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James Casey is far removed from his rookie season. He turns 29 in September. He has more than 750 receiving yards in the NFL. He recently signed a deal on the first day of free agency that pays him millions over the next three seasons.
But when he looks around at practice Tuesday and Wednesday, Casey will notice that he’s surrounded mainly by teammates who haven’t yet played their first NFL down and some of whom may never get that chance.
Casey, the Eagles’ fullback/tight end, was asked to report with the rookies on Monday for the team’s first training camp under new coach Chip Kelly. He had his knee scoped in late May and missed the rest of the spring camps, making him eligible to report with rookies, per rules of the collective bargaining agreement.
“I look at is as a great opportunity for me,” Casey said Monday. “I’m one of the few veterans here, along with [Jason] Kelce and a couple of the quarterbacks that are here along with a bunch of rookies. It’s just a great opportunity for me.
“I’m not disappointed at all that I’m here early. I get to get some work in. I get to get out there and get some conditioning in and work on some of the individual stuff with the rookies, because I feel like I didn’t practice those last couple of OTAs. So I need to be out here anyways, putting work in. Because those other guys were working hard during the OTAs when I wasn’t out there. Now I can go out there and pay back some of the time I missed.”
The Eagles didn’t mask their intentions for Casey when they signed him away from the Texans after he set personal bests in his fourth season there, catching 34 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns.
Kelly raved about Casey’s versatility and spoke of a tight end tandem that mirrored the New England attack that -- at the time -- flaunted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as the centerpiece of its high-scoring offense.
Kelly’s offensive vision helped sell Casey on joining the Eagles, who were fresh off a 4-12 record and consecutive seasons outside the playoffs. But after participating in just a few spring practices, Casey spent the rest of the time on the sideline, often riding an exercise bike while his teammates practiced.
“I don’t think for me it set me back at all,” Casey said. “If anything, I look at the positives of it. Even though I had the surgery, I wasn’t out there practicing a lot so I’m healthy right now and I feel great and this is when it really counts, in training camp.
“You can have the great OTAs and do the best you want, but you’re not putting pads on and you’re not out there and actually playing. That’s when it’s important. I was still there learning all the plays, out there [at practice] every day, watching film every day and learning the offense.
“So I was still around and I had got quite a bit of plays in in minicamps and OTAs. I’m prepared and I get an extra couple days now, too, with the rookies to get some plays in. So I’ll be prepared when the first day [of full-squad practice] comes.”
Casey was the second-oldest player behind 33-year-old Michael Vick to check in Monday and have his physical. He said his right knee has been scoped about four times, twice in high school and once with the Texans, but insisted that all four procedures were minor and unrelated.
Medically, Casey has been cleared for all practices and said his knee is 100 percent. The fewest games he played in four years with Houston was 14, which seems to validate his claim that his knee isn’t damaged or problematic.
“I’m full go,” he said. “I can do whatever. I have no restrictions. I’m going to be out there every day, working out the same I’ve always done.”
Although he spent the first years of his career in Houston, a city well known for both extreme heat and smothering humidity, Casey said he’s been training outside in the Philadelphia heat lately to prepare for Kelly’s inaugural camp.
“I know it’s going to be a lot of work,” he said. “I know we’re going to be running a lot of fast-paced stuff. I’m prepared for that. I’ve been training out in the heat. Philadelphia has been extremely hot these last few weeks. I’ve been training outside in the heat, getting used to it. It’s going to be hard.”