Shelton Gibson, Eagles' invisible man, puts in the work to improve

Eagles Football
Philadelphia Eagles' Shelton Gibson during an NFL football training camp in Philadelphia, Friday, Aug. 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Eagles have a bye this weekend, and Shelton Gibson isn’t going to play a football game.

Just as he hasn’t for any of the nine previous weekends this season.

The Eagles’ fifth-round rookie wide receiver from West Virginia has been on the roster all season, but has been inactive for every game so far, with no sign of that changing. Gibson is the only Eagle on the roster since Week 1 who hasn’t gotten into a game.

One day last week, as the Eagles prepared for the Denver Broncos, Gibson trudged in from the practice field and sat down at his locker stall. To take off his green No. 18 jersey, he first had to take off the red mesh pinnie he wore over it, bearing No. 88. Demaryius Thomas, the Broncos’ top receiver, wears No. 88. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound Gibson pretended to be him all week, in advance of the Birds’ 51-23 victory, for the benefit of the Eagles’ defense, despite being four inches shorter and roughly 40 pounds lighter than Thomas.

“I run a pattern, try to make it as hard on DBs as I can. Eighty-eight is a great player; I can’t slack on it,” Gibson said. “I can’t come out there and be lackadaisical, not running the right route.”

And yet, this contribution is quickly forgotten once the game is played. A new week rolls around and Gibson gets a new pinnie, a new bunch of routes to mimic.

Asked if he felt particularly proud of any of his impersonations, Gibson had to think.

“I’ve been Odell [Beckham Jr.],” he said. “Was I [Washington’s Jamison] Crowder? I was 11, but I’m not that tall.”

That last reference was not to the “Stranger Things” heroine, but to an even more formidable figure, Arizona’s 6-foot-3 future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.

This is not the NFL life a draftee envisions when he gets that phone call welcoming him to his new team. Even the analytics community hasn’t figured out a way to grade players on how well they pretend to be other players in practice. How does Gibson stay motivated?

“My motivation is that I’m able to come here every single day and see my name on a locker. That’s my motivation,” Gibson said. “Every day, come in here and see if I can get better at something. I have no days off.”

When the Eagles drafted Gibson, fans noted the 4.39 40 he ran at West Virginia’s pro day and envisioned the rookie blowing the top off defenses. But from the earliest spring drills, Gibson was swimming. The Mountaineers’ spread offense wasn’t great preparation for the NFL. The more Gibson struggled with route concepts and mechanics, the more he pressed. He started dropping passes, a trend that continued well into training camp. Coming out of the preseason, many observers figured he’d make the 53-man roster only because he was a draft pick.

“We’ve had to develop him in a lot of different areas, just because he comes from a system which only asks him to run three or four routes, primarily,” Eagles wide receivers coach Mike Groh said recently. Groh said the coaches have worked on “just his comfort level, learning an NFL route tree, coverage recognition. Getting in a huddle and hearing a play call and going out to a new spot all the time, instead of always being on the left. It’s just a process he’s had to go through, and he’s done a great job with the transition.”

It’s hard for anyone on the outside to tell, of course, since practices are closed after a few individual drills, and Gibson spends games on the sideline in an Eagles warmup suit. The Eagles have suffered several key injuries this season, but none of them affected the wide-receiving corps, which is functioning well, as is just about every group for the team with the NFL’s best record, at 8-1.

Gibson said he is “ready for anything to happen; not looking for anything to happen. I’m just blessed to be here.”

“It’s just building me up. It’s getting me better. I’m going against the best defense in the league, so it’s making me better every single week.”

During games, Gibson said, he tries to focus on the defense the Eagles are facing, imagining what it’s like for the receivers on the field.

“Sometimes I talk to the d-coordinator [Jim Schwartz], ask him what’s going on out there. I’ve learned a lot, being in the league. I’ve learned coverages, a lot of things I didn’t know. Looking at different players, how people play.”

Groh said he has no complaints.

“He’s very focused about improving his game, each and every week, each and every day. He’s a pleasure to work with,” Groh said. “Takes notes, he’s into the game plan.”

Asked what he thinks the Eagles want him to learn from sitting out, Gibson didn’t cite anything about route-running or catching the football.

“How to be a pro,” he said. “I’m getting better at it every single day.”

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