Updated: Friday, September 8, 2017, 11:22 AM
Donnel Pumphrey was out of town last Saturday when the Eagles made their final cuts to reach the NFL’s 53-man roster limit. If he were just a guy who had walked in off the street, rather than a fourth-round draft pick, he would have been back out there quickly, and Pumphrey knew it.
Even as a player in whom the organization had invested a mid-round selection, Pumphrey was still nervous because he also knew his training camp had been underwhelming at best and he had been outplayed by undrafted running back Corey Clement, who didn’t remind anyone of Brian Westbrook, either. So, when the phone rang and it was a Pennsylvania area code, Pumphrey wasn’t entirely certain how the conversation would go.
“I said, ‘Uh oh. Here it is,’ ” he said. “Usually, you get a call when you don’t make the roster. It was [Howie] Roseman, and I didn’t know if it was good or bad because his voice kind of stays the same.”
Roseman, as it turned out, was the bearer of good news for Pumphrey, who had made the roster because the Eagles kept five running backs. It’s possible he or Clement would have sneaked through the waiver process and landed on the practice squad, but the organization didn’t take the chance. Pumphrey and a few other young players benefitted from coming along at a time in which the front office is very confident in itself and its evaluations, or at least not ready to acknowledge many mistakes.
“He basically said, ‘We know it’s been a hard transition for you. We know it’s been tough for you, but we believe in you and we want the college Pump,’ ” said Pumphrey, who set NCAA rushing records at San Diego State. “I said, ‘You’re going to get the college Pump.’ ”
That could happen, or it could be that the NFC and AFC are a bit of a leap from the Mountain West Conference. The Eagles will wait to find out. For one thing, it’s the smart course of action. For another, they have the luxury of time because the Eagles aren’t ready for serious contention yet. The way the roster was constructed indicates that is the organization’s belief as well.
“We’re in a unique industry where there’s really no patience,” Roseman said after the roster was announced. “There’s no other industry where you take a guy out of college and if they don’t look exactly like you’re hoping a month in, you just look to dump them. We want to develop our players. We trust our evaluations and our scouts, and we want to give guys time that we believe in. I think both Pump and Corey are along those lines.”
There are other teams in the league that have neither time nor patience this season, and every roster spot was used with an eye to production in 2017. If the Eagles are correct in their assessments, they’ll get to that level soon enough. For now, when you consider which players will be among the 46 active on game days, the team has devised what amounts to a 17-man practice squad. That’s a hunk of the roster devoted almost entirely to the future, but, again, that’s where the Eagles are focusing.
“We’re trying to [determine] where the ceilings are of guys, and especially some of the guys that may not be playing, may not be active,” Roseman said. “We don’t want to lose a guy that, a year or two from now, we think has starter traits.”
Making a guess – and it’s only a guess because we don’t know yet which players have made themselves indispensable on special teams – it would figure that neither Pumphrey nor Clement will be active, and the other five inactives could also include three draft picks — cornerback Rasul Douglas, receiver Shelton Gibson and defensive tackle Elijah Qualls — along with depth reserves such as offensive lineman Chance Warmack and defensive end Steven Means.
If that were the case, then only two of the eight draft picks from April would be active: defensive end Derek Barnett and receiver Mack Hollins. (Cornerback Sidney Jones is recovering from surgery, and linebacker Nathan Gerry is on the practice squad). That’s a slow road, but it is the one that makes sense for the Eagles, both competitively and financially. They are still in enough of a salary-cap crunch that spending money on bottom-of-the-roster veterans isn’t worth the investment, a reality that became clear to offensive linemen Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin, among others.
As the season opens against the Redskins on Sunday, it’s fine to harbor hope that the Eagles are capable of a magical season in which things fall into place very quickly. It’s not necessarily wise to have that expectation, however. Take a look at the roster and the way it was constructed, and you can see that the organization has balanced its own hopes and expectations for this season with a lot more of one than the other.