Doug Pederson wasted little time bracing Eagles fans for the very real possibility that this year’s rookie class might not be making much of a contribution to the team’s NFL war effort.
“Personally, I feel we’re going to have to lean on our veterans players," he said less than two hours after the Eagles had made the last of the their 10 draft selections late last month.
“We’re going to have to lean on DeSean Jackson and Greg Ward, guys like that. And now Marquise Goodwin, a veteran player who understands the game, until we can get these young guys caught up."
Under normal circumstances, this isn’t something Pederson ever would have considered saying, particularly right after putting the wraps on the team’s largest draft class in nearly a decade.
But thanks to the COVID pandemic, these aren’t normal circumstances for anyone, including the NFL.
The league released its schedule two weeks ago, but it’s anybody’s guess whether the season will start on time or even be played. Training camps may or may not start on time, and could end up being shorter than normal. NFL training facilities still are basically off-limits to most team personnel, and offseason training activities are being conducted on laptops rather than on practice fields.
Pederson said earlier this week that it’s very possible teams won’t be cleared to return to their facilities until late July.
“I’m preparing as if we’re going to be back in our building by training camp,’’ he said. “Nothing is definite. Nothing has been set obviously. But I’m preparing that way to be back in the building by mid-July so we can be on grass.
“That’s my preparation. ... That’s my mindset right now as I prepare for training camp. When we get back, it’s got to be full-steam ahead.’’
Spring OTAs are crucial to rookies with respect to learning a new offensive or defensive system. They use the spring reps and the extra time with the coaches so that they can hit the ground running in training camp.
None of the rookies will be hitting the ground running this summer.
“We are making do with the virtual set up," Pederson said. “The coaches have done a great job of meeting and preparing and getting the guys as close to ready as possible.
“But we do need the grass time to see what these guys can do and see what they have taken away from the offseason from a mental standpoint."
Three of the Eagles’ 10 draft picks were wide receivers -- first-rounder Jalen Reagor, fifth-rounder John Hightower, and sixth-rounder Quez Watkins.
If this were a normal year, they’d get plenty of opportunities during the spring to catch passes from Carson Wentz and establish some sort of chemistry with the Eagles quarterback.
“The second we added those pieces, I was excited to get together with them and the playmakers that we already have," Wentz said last week.
“There’s a challenge in developing chemistry, developing timing. But we’re not the only team dealing with that. The entire league is trying to find ways to be creative and develop chemistry and team unity and everything.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time right now. This situation obviously is unprecedented. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about it. We’re trying to be creative as we go here. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find ways to link up and get some work in here and there. But as of now, we’re pretty limited."
The Eagles never have had more than four rookies log 200-plus snaps in any of Pederson’s four years as head coach.
Even without the pandemic, just three of their 10 picks this year -- Reagor, fourth-round safety K’Von Wallace, and perhaps Hightower -- seemed to have a realistic chance of becoming members of the 200-snap club.
Their other seven picks, including third-round linebacker Davion Taylor, are developmental players who need varying degrees of ripening time on the window sill. But the potential postponement of all spring field work only has delayed the ripening.
The closest comparison to what this year’s rookies are going through is 2011 and the 132-day labor lockout. The league held the draft that year, but everything else in the NFL world stopped. Players were banned from training facilities. Offseason workout programs and OTAs were canceled. Coaches weren’t allowed to communicate with players.
The lockout lasted from March 11 until the two sides finally shook hands on a new collective bargaining agreement on July 25. Most of the Eagles’ rookies didn’t get their first glimpse of the playbook until right before the start of training camp.
“I think 2011 is a good comparison to this with the young players," Pederson said. “Obviously, this would be the time of the year where we’d be in the middle of Phase 2 and preparing for Phase 3. The OTA aspect of our offseason.
“We would be in the building with a lot of meeting time, a lot of extra meeting time with our rookies, trying to get them caught up with the playbook."
With one notable exception, the 2011 draft was a disaster for the Eagles. That was the Danny Watkins-Jaiquawn Jarrett-Curtis Marsh debacle.
The one exception was center Jason Kelce, whom they took in the sixth round with the 191st overall pick at offensive line coach Howard Mudd’s urging. Mudd loved Kelce’s athleticism. Even with the lockout, Mudd made Kelce the team’s starting center a week into training camp.
“I got the playbook two days before we started training camp," Kelce said. “ In some respects, this year is similar to that year for the rookies. But in other respects, it’s magnified because gyms have been closed. Guys have struggled to find places to work out.’’
How did Kelce manage to overcome the lockout and start 16 games as a rookie?
“Part of it for me was I was in a lucky situation," he said. “Howard was looking for a different center. A more athletic guy than he had [Jamaal Jackson]. So he was looking to give me an opportunity.
“And then part of it was I’m a pretty smart, cerebral guy. So I grasp things pretty quickly. But there’s no doubt it’s going to be a struggle for the young guys and the rookies and even the free agents this year" if they don’t get on the field until training camp.
“You’re just going to have to hit it that much harder when everything does get cleared up," Kelce said. “The benefit for them is that at least they’re talking to their position coaches and are going to have the ability to eventually meet with them at some point. They’ll be getting a lot more than I got during the 2011 offseason.’’
Former Eagles president Joe Banner said coaches need to be a little bit more forgiving with rookies early on this summer.
“I think, on the average, there’s no doubt that the collective [rookie] class will be behind when the season starts," Banner said. “But there still are going to be a number of first-year players who will be on the field and making contributions like we’ve seen in the past.
“The greater fear I would have if I was running a team right now is coaches blanketly dismissing the contributions rookies can make because of the situation, and then overlooking the few that are able to overcome the timing challenges and play.
“Coaches are reluctant to play people that they’re afraid might make some mental errors. But that often becomes exaggerated in a coach’s mind and guys that should be playing sometimes aren’t."