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Paul Domowitch: Eagles' undrafted free agent Polk eager to shoulder load

CHRIS POLK will tell you now that he had zero expectations heading into last month’s NFL draft. “My expectation was just to get drafted,’’ he said after a morning practice at the Eagles’ 3-day rookie camp at NovaCare.

Eagles rookie Chris Polk is just one of seven players in Pac-12 history to rush for 4,000 yards. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)
Eagles rookie Chris Polk is just one of seven players in Pac-12 history to rush for 4,000 yards. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)Read more

CHRIS POLK will tell you now that he had zero expectations heading into last month's NFL draft.

"My expectation was just to get drafted,'' he said after a morning practice at the Eagles' 3-day rookie camp at NovaCare.

That, of course, isn't quite true. It's one of those things players say after they've taken the kind of disappointing, look-out-below draft fall Polk took 2 weeks ago.

The 5-11, 220-pound running back from the University of Washington, who is just one of seven players in Pac-12 history to rush for 4,000 yards, had hoped to be selected in the third — maybe even the second — round of the draft. That's what analysts were saying and writing. That's what NFL teams were telling his agent, Steve Caric.

But analysts occasionally are wrong and NFL teams often speak with forked tongue.

While Polk had been given second- and third-round grades by scouts based on his talent and college production, X-rays and MRIs of his twice surgically repaired left shoulder caused him to be classified as a medical risk by most teams.

The concerns were serious enough to prompt teams to take the kid completely off their draft board.

"It's a classic case of a kid [caught] in the middle of a very difficult medical equation,'' said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "On the one hand, teams took him off their board for medical-durability concerns. On the other hand, he answered the bell as a collegiate starter for 38 consecutive games.''

The conclusion of many of the league doctors who examined his shoulder at the combine was that he had a degenerative condition that would deteriorate rapidly and shorten his career. So, Polk fell. And fell. And fell. Through the second and third rounds. Through the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds. Even through the pot-luck seventh round.

"It was a shock to me,'' admitted Polk, who signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. "But it put everything into perspective for me. We're blessed, but God can take it away at any point and time. You just have to make it last and make every day count.

"Every time I touch the ball, I'm going to act like it's my last carry. [Going undrafted] will be extra motivation. It'll just make me work harder and want it more.''

Caric said he had Dr. James Andrews, one of the nation's top orthopedic surgeons, exam Polk's medical records after the combine and Andrews gave his client a clean bill of health. "He said the shoulder was fine and he had no reservations about Chris having a full and successful NFL career,'' the agent said

A week before the draft, though, Caric said a couple of teams told him they were dropping Polk " a little bit.'' A little bit turned into a lot.

Going undrafted has certain advantages. Well, OK, it's got just one. It gives you the ability to pick your employer rather than the other way around, assuming you have more than one postdraft suitor. Polk did. Nearly a dozen teams contacted Caric about Polk after the draft. They settled on the Eagles.

Caric and Polk looked at the Eagles' situation — a star running back (LeSean McCoy), but very little in the way of experienced depth behind him, and only a seventh-round pick spent on the position in the draft — and concluded it was the best situation for him.

"I was just looking for a team that felt in my heart the right place for me,'' Polk said. "And this felt like the right place. I really love the coaching staff. The zone running scheme is pretty much the same as we ran at Washington. I just gotta show up and do it.''

The fact that the Eagles, like the league's other 31 teams, didn't draft Polk, tells you that their doctors shared the same opinion about the kid's shoulder as the rest of the league's medical experts. But there was no risk in signing him as an undrafted free agent. They didn't waste a draft pick. The signing bonus they gave him barely was enough to cover the cost of a shore rental in Avalon.

If he blows out the shoulder in training camp or only lasts a year or two, well, their investment in him was minimal. If he ends up fooling the medical experts like former Eagles middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and his degenerative knees did a few years back, it will be like found money. Perhaps a lot of it.

"This is a very talented guy,'' Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. "He can run, catch. He was super productive. Being able to get him was very exciting.''

Polk rushed for 4,049 yards at Washington. He was redshirted as a freshman in '08 after dislocating his shoulder two games into the season. Tore the labrum in his shoulder in '09, but played the entire season with it, rushing for 1,113 yards before getting it repaired. Rushed for 1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns last year and didn't miss a game.

Polk is a different style runner than McCoy and his current backup, second-year man Dion Lewis. He's not a make-you-miss guy. He's more of a between-the-tackles thumper. Doesn't have elite, top-end speed. Only ran a 4.57 forty at the scouting combine. But he was one of the best pass-catching backs in the draft and is a decent pass blocker.

"We ran a pro-style offense [at Washington], so I did a lot of pass protection,'' Polk said. "[Washington's offense] is generally the same thing [as the Eagles'], just different wording. I just gotta put the same things [I did at Washington], with the different words. The hardest thing for me right now is learning the route concepts and the checkdowns [in the passing game].''

McCoy finished fourth in the league in rushing (1,309 yards) and first in rushing touchdowns (17) last season. Without him, 8-8 probably would've been 4-12.

His 321 touches were the fourth most in the league, behind only Maurice Jones-Drew's 386, Ray Rice's 367 and Arian Foster's 331. McCoy is a durable back with no serious injuries on his medical record. But the shelf life of an NFL running back is short, and a steady diet of 300-plus touch seasons can make it even shorter. Considering the hefty financial investment the Eagles are expected to soon make in McCoy, they'd like to try and keep him around and productive for as long as possible.

Andy Reid already has said on a couple of occasions that he wants to lighten McCoy's workload a bit this season. Last year, going into Week 17, the rest of the Eagles' running backs had just 54 rushing attempts.

Rather than overspend on a veteran running back who might not be any more productive than Ronnie Brown was last year, the Eagles are hoping that some combination of Lewis, Polk and seventh-rounder Bryce Brown can complement McCoy.

"I may be a little prejudiced, but I think the Eagles got a steal,'' Caric said. "In my mind, he was the best receiving running back in the draft, which obviously is important in their offense.''

Polk is over his disappointment about not getting drafted. The only thing he's thinking about now is earning a spot on the Eagles' roster and helping them win games.

"The draft isn't the end,'' he said. "It's the beginning. It's not how you start. It's how you finish. Once you get here, what you did in college doesn't matter anymore. It's all about the here and now. What you're going to do for them now.''

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