When an undrafted guy shows talent at a skill position during the NFL's springfest of minicamps, there's usually a story attached, with twists and turns.
So it is with 24-year-old running back Martell Mallett, signed by the Eagles in January after becoming the Canadian Football League's Most Outstanding Rookie, out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Mallett grew up in Pine Bluff, and Division I schools were interested in him as a football player, but most of them saw him as a defensive back, Mallett said yesterday, after a session of rookie camp at NovaCare. Bowling Green enticed him to accept a partial scholarship at running back, the position he wanted to play, with the promise of going from partial to full if he did well the first few months. Long story short, Mallett felt he did very well, the scholarship didn't come right away, and Mallett ended up transferring to the school back home, where he ran for 2,896 yards and 27 touchdowns in 4 years.
But of course, there were more complications.
"Going into my senior season, I strained a quad muscle. I missed a couple games, and I was slowed down. I ended up with [919 rushing] yards, averaged 6 yards a carry, but coming out of my senior year, I tore my pec muscle. Right before the pro day came, I couldn't lift, I couldn't run, so that kind of set me back," Mallett said.
He couldn't even scare up a training-camp invite from anybody in the NFL, so on to the CFL's British Columbia Lions he went, and before long, Mallett was back on the NFL radar, big time, having rushed for 1,240 yards on 214 carries and six touchdowns, and caught 43 passes for 342 yards and another two TDs. He worked out for the Rams and Eagles and talked to the Redskins before signing with the Birds.
"It was different," Mallett said. "It was a great experience, going to Montreal and seeing everybody speak French . . . It was great people. Vancouver's a great city. You can look outside and it's sunny, but you can see snow on the mountaintops. It was nice . . . Nice people, everybody is just curteous.
"All my life has been a journey. I just gotta fight through everything. It's been a good experience; I learn a lot from my experiences. I'm glad to have obstacles in my way, help me get stronger."
Coming out of Pine Bluff, Mallett (6-foot, 210) probably wasn't the kind of back who would have excited much interest from the Eagles. He mostly ran between the tackles, caught just 50 passes in four seasons. But B.C. ran a type of spread offense that required Mallett to become a more adept receiver, and he found he was up to the task.
"He's worked hard at that," Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "He's got excellent skill and ability. I think he's got a real chance to make this football team and help the club."
It's hard to say, 2 months before training camp, exactly where Mallett might fit in. We haven't even seen him in pads yet. But you figure LeSean McCoy is the feature guy, with free-agent signee Mike Bell getting mostly short-yardage carries. Then there is another bruiser, sixth-round LSU rookie Charles Scott, and a wideout, Chad Hall, who was mainly a running back at the Air Force Academy; Hall could fit into some sort of pass-catching back role, at least on a limited basis. Holdover Eldra Buckley is more along the lines of Bell and Scott. Mallett and undrafted rookie Keithon Flemming, from West Texas A & M, have to define their niches. McCoy and Bell would seem to be the only guys absolutely assured of roster spots.
Mallett said even last year's CFL experience didn't prepare him for the Birds' version of the West Coast offense, which requires running backs not only to catch the ball but to line up flanked wide and run routes like wideouts.
"It's been different," Mallett said. "At first, [wondering] which leg do you put up [on the line] - I quickly learned that. Now I'm trying to get everything, the alignment and everything precise, so I can come out and play comfortable."
There are many nuances, he said, such as the way receivers get in and out of fullspeed cuts, something running don't have to do as fluidly.
"Running back, you're used to sticking and cutting," he said. "We're running a lot of the same routes they're running, so we watch the receivers [for tips]."
Both Mallett and Mornhinweg noted that Mallett has been a daily NovaCare presence since offseason workouts began in March. "Watching film, trying to get a jump start on everything," Mallett said.
"He's pretty quiet, but he's really a sharp guy," Mornhinweg said.
Mallett said he wants to fill whatever niche is there to be filled.
"I'm a natural runner," he said. "When they put the ball in my hands, I'll make something happen with it. Catching it out of the backfield, anywhere I fit in - special teams would be a good fit for me. Wherever they ask me [to play], that's a strength for me. I'll play wherever they ask me."