Two months ago, Tim Jernigan was indignant when asked about his prospects after an offseason in which the Eagles let him walk only to bring him back a month later as a likely reserve.
“You’ll see in September,” he said then.
Jernigan might have been off by a few months. Training camp is only a week old, and the real games don’t start for another five-plus weeks, but the defensive tackle has been among the early standouts at practice.
“He looks as good, if not better, than I’ve seen him,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday.
A day later, offensive coordinator Mike Groh was asked for defensive players who’ve caught his eye and he named two: defensive end Joe Ostman and Jernigan.
While Ostman’s performance has surprised some, and Jernigan’s hasn’t for anyone who saw him contribute to the Eagles’ Super Bowl season, there has been some uncertainty about whether he could be that guy again.
Jernigan’s had a mighty slide since the championship. Traded to the Eagles during the 2017 offseason, he earned a $48 million extension that November and was seemingly entrenched as a core defender for at least the foreseeable future. But he suffered a still-mysterious neck injury the following May and has had to endure a series of indignities since.
The Eagles restructured Jernigan’s contract as he would go on to miss most of 2018. In March, they declined his option after signing Malik Jackson to a $30 million contract. And when no other team was willing to gamble on him, he re-signed with the Eagles for one year and a fraction of what he was originally slated to earn.
Jernigan has never said that he hit rock bottom or that he ever thought his career was over, but he has spoken like a man ready to take advantage of his second chance.
“There’s a fire that burns inside me. I want it more than ever right now,” Jernigan said Tuesday after practice. “My eyes definitely open. I’m just happy to be a part of the team again, back to playing ball and doing what I love.”
If football wasn’t quite taken away from him, snaps may be. The Eagles didn’t pay Jackson that kind of money to stand on the sidelines. The 29-year-old former Jaguar is penciled in to start alongside All- Pro Fletcher Cox. Schwartz rotates his linemen, so Jernigan will play, but he has only ever been a starter in Philadelphia.
“I play in a system where we’re loaded up front. We brought in Malik. He’s a great player,” Jernigan said. “So it’s just being a matter of the chances I get and taking advantage of them. I’m not trying to step on anybody’s toes. I just want to be ready when my number’s called.”
Jernigan said he’s the healthiest he’s been since a high ankle sprain in Week 6 of 2017. He has declined to give any details about the neck injury, but a source previously said that he suffered a herniated cervical disk. He underwent a cervical fusion in April 2018, and that has allowed him to play again, but another such injury could end his career.
He said he didn’t do anything differently in terms of his training this offseason.
“I always do a lot of running, conditioning-wise,” Jernigan said. “If anything, I kind of had to back up a little bit on the weightlifting. I didn’t want to strain anything or have anything crazy happen before I had a chance to get back into camp.”
While he was just learning Schwartz’s attacking 4-3 front two camps ago and sat out all of the summer a year ago, Jernigan doesn’t have to think as much as he enters Year 3 in a scheme that is significantly different from the read-and-react one be played in with the Ravens.
“They attacked up front there, but it was more you reading the guy in front of you and kind of basing your move based off what he does,” Jernigan. “Here, when that ball is snapped, you flying up the field. That’s what Jim wants. He wants you to be disruptive and the linebackers will kind of make you right.”
It didn’t feel entirely right to Jernigan during his first season in Philly. Jackson, who played in a hybrid front in Jacksonville, said he’s going through the same transition.
“I’m still trying to get what’s a play, what’s a bad play,” Jackson said.
When the Eagles first acquired Jernigan, they said that his aggressive mentality would make him a natural pass rusher in Schwartz’s scheme. But he has had more success as a run defender. Schwartz said that Jernigan has had moments as a rusher this camp. But Jackson is a pass specialist and should play more on passing downs.
“I think he’s eager to prove himself,” defensive end Brandon Graham said of Jernigan. “Timmy is still the same Timmy, but you can tell that he’s got a little more pep because of things and how they are right now.”
It’s difficult to imagine Jernigan with more energy than he previously had. He’s been an engine-starter and tough guy for the Eagles. With his gold teeth and belly-showing practice jersey, he looks the part.
Retired defensive end Chris Long was recently asked on Twitter which former Eagle “he’d most want by his side in a fight” and he responded with a picture of himself and Jernigan seated at a 76ers game.
“Timmy is one of those teammates that you know has your back,” Long said in a text message. “He brings an edge you need in your defensive-line room and locker room. … You need guys that play on the edge on game day and bring the [jerk] out in everyone else.”