallas.
“It’s very crazy,” he said, when asked to reflect on all he has been through in the last year. “I’ll take some time off and process that [after the game].
“I take it for what it is. As a player, sometimes you have to do your role. It hasn’t been my role yet to show myself and my full capabilities. Next year is my time. I’ll have next year and the future.”
It’s unlikely, but not inconceivable, that Jones could be active Sunday. The hamstring he tweaked against Dallas is OK now. Jones said he hasn’t heard anything either way, and usually doesn’t.
“I always wonder,” he said. “Always curious. Control what I can control.”
Third-round corner Rasul Douglas said he was in San Diego training for the combine at the start of last February. He said it has occurred to him that “we’ll have time, before April starts and we’re back at it again, just to sit back and look, how far we came as a unit, as a team, individually.
“It’s fun. A lot of people have been on, like, strict teams, but this team is like a passionate group, a fun group. We’re all chill. We’re all close together, we all do everything as a team, and no one person is bigger than the team.”
Most of the rookies said they haven’t thought much beyond Sunday, but Qualls has. He has an exit strategy, one he hopes to employ after, say, a nice midweek parade in Philly.
“I’m going to Hawaii,” Qualls said. “When we’re done done, I’m going straight to Hawaii and taking my little brothers [Dillon and Isaiah] and just having a good time and finally getting my vacation.”