Second-Year Bump Showing Up in a Number of Eagles
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Coaches often talk about seeing the most improvement in players from their rookie to sophomore seasons, something Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz echoed during the first week of training camp.
And most of that has to do with things other than the traits that translate to the football field.
It's more about the real-world issues and comfort that the average fan doesn't take into account when breaking down their favorite players. In other words, moving to a new city in your early 20s and trying to fit into an ecosystem while also attempting to learn a scheme that amounts to calculus after years practicing arithmetic aren't the kind of things that factor into those Madden ratings everyone likes to cite.
The average person battles through extreme anxiety when they enter a new workplace. Now multiply that by tenfold with cameras and microphones placed in front of your face every day.
It isn't easy but once any player fights through it and returns as a veteran, especially with the same head coach in place, that experience is invaluable.
The Eagles have been seeing a noticeable second-year bump from a number of players in the opening days of training camp, most notably receivers Shelton Gibson and Greg Ward, along with safety Tre Sullivan. Running back Corey Clement, meanwhile, already overcame so many obstacles as an undrafted rookie to become a Super Bowl hero but has returned with a quiet confidence you only project when you know what to expect.
Gibson made the play of the day at practice on Sunday, somehow fighting through double coverage from Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins and starting cornerback Ronald Darby to haul in an underthrow from Nick Foles deep down the field.
That's a long way from the rookie fifth-round pick who was dropping balls at an alarming rate in individual drills last season.
“[My] confidence was way down," Gibson admitted when talking about his rookie issues. "I was out there trying to be somebody I wasn’t.”
Part of the issue was that Gibson's head was swimming. As West Virginia's deep threat, he wasn't exactly Marvin Harrison when it came to the route tree.
Gibson credited Nelson Agholor -- a player who had his own high-profile struggles during his rookie and sophomore campaigns -- to stop pressing and things have started to click for Gibson, who no longer carries a negative outcome into his next opportunity.
“He's really embraced the offseason,” coach Doug Pederson said when discussing Gibson. “He's studied, he's worked hard, and he's done a nice job. He's off to a good start to this year's camp.”
Ward, the ex-Univerity of Houston quarterback, has been a name that continues to come up when talking with the coaching staff. His short-area quickness, hands and athleticism scream slot receiver and he stood out earlier this week by twisting his body for a one-handed catch on a poorly-thrown bubble screen.
"Greg has come in, and just like a lot of quarterbacks, he's got that quarterback mentality," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "He's used to being in the building early, staying late. Watches a bunch of tape on his own.
"He kind of is shadowing Nelson a lot with a lot of things he's doing and doing a tremendous job of that. As he has made that transition, you see him get more and more comfortable. Not thinking as much about playing the position of wide receiver. Just reacting off what the defense is doing. He has excellent short-area quickness, really soft hands, reliable hands. He can lock the ball up in traffic and transition quickly to a runner. So, we're excited about Greg and his potential."
Pederson has also praised Ward, a player who would stay after practice in South Texas and reverse roles with his WRs at the time because at just 5-foot-11 he knew his future at the professional level would be on the outside.
An ankle injury ended Sullivan's hope to make the 53-man roster last season but once he healed up the Shepherd product was brought back to the practice squad and was an important part of the scout team for the Super Bowl champions.
This time around Sullivan has been given the opportunity to win the all-important third safety job behind Jenkins and Rodney McLeod.
"It’s been a big difference between my rookie year and now," Sullivan admitted. "I’m more comfortable in the defense and understand what's being asked of me. Instead of learning the defense I'm just playing and not second-guessing myself.”
Clement, meanwhile, is in a different position when it comes to his career and is no longer fighting for a roster spot. He's a big part of this team as the main backup to Jay Ajayi and the top kick returner but don't worry about the work ethic that defined the South Jersey native during his storybook rookie campaign now that his roster spot is assured and his jewelry box is full.
"The chip on my shoulder will always be there," Clement said. "It's never going away."
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen