At the end of last season, one of the Eagles' organizational talking points was the contributions from their rookie class. For a 7-9 team with a rookie quarterback, touting promise made sense.
One year later, the Eagles enter Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys without needing to boast about their rookies. A big reason is because the Eagles didn't need to rely on their rookies so quickly. The Eagles have the NFL's best record and benefited from more experienced players on the depth chart.
"If you have a veteran roster and it's solid top to bottom, the rookies do assume those [reserve] roles," coach Doug Pederson said. "It can be a challenge for a rookie, particularly coming from a college where he started for three or four years and now he's kind of sitting and playing, reduced to special teams or whatever it may be. Those are signs of having good depth, good football teams, and those guys have to bide their time until their opportunity comes."
This was expected in the spring after the Eagles used their first-round pick on defensive end Derek Barnett, who joined a deep position, and their second-round pick on Sidney Jones, who was injured and still has not played although he's expected to make his debut Sunday after the Eagles activated him to the 53-man roster on Saturday. It's a game that could highlight the rookie class considering Pederson might sit key starters as the game progresses.
Pederson said the rookies have done an outstanding job this season and have had an impact on the team. And there have been key contributors from this rookie class. But the Eagles will need to rely on them more in 2018 than they have in 2017.
Barnett has played 44 percent of the defensive snaps, which is the most any rookie has played on offense or defense this season. Third-round pick Rasul Douglas has played 37 percent of the defensive snaps at cornerback and started four games. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement has played 23 percent of the offensive snaps at running back, which is the same that fourth-round pick Mack Hollins has played at wide receiver.
Sixth-round pick Elijah Qualls has played 7 percent of the snaps at defensive tackle. Fifth-round pick Nate Gerry has been a special-teams contributor but hasn't played yet at linebacker. Wide receiver Shelton Gibson, another fifth-rounder, has been limited to four offensive snaps.
The Eagles added rookie kicker Jake Elliott from waivers in September as one of their key in-season acquisitions. He nailed two game-winning field goals and earned a Pro Bowl alternate spot.
Fourth-round pick Donnell Pumphrey went on injured reserve after Week 1. The wild card of the draft was Jones, who started practicing three weeks ago while on the non-football injury list and now joins the roster.
Only four of 330 starting spots on offense and defense in 15 games this season have gone to rookies. But it's happening on a team playing for its 14th win, not its seventh win. That's one of the differences between last year's team and this year.
"We all know our roles, and I think that's the best thing about us rookies," Douglas said. "We all have accepted our roles to know how to make this team better."
Barnett's adjustment to the NFL hasn't just required arriving at the quarterback as quickly as he can with top left tackles in his way. It's trying to get to the team plane on time for road games while stopping for chicken along the way.
Rookies are annually given menial chores, and Barnett's first-round status doesn't make him an exception. So, on Saturdays when the Eagles travel, Barnett rotates with Qualls to pick up Popeyes for his teammates. Barnett said he's often sweating by the time he arrives at the plane in his full suit and with bags of chicken.
Gerry's adjustment has included decorating the linebackers' meeting room for Christmas, among other tasks. The rookies dressed up in one-piece pajama suits last week and had to serenade the team. This followed solo musical acts in team meetings during training camp. That's part of the rookie life, which has also included community service events exclusive to them.
But almost all the rookies said their biggest adjustment was the length of the season. Pederson spoke to the team around Thanksgiving and noted that the college season was ending. The Eagles still had more than a month to go.
"That was an eye-opener for me," Gerry said.
"Once you get past Week 12, you kind of adjust to it," Hollins said.
"We're really just getting started right now," Barnett added.
And then there's the level of competition. Most of the rookies were top performers at the college level, yet there are all-Americans on NFL practice squads. In Week 2, when injuries plagued the Eagles at cornerback, Douglas entered the game on the road in Kansas City. The Chiefs targeted him on the first possession.
"That was my welcome to the NFL," Douglas said.
Douglas has started four games and been inactive twice. He has size and ball skills, but what he learned is that the NFL is less about how talented a player is and more about how smart a player is on the field. He tells friends in college that the edge in the NFL comes with the mental side of the game.
"You've got to imagine a league where everyone runs a 4.3, everyone jumps a 40-inch vertical, and how do you separate yourself from everyone else?" Douglas said.
Gibson, who was Douglas' college teammate, struggled during training camp and the preseason with drops. The Eagles kept him on the 53-man roster, bullish about his potential. Top executive Howie Roseman figured that if Gibson didn't leave West Virginia after his junior season, Gibson would have been a higher draft pick in 2018. So the Eagles have worked on developing the speedy receiver. He has taken to the coaching, and his emphasis when the ball is in the air is to look for the "commissioner's name"– a trick to watching the ball into his hands. He's also wearing contact lenses again. He has learned how to invest his time during the day, leaning on Torrey Smith and the other veteran receivers. It's all part of "learning how to become a pro."
As the first-round pick, Barnett received the most attention in the class. He has five sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Even though he's not a starter this season, he remains a key contributor and a major part of the future. Barnett has adjusted to changes in playing time, but he has also adjusted to being a pro player. He likes how he can devote his whole day to football instead of going to class and doesn't even consider it a job because of how much he enjoys it. The biggest lesson he has learned as a rookie has been time management and taking care of himself.
"When we get free time," Barnett said, "are you going to take care of your body or are you going to go out?"
This rookie class is spoiled. There are veterans in the locker room who have never been to the playoffs, who have spent time in dysfunctional locker rooms or on teams that couldn't wait for the season to end. It's rare to be on a team as good as the Eagles and with such a stable culture.
"I love where we're at and I appreciate it, but I can't appreciate it like guys like [Fletcher Cox], [Brandon Graham], who've been through their entire NFL careers have haven't had a season like this," Quall said.
That's the trade-off to not playing as much as they would on some teams at the bottom of the standings. The Eagles are winning, in part, because of their experienced players. The culture-setters are mostly those players. The rookies said they don't necessarily need to realize the other side to understand how good they have it this season.
"You see it. Look at the Browns," Douglas said. "Do you think they're over there having this conversation? …No one has to tell you that for you to see it."
Of course, some playoff teams are relying on their rookies in major roles. The New Orleans Saints start three rookies and might have the rookies of the year on both sides of the ball. The Kansas City Chiefs are sending a rookie running back to the Pro Bowl.
The Eagles rookies should receive more playing time as second-year players next season. The team hopes Barnett and Jones become cornerstone players. Hollins has flashed big-play potential with 13 catches on 17 targets and could join the starting lineup in 2018. Qualls, who has been active for five games this season, might crack the four-man defensive tackle rotation. Clement is developing into the Eagles' third-down running back. Elliott will return as the Eagles' kicker. Douglas will factor into the secondary. There's reason for optimism even with the limited playing time of some of the rookies.
"Each game, I got better and better off a few plays," Qualls said. "I was happy that I proved myself, and to other people, that I can play in this league. And hopefully when I get more playing time, maybe in this game, God forbid someone gets hurt then in the playoffs, and I definitely expect to get a lot more playing time next season, and to really show people I can play at a high level."
Patience is required, and it doesn't always prove fruitful. Two of the rookies the Eagles were bullish about last season included offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo and running back Wendell Smallwood, both of whom have fallen down the depth chart this year. Yet Jalen Mills has turned into a reliable starting cornerback and the team hasn't wavered from playing Halapoulivaati Vaitai at left tackle. What's most important in the sophomore class is that Carson Wentz has become an MVP-caliber quarterback.
By this time next year, there will be a better idea of how the 2017 class is developing. But they're developing while winning, which might be the most important part of their rookie seasons.