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There seems to be one every year, a rookie who goes bypassed in the draft but still manages to outlast several of his drafted peers to make the team.
Last year, wideout Damaris Johnson made the 53-man roster (mainly as a return specialist) while sixth-round pick Marvin McNutt opened the season on the practice squad.
Two years ago, undrafted rookie defensive lineman Cedric Thornton survived final cuts to make the team. Although he was released the next day and signed to the practice squad, Thornton eventually earned his call-up and is the frontrunner to start this season opposite Fletcher Cox at defensive end.
Several major contributors of Andy Reid’s 14-year run as Eagles coach were once rookie free agents, a list that includes safety Quintin Mikell, center Jamaal Jackson and wide receiver Greg Lewis.
The lead horse in this year’s rookie free-agent race for a roster spot is Damion Square, a defensive lineman from Alabama who an AFC college scout called a “phenomenal, phenomenal” signing for the Birds.
The scout told CSNPhilly.com that Square is a “make-it” guy on the Eagles, who aren’t especially rich in natural 3-4 defensive end talent.
“I’ll tell you what, when I looked at the Eagles’ rookie free-agent acquisitions, the first guy I saw was Damion Square,” the scout said, “and I said that’s a great priority free-agent signing.”
Square jockeyed around several different line positions for the two-time defending BCS champion Crimson Tide, starting 31 games and recording 93 tackles, 18.5 of which went for a loss. He also registered 7.5 sacks and his nine hurries in 2012 were most on the team.
Alabama’s defensive line is annually the team’s strong point, and Square was arguably their most productive down lineman, but he didn’t get drafted for the same reasons that keep several standout college players from going in the seven-round event.
At 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds, he has pedestrian vital statistics. He’s not viewed as tall enough to play defensive end in 4-3 systems or big enough to play the outside in an odd front.
“Only question you’re going to have is, at the end of the day, is he big enough for a two-gap [system]?” the scout said. “Is he long enough, athletic enough? Does he have the prototypical height to play in the trenches? No. Does he have the prototype build you want? No. But when you put him on tape, the kid plays his ass off. He has a phenomenal motor. He’s a guy that has really mastered all the technical aspects of the game.
“He does exactly what the coach asks him to do, and he does it to the best of his abilities. If we could have gotten our hands on him as a PFA (priority free agent), I would have done it all day, every day until Sunday."
Eagles defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, who doubles as the assistant head coach to Chip Kelly, hasn’t seen much of Square and won’t get to see the rookie lineman in pads until training camp.
Azzinaro has already observed that Square “is a quality young guy” who practices “with a lot of effort.”
“Alabama didn’t win all those games because they had bad players,” Azzinaro said. “He’s a good player. He understands what it takes to be good.”
Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland is much more familiar with Square’s body of work. Stoutland presided over Alabama’s offensive line for the past two seasons before joining Kelly’s inaugural staff.
Stoutland called Square a “really, really” good player who gave his trenchmen headaches at practice.
“We saw him every day in practice and he would give our offensive line everything they could handle,” Stoutland said. “We got better, our offensive linemen got better, because of our defensive linemen at Alabama. It would be harder for us in practice than it would be when we got to the game.”
Stoutland spoke to Square over the phone minutes after the Eagles had signed him. Then he told Kelly, “This is a great guy. To get him like this, this is a great pickup.”
“He’s a great leader. He’s a hard worker,” Stoutland added. “He knows his stuff inside and out. He’s really smart. I think he’s a heck of a pickup for us.”