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Seven first-year players will start for the Eagles

The Eagles' 2012 draft picks traveled together to Ohio for the NFL's rookie symposium in June. They knew little about the NFL except that they would play for a popular team and rabid fans, and they hoped they would be part of the organization for years.

Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry was the team's first-round selection in the NFL draft. (Rich Schultz/AP)
Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry was the team's first-round selection in the NFL draft. (Rich Schultz/AP)Read more

The Eagles' 2012 draft picks traveled together to Ohio for the NFL's rookie symposium in June. They knew little about the NFL except that they would play for a popular team and rabid fans, and they hoped they would be part of the organization for years.

"How cool would it be if all of us are playing on the same team, on the same field, at the same time?" cornerback Brandon Boykin asked his classmates.

Seven of those draft picks made the team, and for the first time this season, all seven will be active when the Eagles host the Carolina Panthers on Monday night.

Of those seven - defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, defensive end Vinny Curry, quarterback Nick Foles, Boykin, offensive lineman Dennis Kelly, and running back Bryce Brown - five will start. That includes Foles and Brown, replacing concussed Pro Bowlers Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy. Add in first-year fullback Stanley Havili and center Dallas Reynolds, both starting after spending 2011 on the practice squad, and the Eagles will list seven first-year players as starters.

That's more than any other team in the NFL. Two teams are expected to start four first-year players this weekend. The average among the eight division leaders is 1.25 first-year starters.

"It's really happening," Boykin said. "We talked about it and said we want to be a class that's really remembered."

This scenario is a tribute to the Eagles' 2012 draft, which appears markedly better than their 2010 and 2011 classes. It's also a by-product of the roster composition. They relied on inexperienced players in key backup spots, such as quarterback, running back, and offensive line. Instead of replacing injured players with seasoned veterans, they field inexperienced players such as Foles, Brown, and Kelly.

The net result could be illuminating for fans clamoring for the Eagles to play their young players during the final month of a 3-7 season. By necessity, the Eagles are already doing it. And if Andy Reid is dismissed and a new coach overhauls the roster, most from this class will likely remain as potential core players for a new regime.

New players, key roles

When Kendricks heard the number of rookies who will play on Monday, he first couldn't believe it. Then he thought about the class, and it made sense.

"They chose half our class to play, and the other half, they were preparing as if they were going to play," Kendricks said.

Kendricks was the only opening-day starter from the group, but Cox was also an instant contributor. He eventually joined the starting lineup. Boykin immediately became the slot cornerback, beating out veteran Joselio Hanson during the preseason.

Foles overtook Mike Kafka as Vick's backup during that time, and Brown outplayed Dion Lewis. Kelly appeared a project on the offensive line, but injuries to Todd Herremans, Jason Kelce, and Danny Watkins forced the Eagles to exhaust their depth. Reynolds beat out a group of more experienced linemen during the preseason.

"When you talk about those spots, we had veteran players lined up at those spots," general manager Howie Roseman said. "The competition brought out who was going to be the primary backup at quarterback, running back, and eventually center. . . . That was grading every play and practice. That's the best part of competition - finding out who can rise to that level."

Roseman felt especially strong about the 2012 draft, citing the team's philosophical shift to take the best player available instead of a position of need. That's the irony of all these rookies contributing so soon in their careers - the Eagles focused less on how the rookies could contribute this season, and more on how they'd develop.

Kelly, a fifth-round pick, and Brown, a seventh-round pick, were developmental players. The team did not anticipate those players filling the roles they'll play on Monday, but it's the reality of the current Eagles season.

When the Eagles put a final grade on a player, it's not what the player will be on the first day or in the first season, but rather the player at his optimum. Yet the Eagles now are in a position where they are relying on players who are incomplete in their development.

"You draft them to play," Reid said. "Obviously some of them are in there because of injuries taking place. You don't want the injuries, but you don't use those as an excuse. These guys have an opportunity to show and it's their time. Let's go play. That's how we approach it."

The situation is far from ideal. It's an especially risky proposition for a team seeking a win. But there is also the prospect of high-ceiling players developing while enduring rookie mistakes.

"Any job that you're in, no matter what it is, your first time through it isn't going to be as good as when you get experience," Roseman said. "As they're learning on the fly, there's going to be moments they need to improve on."

Future of the rookies

The class was celebrated after the draft, which is seldom a worthwhile indicator of success. But the organization is confident that the Eagles hit on picks this season.

"Our record doesn't do much justice to it," Boykin said, "but I think as a whole, as rookies, we got the most talent."

They'll need to show it. The final month of the season likely includes little reason for excitement. Rookies are a reason to watch. The most comparable example to this year might be Ray Rhodes' final season in Philadelphia in 1998. The Eagles finished 3-13. But three draft picks turned into Pro Bowlers: tackle Tra Thomas, and linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Ike Reese.

Thomas eventually protected Donovan McNabb's blind side, Trotter anchored the middle of the defense, and Reese was a leader on special teams. They were important holdovers for the new coaching staff and core players under Reid.

"We talk about growing together, being there for each other," Cox said.

The measure of a class could be the amount of solid starters it produces, and also whether it includes a blue-chip player - such as Thomas and Trotter. Cox and Kendricks could become those players for the Eagles.

"The way we set this up now, our higher picks are going to be good players for us," Roseman said. "They're not going to be forced at a particular position because we have a need. So that helped us increase our talent level, if we're able to look at the board and just take the best available guy."

Kendricks asks teammates how long it takes to acclimate to the NFL. He hears anywhere from two to three seasons, depending on how soon they played. That's why Kendricks was adamant that this group will benefit from playing early.

But Kendricks also said a player is no longer viewed as a rookie once he enters the lineup. So this year's group could be both part of the problem in 2012 and part of the solution for the future.