Eagles rookie linebacker Davion Taylor thinks about his playbook as he tries to fall asleep.
“So maybe when I go to sleep, I’m dreaming about the playbook,” Taylor said Tuesday.
When the Eagles drafted Taylor in the third round last spring, then took Temple’s Shaun Bradley in the sixth round, it had to look to them like an appealing opportunity to perhaps play right away – the Eagles had let veteran linebackers Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nigel Bradham go in free agency. The remaining corps didn’t contain a single veteran with an illustrious history as an NFL starter. The most-experienced member of the group, four-year veteran free-agent signee Jatavis Brown from the Chargers, retired as training camp began.
But barring injury, when the Eagles line up for their Sept. 13 opener at Washington, three remaining veterans will be the starters. That would be Nate Gerry, Duke Riley, and T.J. Edwards, with special teams ace Alex Singleton available off the bench. As vets go, they aren’t exactly grizzled, at ages 25, 26, 24, and 26, with eight combined NFL seasons behind them, but they have played in the Eagles’ scheme, and at least initially, that is a very big deal.
It isn’t that the rookie group, which includes undrafted Dante Olsen from Montana, has underachieved. It’s that starting Week 1 at linebacker or safety for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a formidable task, given this year’s truncated preparation period. (Likewise, safety K’Von Wallace, a fourth-round rookie and maybe the Eagles draft pick observers liked the most, seems well behind the more-experienced trio of Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills, and Will Parks.)
Schwartz was asked this week to assess where the rookie linebackers stood.
“I think the last part is the important part of the question,” he said “ ‘Rookie linebackers’ is always a difficult situation. Linebackers and safeties, they are the people that have the most on their plate when it comes to scheme.”
In a typical year, there are OTAs, minicamps, and preseason games.
“It gives those guys plenty of time to get their feet under them and to go. … These guys have not had the benefit of that,” Schwartz said. “They did a lot of meetings … which is good, it’s productive, but it doesn’t replace being on the field. We can have scrimmages, and we can have shoulder-pad practices, but it doesn’t replace that live-game speed that those guys need.
“So I’d probably throw our linebackers and our safeties all in the same basket. … They have a lot on their plate, not just with defense but with special teams, and all those guys have shown some really good things in training camp so far. It’s just a matter of being up against the clock and how quickly they can have complete command — not just mentally, but then command physically, to be able to go in and play the position for us.”
Taylor played almost no high school football before walking on at a community college, then spending two years at Colorado. He assessed his task as “very difficult.”
Taylor said he focuses on “paying attention to all the details, because one little thing can change your gap, one little thing can change who you have in the pass coverage.”
He has reached out for extra tutoring from linebackers coach Ken Flajole.
“During my free time, I’ve started going up to coach Flaje’s office, spending an extra 30 or 45 minutes with him every morning, and just asking him questions,” Taylor said. “And then at nighttime, I’ll watch the film from the day, go over the playbook, and if anything pops up while I’m watching it, I’ll write it down, and in the morning I’ll come in and I’ll ask him, like, ‘Why do we do this,’ or ‘Why is the coverage played this way?’ So I can [understand] what we’re doing, and not just play.”
Flajole said recently that Taylor needs more “time on the grass.”
“He’s been a very diligent guy in our meeting room, he really wants to learn,” Flajole said, “but he doesn’t have the background in our scheme, No. 1, as none of the rookies do.”
Flajole went on to praise Taylor’s “rare athletic ability” and said he has a promising future.
What is so hard about this? It’s the difference from college in scheme complexity, at a position where assignments can be predicated on what happens after the ball is snapped.
As Taylor put it: “It ain’t all about just trying to run to the ball.”
Also, Schwartz and Flajole want their linebackers to know all three positions.
“When you’re coming from college, it’s lot more detail in the NFL, and specifically, maybe, with this playbook,” Bradley said. “There’s a lot of little things you gotta know, you don’t just have to know your job, you have to know everybody’s job around you.
“That can cause some confusion, or maybe you’re a little slow to react on certain things, because you’re still learning.”
Most of the time, the Eagles are in nickel or dime and have only one or two linebackers on the field, so only carrying six in training camp isn’t the end of the world. It would be a surprise if the team went into Week 1 without picking up a vet from somewhere, maybe after the cut-down to 53, but the players lining up there now can’t just assume that will happen. The rookies have to be ready to at least fill in.
Bradley — whose leadership among the defensive rookies Flajole touted — was asked about a “sense of urgency.”
“Absolutely, the older linebackers in my group, specifically Duke Riley — I talk to him a lot — and even the older safeties … details come up, they tell me, ‘Hey man, you gotta get that correct, because we don’t have any preseason games, so that first game, everything counts,’ " Bradley said. “You can’t miss little assignments, you can’t miss that little detail, you have to get everything on point. For me, I agree with it completely, I’m starting to learn now as I’m getting farther in training camp that everything really does matter.”
Taylor said the three rookies have bonded.