Tim Jernigan has been sort of the Phantom of NovaCare ever since news of his herniated-disk surgery broke in early May.
His locker stall and nameplate have been the main proof of his existence. Reporters have rarely glimpsed the 26-year-old defensive tackle, who was so effective last season starting opposite Fletcher Cox. A few brief encounters in hallways or the parking lot have produced no insight into how Jernigan is doing, or when he might play again.
But on Monday, the Eagles started the three-week practice clock on Jernigan, after which he must come off the non-football injury list to either join the 53-man roster or be placed on injured reserve. Given the team's depth crisis at defensive tackle, rest assured the idea is to get him ready to take a spot on the roster, and to play.
Play when, and how much? Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was cautious about getting into that when he spoke with reporters Monday. Jernigan left the locker room before reporters were allowed to enter.
Schwartz noted that the practice Jernigan took part in Monday, as the Eagles returned from their bye week, was a walk-through.
"But it was good seeing him in a uniform and good just seeing him out there," Schwartz said. "You know Timmy, he's got such an infectious smile and just a good demeanor around the game, and stuff like that.
"Get his clock going a little bit, get him in some individual drills and things like that, and just take it one day at a time with him."
When 34-year-old Haloti Ngata missed three games with a calf injury before returning against Jacksonville, the Eagles had to scramble at defensive tackle. Treyvon Hester, up from the practice squad, started against Carolina. Bruce Hector, demoted to the practice squad Oct. 4, returned to the active roster two weeks later and saw action against Carolina and Jacksonville. Hector then returned to the practice squad last week, seemingly a prelude to a quick Jernigan return to action.
Jernigan played 48 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps in 2017, his first year with the team after arriving in a trade with the Ravens. He played 46 percent of the playoff snaps. Last November, Jernigan, in the final season of his rookie deal, signed a four-year, $48 million contract, with a $10 million signing bonus. That deal was revised after Jernigan suffered his back injury, working out on his own in March, an ESPN report said. Jernigan can still make the same amount of money, but nothing is guaranteed beyond this season.
Schwartz was asked his expectations for Jernigan.
"I don't have any," he said. "It's going to be totally based on where he is. First day of training camp, first day of OTAs, all that is where he is. But you're also talking about a guy that's a veteran player, that has played a lot of football, that has been working extremely hard. Coming back from a major injury, but [we have to] get him up to speed, and his body will tell him, and that will guide us."
Last year, then-rookie corner Sidney Jones joined the roster from the non-football-injury list, playing only in the meaningless regular season finale against Dallas. Schwartz said the situations were similar, but different – similar in that Jones attended meetings and was up on everything the defense was doing as he recovered from Achilles' surgery, different in that getting a veteran ready to play isn't the same as finding a spot for a rookie to make a late-season debut.
"He's a lot like Sidney Jones was last year. He's haunting the hallways. He's staying current with what we're doing," Schwartz said. "He couldn't participate in any walk-throughs in any fashion, but he's out there observing them all.
"Timmy is a veteran player that's played a lot of football for us and for [Baltimore, which drafted him in the second round in 2014]. Once he's able to physically start feeling it and [can] get out … competing against the offensive guys, maybe run some scout-team cards, things like that, he'll start getting back in the flow of things.
"But to go in with any expectation I think doesn't do the right thing by him … When he's ready, we'll get him back out there."
Schwartz said the team had a pretty good idea as far back as OTAs that Jernigan might be sidelined this long.
"We were hopeful that he'd come back sooner, but it is what it is," he said.
Going into the bye, a number of Eagles injury situations were unsettled. Jones has missed two games with a hamstring problem; a hamstring has sidelined running back/returner Darren Sproles since the week after the opener. Safety Corey Graham has been hamstrung since the Oct. 7 Minnesota game. Right tackle Lane Johnson, already fighting a high ankle sprain, suffered an MCL sprain in the London game against Jacksonville. There were no updates on their status Monday, though previously there were hints that Sproles would practice this week.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said he is "hopeful" that he'll have his starting offensive line Sunday night against Dallas, but "I don't know where the guys are right now, in terms of the injuries."