STEPHEN TULLOCH knew the Detroit Lions were going to release him back in February, and they finally got around to doing it July 5, after Tulloch recovered from an ankle cleanout and was healthy enough to be cut without an injury settlement.
Nearly seven weeks passed before Tulloch and the Eagles agreed on a one-year, $3 million contract, with $1.75 million guaranteed. Eagles fans, knowing Tulloch's deep connection with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and their team's lack of linebacking depth, spent much of that time wondering when Tulloch would show up at NovaCare.
Tuesday, Tulloch finally made it onto the practice field, wearing Jeremiah Trotter's old No. 54. After practice, Tulloch met with reporters eager to parse how he fits into that unit, which does indeed lack depth but has three youngish, well-regarded starters in Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. Tulloch's best spot is the middle, currently manned by Hicks, the emerging second-year leader of the front seven. Hicks isn't going to the bench. But if Schwartz wanted someone better in coverage than Kendricks at the WIL, might Hicks move there and Tulloch play the middle, at least on first and second down, as he did last season in Detroit?
On Tulloch's first day, two things became clear: Tulloch, 31, is eager to embrace whatever role Schwartz gives him. And no one on this team has a closer, deeper connection with the coordinator. For now, the first factor will keep any friction from developing, but in the long run, it's hard to see the second factor not figuring into the story of the 2016 season.
"Just come in and play ball," is his goal, Tulloch said. "I didn't ask (Schwartz), when I first came here, what role I was going to play. I just told coach, whatever you need me to do, I'll do.
"I know what he does, I know what he expects out of his players. If that helps younger guys get better, I'll do that."
Earlier, Schwartz told reporters Tulloch was "not here to replace anybody. He's here to add to our group."
Asked about Hicks, Tulloch was deferential.
"First off, I think Jordan Hicks is a real good player. He's very smart, he has a lot of ability, great range, he can run a lot," Tulloch said. "I give him wisdom. I just talk to him. I'm not here to step on anybody's toes. I'm going to go out there, I'm going to work hard every day. Those guys can follow my lead, or if they can outdo me, then they outdo me . . . Nothing to take away from those guys - and I know they have a lot of ability and a lot of young talent in that room - but I'm going to work."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday that he'll need Tulloch to play on at least one special-teams unit; Tulloch is here because seventh-round rookie Joe Walker is out for the year, and Walker was looking like a strong special-teams player. Tulloch said he hasn't played any special teams since "2006 or 2007" - his first two years in the league - but he said he would be fine with that.
"Whatever they ask of me, I'll do. I'm going to compete every day, I'm going to go out there, I'm going to work hard," he said.
Schwartz, as the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, got the Titans to draft Tulloch in the fourth round in 2006 (with a pick they got from the Eagles for letting the Birds move up from 45th to 39th in the second round to take tackle Winston Justice). The way Tulloch told the story Tuesday, the Titans were set on drafting someone else there.
"Coach Schwartz goes into (head coach Jeff) Fisher's office, takes my highlight film from college . . . and changed coach Fisher's mind," Tulloch said.
Schwartz and Tulloch spent three seasons together there; Tulloch became a starter in Schwartz's final year, 2008, then Schwartz became the Lions' head coach. In 2011 they reunited in Detroit, and Tulloch started every Lions game through 2013, when Schwartz was dismissed. The next year, Tulloch tore his left ACL celebrating a sack and missed 13 games, the first he'd ever sat out, breaking a 131-game streak.
Sitting for most of 2014 was a strange, unwelcome experience; Schwartz told a story Tuesday of trying to give his middle linebacker a day off in training camp in 2013, only for Tulloch to come into his office "mad as a hornet."
Tulloch told Schwartz he'd never missed a practice, in the NFL or at North Carolina State, "going back to high school," Schwartz recalled. So Tulloch practiced, though "we cut his reps a little bit."
"He knows how I am. I prepare," Tulloch said, when asked about that tale. "When you miss a rep, you miss something and you can't make it up. I try to be present every day that I'm out here on this field . . . We're playing a kids' game. I'm 31 years old, and to be able to come out here and play this game, it's pretty fun."
Schwartz said that in Tulloch, the Eagles are adding "a very experienced player. He's played at a high level of production. Plays with a lot of spirit. He's heavy in the run game. He has natural leverage. That's a kind way of saying he's short (listed at 5-11, 240); but he's really powerful. He understands blocking schemes, and he has good understanding of pass games."
Tulloch has played six seasons in Schwartz's 4-3 Wide 9. Obviously, he likes it, and shouldn't take much time to get up to speed.
"What he does works," Tulloch said. "It's just a matter of putting players in place to make plays, and execute it. It's not a complicated defense. He's going to make it so everybody can fit in their role and not ask too much of players to do.
"It's a downhill, aggressive defense. Turnovers, get after people. It's been very beneficial to my career, and I know it'll be beneficial to the Philadelphia Eagles."
The job of a Schwartz middle linebacker, Tulloch said, is to "set the front for the defense and attack. You can't float as a linebacker, you gotta get downhill and be aggressive. You got great defensive linemen here; I haven't seen a group of defensive linemen like this since Year 5, Year 6 of my career. You can just play ball at linebacker. It's a linebacker's dream to be able to run around and make plays."
Tulloch is the fourth former Schwartz starter to join the Eagles; Bradham and corners Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks played for him as a coordinator in Buffalo two years ago.
"He knows what type of guys he wants in his scheme," Bradham said of Schwartz. He said the Bills' linebackers watched a lot of Tulloch film in 2014.
"Physical guy," Bradham said. "That's one of the very first things you're going to notice about Tulloch. He's very physical, obviously very smart . . . It's going to be a major contribution. We look forward to it."