Akeem Spence arrived at his new locker in the NovaCare Complex for practice Wednesday and knew he was in the right place because there hadn’t even been enough time to put his name in the empty nameplate slot at the top.
The staff would get to that eventually, and maybe even find a spot for him across the room with the other defensive tackles. But for the moment he was wedged in between the running backs and linebackers. Just to be clear, that was fine with Spence.
“I’ve been all smiles since I got here. I want to make sure I ain’t upsetting nobody,” Spence said. “I’ve never been on a winning team. An opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day.”
Spence’s previous three teams in a six-year NFL career were not considered Super Bowl contenders – although two of them did finish with 9-7 records – and he has never played a postseason game. Expectations are different with the Eagles, and the new guy just wants to fit in and hang around.
“The best ability is availability, and I was available,” Spence said.
He was home last Sunday, watching games from his couch, when Eagles starting tackle Malik Jackson suffered the foot injury that will probably sideline him for the rest of the season.
“I’m like, ‘That’s interesting,’” Spence said, “but the phone didn’t ring and I went to work out the next day.”
The call finally came, however, and he was on a plane Monday evening, went through a workout and physical Tuesday, signed a contract, and reported to his anonymous locker Wednesday. That’s how it worked, at least for now. Across the country, other out-of-work defensive tackles probably leaned forward on their own couches and began to stare at their phones. Spence got the call.
“It was my first time ever being in that situation, watching the opening week at home. It’s humbling, man,” Spence said. “It makes you realize how much you love the game. You go out and work out two or three times a day just to stay in some shape. But you can’t get in game shape lifting weights and running. You’re chewing at the bit. Whoever calls, let’s go.”
Spence had something of an inside track with the Eagles when it was determined they needed to add a fourth defensive tackle. He played last season in Miami for Matt Burke, who was the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator and is now the defensive special assistant for the Eagles.
Burke worked 10 seasons under Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz with the Titans and Lions. The Eagles weren’t the only team that contacted Spence’s agent Monday, but Philadelphia was where he wanted to go.
“I love the way they coach defense,” Spence said. “Not too many coaches let the D-line go and do their thing. The defensive tackles get to eat in this system. You get upfield, go by the guards, and attack the backfield.”
Spence played four seasons with Tampa Bay, which drafted him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft out of Illinois. Then he spent one season each with Detroit and Miami. Everything is time and place in this profession and Spence, a quick, but smallish tackle, found himself on the wrong end of scheme changes a couple of times.
He isn’t made for a 3-4 defense, for instance, and he isn’t made to be a stationary fireplug, which is what the Dolphins have in mind. He was cut Aug/ 27, finding himself unemployed for the first time in his professional career.
“They were looking for bigger guys [Spence measured 6-feet-½ inch at the NFL combine] and it’s understandable. It’s a business,” Spence said. “Some teams do like quick, fast-twitch guys. We have a life in this league as well. I’m not the biggest guy walking around, but I’ve been playing football since I was yea-high. It’s the heart that’s carried me this far.”
Doug Pederson said he expected Spence to fit in as the fourth tackle in a rotation that includes Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan, and Hassan Ridgeway. Pederson didn’t rule out using him Sunday night in Atlanta.
“We’ll get him on the field, get him caught up, see how he moves around, and fits into the scheme,” Pederson said.
It’s a long way from the couch to the field, but Spence has a chance to make that journey in the space of a week. He said he’s not in perfect game shape yet, but he will be ready if the coaches trust him enough by Sunday to put him into the game.
“There’s always a possibility,” Spence said. “I’m always optimistic.”