No Huddle: Best stories from the Eagles' 2013 season
Zach Ertz, Lane Johnson and Earl Wolff were all important pieces of the Eagles' season. (USA Today Images)
Earl Wolff sensed something special about his rookie class back in training camp.
When first-year coach Chip Kelly made it known that all 53 spots on the roster were up for grabs, that competition would be waged daily on the practice field, Wolff noticed that he and his fellow rookies didn’t back down.
He saw first-round pick Lane Johnson wow teammates with off-the-charts athleticism and fast learning aptitude. He saw second-round tight end Zach Ertz work overtime on the JUGS machine after every practice.
Third-round defensive tackle Bennie Logan leaning on veterans. Fourth-round quarterback Matt Barkley confidently throwing himself into the starter competition. Even rookie free agent defensive lineman Damion Square giving technique advice to veterans.
“I think we all had that in us,” said Wolff, one of four rookies to start at least one game this year and six to log snaps. “From watching how Zach works out, to watching Bennie, I just thought we all had that mentality that we weren’t going to come in and be backup guys.
“I feel like I could have been satisfied playing on special teams, but I’m a player. I like to be out there on the field playing defense. That’s what I’m here for. That’s the way I look at it. I know I can play at this level.”
This year’s bumper crop of Eagles came in with a rare sense of belonging uncommon to first-year players. They were respectful to veterans, but not subservient. They were confident, not cocky.
They were also extremely vital to helping the Eagles go from 4-12 to NFC East champs in Kelly’s inaugural season.
“Those guys came in and played outstanding,” veteran linebacker Connor Barwin said, “and you forgot how young all of them were.”
Johnson, the fourth overall pick, became the team’s first rookie offensive lineman in 16 years to start all 16 games, since third-round pick Doug Brzezinski started every game at left guard in 1999. Ertz’s four touchdown catches were the most by an Eagles rookie tight end in 25 years, since Keith Jackson’s six in 1988.
Logan’s development at nose tackle in the 3-4 enabled the team to deal away under-performing veteran Isaac Sopoaga and helped stabilize a run defense that allowed 3.77 yards per run, fourth-best in the NFL. Wolff, a fifth-rounder, ended the team’s run of draft busts at safety and overtook Patrick Chung for the starting job until a knee injury sidelined him for six of the last seven games.
Barkley didn’t fulfill expectations coming out of USC as the Pac 12 Conference’s all-time leading passer, but he completed more than 60 percent of his passes in two cameos against divisional rivals.
“I'm really, really happy with our young guys,” Kelly said. “I think they've all got really bright futures here.”
As significant as their contributions were in helping the Eagles return to playoff caliber, the rookies also seemed to collectively grasp their unique place in franchise history.
Being the first class of the Kelly regime meant they would forever be linked to the head coach the way Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb were connected during the team’s decade-long Golden Era from 1999 to 2009.
“The first Coach Chip Kelly draft class won’t necessarily be looked at as a downgrade or a disappointment,” Logan said. “We’ll mention (to next year’s class) that we set standards high, and just go out and work hard and just compete. When all is said and done, give it all you got. That’s what we did as a rookie class.”
The Eagles have now strung together consecutive drafts that have rebuilt the nucleus of the franchise. The 2012 class produced two immediate starters in defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and linebacker Mychal Kendricks along with nickel corner Brandon Boykin. Third-round quarterback Nick Foles and second-round defensive Vinny Curry also had a chance to play.
Cox and Kendricks started every game this season, Foles emerged as a franchise quarterback and Boykin’s six interceptions tied for the league’s sixth-most. All four took their lumps as rookies on a bad team that won the fewest games in Reid’s 14 seasons.
This year’s rookies were able to mature and develop in a winning locker room, which only adds to their legacy.
“We want to set the tempo as a rookie class,” Ertz said. “Nick’s class was a great rookie class as well, but I think our class is going to be one to remember.”