A final shot to shine in Eagles' final preseason game
For more than a few Eagles, tonight could be the final time they put on a football jersey. We look at some players on the bubble.
FOR MORE than a few of the 75 players on the Eagles' roster, tonight's game at the Jets will be the last time they will pull on a football jersey, the end of something they've devoted their lives to since they were in elementary school.
That is a serious and solemn thing, even as we roll our eyes at the idea of having to watch a preseason game minus starters, to be contested at least partly among men who will never play a down in the NFL.
The cutdown to the regular-season roster limit of 53 by 4 p.m. Saturday looms. Players say they spend training camp not thinking about the numbers, about how they stack up against others at their position, but this week, avoiding it becomes pretty much impossible. This week is all about the numbers, and tonight is about making your stand, showing the Eagles - and everyone else who might watch the tape - who you are and what you can bring.
Here are a half-dozen vignettes from that struggle, vets and rookies on the fringe:
* Nose tackle Antonio Dixon, 28, lost valuable camp time to a hamstring strain. Initially he seemed likely to make the team, but while Dixon sat, third-round rookie Bennie Logan and undrafted rookie Damion Square showed they could play the position, backing up presumed starter Isaac Sopoaga. Logan can also play 3-4 end.
Dixon started 10 times for the Eagles in 2010, but has played in only seven NFL games since, with the Eagles, the Colts and then the Eagles again after a late-season signing last year.
"I play the same every game. I ain't putting no more pressure on myself," Dixon said, when asked his thinking heading into tonight. "You think about it, but you've just gotta play."
What does he think he needs to show against the Jets?
"I've played 4 years so far. I don't know what else I've gotta show," Dixon said.
* Julian Vandervelde was an Eagles fifth-round pick in 2011, a guard who played in one game as a rookie, then was released in the final cutdown last year. He was picked up by Tampa Bay, but quickly released, whereupon he rejoined the Eagles, on the practice squad. New offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has gotten Vandervelde a lot of reps at center this summer, where he might have supplanted last year's backup, Dallas Reynolds.
"I think anytime you can play more than one position, it definitely helps you," Vandervelde said. "I've had a lot of experience at guard, and that certainly is where I feel more comfortable, but every day I get more comfortable with center. I like the position a lot - the mental aspect of it. It's a challenge. Particularly in this offense, you have to think, and you have to think fast . . . there's a leadership aspect to it.
"For me, I'm seeing things I've never seen before, looking at things I've never looked at before, from an offensive lineman's perspective, in terms of defenses. If nothing else, then learning the defenses, getting a better head for blitzes and things like that is definitely worth everything. But I'm definitely having a lot of fun with it . . . in terms of being valuable, if I could play all five positions, I would."
Vandervelde obviously would like to avoid last year's roller coaster.
"That was a weird year for me. I think things have kind of regulated themselves in my life now," Vandervelde said. "I've got a son, got a family. You try not to get stressed out about cuts, you try not to think about it. The way I see it, all I can really do is go out and do my best every day. I'm trying not to play for myself, I'm playing for my family, I'm playing for God."
* Ifeanyi Momah became a fan favorite when he signed as an undrafted free agent this spring. Eagles fans have long coveted a big red-zone target, and Momah, 6-7, 239, is on the freakish side of big for a wide receiver. But he's also incredibly raw, having also played defensive end at Boston College, losing his senior year to a knee injury suffered in the opener.
Momah might need a big night against the Jets to even earn a spot as a practice-squad project.
"I'm happy with what I've overcome, where I am now. I feel like I gave it a good effort," Momah said Momah, who has no preseason catches. "Whatever the result is, so be it."
* Jeff Maehl was the top wideout of the Chip Kelly era at Oregon, and seemed a good fit for an injury-decimated receiving corps when the Eagles acquired him Aug. 12 from the Texans for offensive lineman Nate Menkin. But Maehl obviously was a long way behind the guys who have been here all spring and summer; he didn't play until the Jacksonville game, and didn't catch any passes.
"Kinda relearning everything," Maehl said. "Got some good playing time in the fourth quarter of the last game. We'll see what happens. I should play a lot this week."
Unlike Dixon and some other players interviewed, Maehl said he will not approach tonight like just another game.
"This is my third year in the league. Being a practice-squad guy [for Houston] the last couple of years, I'm kinda used to the situation. I know how big this game is for me personally. I just go into it as the biggest game I've ever played in my life. Hopefully I show enough to be able to stick around.''
* Damion Square is smallish (6-3, 286, and the 6-3 part seems generous) for a 3-4 defensive lineman, but the undrafted rookie from Alabama has made plays all summer, looking quick and smart. It'll be an upset if he doesn't make the roster, or at least the practice squad.
What can Square do tonight to seal the deal?
"Running to the ball. Communication with my teammates on the field, things like that," Square said. "The little things that put you over the top, that make you different from others. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room . . . there's a reason we're all here. You've got to try to find a little 'mix and match' that can make you different from another guy."
* Jake Knott is another undrafted rookie who has made a big impression, a linebacker who probably would have been drafted out of Iowa State if he hadn't had two surgeries on the same shoulder. Knott, too, seems likely to stick around, one way or another.
Knott said his goal tonight is to "leave a lasting impression on the coaches and staff here . . . Show 'em that I'm versatile, I can do a lot of things for 'em. Stand out on special teams, hopefully. Consistency is probably the biggest thing they look for."
He said he doesn't expect to be nervous.
"Once the game comes, your instincts and habits that you've built up over your lifetime take over anyway. It's the lead-up to the game that's probably the most nerve-wracking," Knott said.