AS A SEVENTH-ROUND pick in the April draft, safety Kurt Coleman already is facing an uphill battle to win a roster job with the Eagles. Thanks to the NFL, that hill already is a lot steeper for the Ohio State product than it needs to be.
While the rest of the Eagles' rookies have spent the better part of the last month camped at the NovaCare Complex trying to familiarize themselves with the team's voluminous offensive and defensive playbooks, Coleman has been forbidden from entering the premises.
He is the victim of a stupid league rule that prohibits rookies from attending more than one minicamp until after their school has completed final exams.
While most schools are on a two-semester academic calendar and are finished by early May, Ohio State is among about 15 schools that employ either a quarterly or trimester calendar and don't finish until mid-June.
Coleman was permitted to attend the Eagles' 4-day minicamp the week after the draft, but has missed all of the team's Organized Team Activities, which commenced on May 19 and will wrap up on Thursday, which just happens to be the day Ohio State is finished with finals.
"He's going to be behind, no doubt about it," Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "Because you can't simulate what happens out there [in practice].
"Any time you're not here, it's an added challenge from a rookie standpoint. But we've got a plan in place and we've been executing that plan with Kurt over the phone as much as we can within the guidelines of the rule. We're doing the best we can to acclimate him as well as we can under the circumstances. Then, when he gets here at the end of this week, there will be an additional plan that we'll put into practice."
Coleman has missed out on some valuable practice reps. With the move of Macho Harris to cornerback and the season-ending Achilles' injury to Marlin Jackson, the Eagles have just four safeties available - veteran Quintin Mikell, second-round rookie Nate Allen, Quintin Demps and undrafted free agent Ryan Hamilton.
Coleman is scheduled to arrive in Philadelphia on Thursday night. McDermott and or defensive backs coach Dick Jauron likely will spend several days force-feeding the defensive system to the rookie. But as McDermott correctly pointed out, it's not the same as learning it out on the field for 14 practices, which is how many Coleman will have missed.
"This is where you learn everything," said Allen after yesterday's full-squad OTA. "This gets you ready for training camp so that you're able to play fast and compete out there. It'd be tough missing all these camps. We've been putting everything in and to not be here for that would make it a lot harder."
The last time the Eagles dealt with a situation like this was in 2006 with third-round pick Chris Gocong. Gocong went to Cal Poly, which was on a trimester schedule, and missed most of the OTAs as a rookie. Complicating matters was the fact that Gocong was a college defensive end whom the Eagles were moving to linebacker. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve with a neck stinger.
"When Chris came here, Steve [Spagnuolo] was the linebacker coach," McDermott said. "I just went back to what he did then and we're using that plan now with Kurt. Every situation is a little bit different. But I'm not worried about Kurt. He's a sharp football player who knows the game."
Quarterback Mike Kafka, one of the team's three fourth-round picks, went to Northwestern, which like Ohio State, is on a quarter system. But he graduated in December, which has allowed him to participate in all of the Eagles' postdraft camps.
The league instituted the rule in August 1990. It essentially was a peace offering to the college coaches at the time, who were threatening to ban scouts from their campuses after the NFL started allowing college players to apply for the draft after their junior year.
"We are trying to avoid interfering with a player completing his final semester at his school," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. "The players who want an education should not feel that they are at a disadvantage in competing for an NFL roster spot."
The reality, though, is that they are at a disadvantage if they miss these camps. A large percentage of the 255 players selected in the April draft didn't even enroll in school for the spring semester because they wanted to train full-time for their predraft workouts. Yet, even players who aren't enrolled in school aren't exempt from the rule. If school is still in session, they are grounded.
To his credit, Coleman, the son of a Dayton, Ohio, assistant principal, was enrolled at Ohio State this semester, finishing up requirements for an education degree. But his primary career plan clearly is to play in the NFL, not teach. What's the point of the league imposing a rule that clearly hurts his chances of doing that?
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said while there have been "rumblings" by some league executives about deep-sixing the rule, but there hasn't been a lot of time spent on the subject.
"The league wants to encourage everyone to finish school and graduate," he said.
While Roseman said he doesn't recall the Eagles ever passing on a player strictly because his school's academic calendar wouldn't allow him to participate in spring camps, he said "it could be a consideration" with some teams. You're going to take the best player. Hopefully, it's a long-term decision for your organization. But I've had that conversation with different teams. Maybe you have two guys who are fairly close [in ability] and one isn't going to miss any time and the other one won't be around until training camp. It could come into play.
"I think it depends on the player. Kurt's a sharp kid. He'll pick things up pretty quickly. He was a 3-year starter at Ohio State. Those are the kinds of things you look at with those guys and ask, 'Is he going to be able to pick things up quickly?' "
The Eagles haven't drafted a lot of players from schools with late finishing dates. And most of the ones they have selected were taken in the late rounds. Since 2000, Gocong and Kafka have been the only players drafted by the Eagles in the first four rounds from schools with quarterly or trimester calendars. And Kafka already had graduated.
"At the end of the day, I don't think it's ever been why a player succeeded or failed in this league," said Charley Casserly, a former GM with Washington and Houston who now works for CBS. "But does it put a guy behind? Absolutely.
"The thing about a kid like Coleman, when you get drafted in the seventh round, you're probably going to wind up as a practice-squad player your first year anyway. So he'll have plenty of time to learn. It's not like they're expecting him to step in and start." *