Murphy: Paul Turner an inspiring underdog story for Eagles
THERE ARE two types of underdogs, divided into circles that are rarely concentric. More often than not, they are diametrically opposed. The first is the underdog in the classical sense: Buster Douglas, Milan High, the Americans in 1980, individuals or tea
THERE ARE two types of underdogs, divided into circles that are rarely concentric. More often than not, they are diametrically opposed. The first is the underdog in the classical sense: Buster Douglas, Milan High, the Americans in 1980, individuals or teams who, for one small sample of time, harnessed the power of energy and circumstance to orchestrate a performance that transcended their physical abilities, proving not that they belonged, but that belonging itself is an act subject to the same laws of chance as all other human endeavors. They came from nowhere, and then they returned there, a fleeting pit stop in between.
Inside the second circle is where you will find guys such as Paul Turner. Even if this is the last word you read about him as a member of the Eagles, his victory will, in many ways, have been achieved. Like all underdogs, those of Turner's ilk possess within them a fierce belief that they are not underdogs at all. The difference between them and the rest is their talent, and the fact that their self-estimation might be correct.
The early days of training camp are a time for stories. Take any gathering of 90 men and you're bound to find some unique ones. But my favorite is the one that plays out every year. A new crop of undrafted rookies arrives at the NovaCare Complex, their names unfamiliar to anybody who isn't an ardent student of collegiate depth charts or professional transaction wires. Then, from the moment the first cleat touches the grass, the circles begin to separate. The first one is where the majority reside, their NFL careers relegated to a line on a roster buried deep inside that year's media guide. Inside the second one: the Paul Turners of the world, their presence registering as a search-engine spike as reporters scramble to determine what everybody else missed.
At first glance, the 23-year-old wide receiver doesn't give you much reason to question the rather undistinguished numbers he brought with him from the collegiate ranks. He is neither tall nor big nor exceedingly fast. If you were to create a highlight reel from the first week of practice, he might not appear. Yet as you watched the first-team offense shuffle through its personnel groupings over the last couple of days, one unfamiliar number continued to appear.
"I think he's just got a great feel for the game," Sam Bradford said when asked what he'd seen from that little No. 80 who'd been working with all of the receivers whose names everybody knows. "He's one of those guys - he's a good route runner, but not just that, his ability to find zones, to recognize coverage, to know whether he's working off a man in front of him or if he's working off a man in the second level . . . I think he's just got a really good natural feel for how to find soft spots in a defense and he's made a lot of plays."
It's fascinating, really. And it happens every summer. If you were to create a depth chart that resembles the one the Eagles have been using when divvying up their reps over the last couple days, it would look something like this: Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Josh Huff, Chris Givens, Rueben Randle, Paul Turner. It's just an approximation, but it's a remarkable one, when you consider that Turner spent the last two years as the third or fourth option at Louisiana Tech. Nobody will attempt to place the Eagles offense up there with the Greatest Show on Turf. But it would sure as hell win the Sun Belt, you have to believe.
For five years, Turner followed this trajectory: redshirt at LSU, seldom-used receiver who recorded no statistics at LSU, did not play because of NCAA transfer rules, 42 catches for 514 yards at Louisiana Tech, 45 catches for 657 yards at La. Tech. Now, after barely a week of camp, an NFL staff has identified Turner as one of the ones who might belong. He's earned a nickname - "P.T." - and an unsolicited name-drop from head coach Doug Pederson in a post-practice news conference.
After practice Wednesday, a curious bystander sidled up to Turner as he walked off the practice field and asked him to explain. At LSU, he came in with a crop of receivers that included Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, with a stable of running backs that included or would come to include Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and Spencer Ware. Some family issues arose that prompted him to move back to Monroe to be closer to mom Paula and grandmother Rosielee. His backbone, he calls them, with a smile on his face. At Louisiana Tech, he was a consistent contributor on a team that featured a fourth-round draft pick at running back (Kenneth Dixon, now with the Ravens) and an all-conference performer at wideout (Trent Taylor, who is mentioned as a potential midround pick in 2017).
It isn't a remarkable story, but that's what makes it remarkable. We're raised to believe in a certain meritocratic order to things, in bootstraps and gumption and the inevitable rise of the cream. But when you look at the long list of undrafted rookies who went on to long NFL careers, you will find that most of them were not overachievers as much as they were victims of earlier circumstance. There is a certain amount of situational dependence inherent in life. The better you are, the harder you work, the greater your odds of finding that right fit. Yet however good your tango, there's still the matter of finding someone who will dance.
After a pro day in which the featured attractions were Dixon, defensive tackle Vernon Butler (a first-round pick of the Panthers) and quarterback Jeff Driskel (a sixth-rounder), Turner remained in contact with the Eagles.
"You don't have many opportunities," Turner said. "When they come, you have to make the best of them. Catching is something that you're here to do."
His position coach is Greg Lewis, who in 2003 was a 23-year-old undrafted rookie fighting for a spot on a depth chart that included three receivers drafted by the Eagles over the previous three years. He was one of the ones who showed he belonged. Long after the NFL forgot the names Billy McMullen, Freddie Milons and Freddie Mitchell, Greg Lewis remained.
"Everybody has to have that mentality," Turner said.
Separation is something for which all receivers strive. Thus far, it's something Turner has achieved.