When K’Von Wallace was a freshman in high school, he thought he would come in and play junior varsity football. When he was a sophomore, he thought he would play varsity. When he was a junior, he thought he would start on varsity. And when he arrived at Clemson, he thought he’d start right away.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong again.
But if he’s been right about something, it’s that patience – “my best friend,” he called it – has made him the player he is today.
“If you just go back and look at my history, man, I had to be patient,” Wallace said Friday. “And every time I was patient I reaped the benefits.”
Wallace has played only sparingly in his first season with the Eagles. Fifty-three snaps total on defense. But more playing time could be coming after fellow safety Will Parks was released Tuesday. And if it’s not, Wallace said, he’s confident his patience will again be rewarded.
“I feel like my time’s going to come and it’s going to be a storm coming,” Wallace said. “And I just cannot wait for that time to come. Me saying ‘I can’t wait,’ I can wait. But me saying ‘I can’t wait’ is just the eagerness of just showing the world that I’m here to stay, and I’m here to bring some winning to this team.”
Many fans have had the opposite impatient reaction to the 3-7-1 Eagles’ reluctance to play their younger players. While the team could theoretically leapfrog the New York Giants and Washington, both 4-7, with a victory Sunday at the Packers, many of its followers would rather they lost to improve their draft standing.
And many would rather see the Eagles use the final five games to evaluate youngsters and close the curtain on veterans who won’t likely return in 2021. Recently, there have been minor indications that the team is moving in that direction.
Last week, second-year offensive lineman Jordan Mailata was reinserted at left tackle and longtime veteran Jason Peters was moved to right guard. And this week, rookie Jack Driscoll supplanted Matt Pryor as the starting right tackle, and Parks was waived, presumably to bump Wallace and fellow rookie Grayland Arnold up the depth chart.
“It’s not a sign that we’re supposedly throwing in the towel [because] we’re letting all these young players play,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We got confidence in our young players. We’re excited about our young players.”
But the Eagles have yet to really commit to a full-blown youth movement. Peters is still playing ahead of Nate Herbig, Sua Opeta, or Pryor, for instance. And wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, perhaps most notable, has seen his playing time increase while Jalen Reagor’s, Travis Fulgham’s, and John Hightower’s have decreased.
Reagor has been the only rookie to see the field consistently as a starter. Meanwhile, quarterback Jalen Hurts, linebackers Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, receiver Quez Watkins, Wallace, Driscoll, and Hightower have mostly been relegated to special teams, the sideline, or inactive.
But it hasn’t just been the draft picks who have been waiting their turns. Running back Jason Huntley, cornerback Michael Jacquet, center Luke Juriga, and Arnold are undrafted rookies who could benefit from a taste of action.
Pederson isn’t likely to go to those extremes, especially with so much, possibly his job, on the line. But if the Eagles keep losing there could be a moment when owner Jeffrey Lurie or general manager Howie Roseman step in and forces the coach’s hand.
The most significant change, of course, would be if they wanted to see Hurts ahead of starter Carson Wentz. But Pederson said Lurie hasn’t chimed in, despite a recent report that said the owner told the coach to have Hurts ready if Wentz’s struggles continue.
“That’s my decision as the head football coach,” Pederson said Tuesday.
If so, then Pederson’s decisions to stick with some of his aging players have been confounding. Jeffery, who was on the active roster for eight weeks without playing because of foot and calf injuries, has done almost nothing in the three games he has played.
In his first game back, he played 18 snaps and was targeted only once, a Wentz overthrow. In the next game, he played only five snaps and was targeted twice. He dropped one pass and the second was intercepted. Last week against the Seahawks, he was on the field for 35 snaps and caught just 2-of-4 attempts for 15 yards.
Fulgham, meanwhile, played his lowest percentage of snaps (37-of-71) last week, as did Reagor (43). And Hightower, while he did play more than he had the previous two weeks (three and one snaps), was on the field for only 19 plays.
“I think the biggest thing is getting quality snaps,” receivers coach Aaron Moorehead said. “It’s not about playing 80 snaps. It’s about getting the best snaps. I want those guys to play their best snaps. … Alshon is a savvy, savvy, savvy veteran who’s played a lot of football.
“He’s been such a great voice in our room for the young players. I know it sometimes doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but there’s things he does in a football game, being in this league long enough, he does them with such ease and confidence.”
But whatever configuration the Eagles have used at receiver the last three weeks hasn’t worked. The group averaged just nine catches on 18 targets for 70 yards over that span. Fulgham showed during Weeks 4-8 that he could get open and catch the ball consistently. But for various reasons, he struggled the last three games.
The Eagles have all but given up on JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who was drafted in the second round last year, but Jeffery not only doesn’t figure into the team’s plans next year, he has looked slow and declining.
Peters has had an assortment of injuries, which have affected his performance. But they have to be factored into the evaluation of the 38-year-old. Mailata has had his ups and downs, but the Eagles would benefit long-term from seeing whether the 23-year old has the goods to play left tackle.
It shouldn’t have taken right tackle Lane Johnson’s season-ending ankle injury for Pederson to make the move. Peters’ highs have been higher than Mailata when he has played, but his lows have been as low, and the difference was marginal enough to favor glimpsing the future.
Each of the rookies has gotten a taste on either offense or defense, and while their readiness or lack thereof, could be legitimately why they haven’t played more, the Eagles owe it to themselves to have a larger sample.
Their salary cap situation for 2021 won’t likely allow for significant additions in free agency. And if so, they need their youngsters (read: cheap labor) to be contributors.
Wallace won’t get the nod ahead of starters Rodney McLeod and Jalen Mills on Sunday. He may not even be the third safety over Marcus Epps. But he could see the field, depending upon the package, in a limited role. He did so in Weeks 4-5, and while he wasn’t perfect, the Eagles have to be willing to accept growing pains.
The rookie has.
“Everything’s a little different. It’s the next step. This is the highest level of football,” Wallace said. “You got to come in and work every single day. There’s no days off. There’s no lackadaisical. You cannot not be consistent. You have to be consistent every single day.”