Long, strange journeys for Braman and Maragos

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Long, strange journeys for Braman and Maragos

They were introduced together. One is tall and big and has long sand-colored hair and a growth of scruffy beard covering his face. The other is short and stocky and arrived with a fresh shave and a tight haircut. It was somewhat startling to see them standing there next to each other -- not because of how physically different they are, but because of the long odds they both beat to make it that far.

On Thursday, the Eagles introduced two new free-agent acquisitions: special teamers Bryan Braman and Chris Maragos. The Eagles signed Braman to a two-year deal and Maragos to a three-year contract. Braman, who was with Houston, hopes to see some snaps at linebacker. Maragos, who was with Seattle, would like to compete for the Eagles' ever-uncertain safety situation. At the least, both figure to play heavily on special teams. Considering the disparate but equally difficult paths they've traveled as football players, that is remarkable.

We will start with Braman, who is a hulk of a man (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) in a long line of them (he said his grandfather was 7-foot-4, 365 pounds). Out of high school, he played a year of football for the University of Idaho.

“Unfortunately,” Braman said, “I didn’t realize you had to go to class and get good grades in order to play football. I had to learn that the hard way.”

He took some time off after that. Braman said he comes from a “humble, blue-collar” family, and so he got a humble, blue-collar job making concrete railroad ties for a company called CXT. He lasted about three months.

“It was backbreaking work for $10 an hour, and it was about 75 hours a week,” Braman said. “I decided I deserved an education over a broken back.”

Braman returned to school and played two years at Long Beach City College. From there, he jumped to the Texas panhandle and landed at West Texas A&M.

“Unfortunately, my senior year, got into some trouble,” Braman said. “There were some character issues that people were questioning coming out my senior year.”

Braman was kicked out of West Texas A&M and later pled guilty to misdemeanor possession of psilocybin (halucinogenic mushrooms). He paid a $2,000 fine and the prosecutor terminated the one-year probation after 30 days, but the initial damage was done. He went undrafted and worked as a bouncer in Amarillo and College Station, Texas. He was also an Abercrombie & Fitch model for a while before the Texans called and offered him a job.

“That’s why Houston sits close to my heart,” Braman said, “because they did kind of give me a shot when no one else was batting an eyelash.”

The 26-year-old became a special teams monster with Houston and was named a Pro Bowl alternate two years ago. He had 31 special teams tackles with the Texans, including one that became a YouTube sensation when he made a crushing hit without the benefit of his helmet. Braman -- who said he once accidently tackled a fire hydrant with his face while playing playground football with his mom’s ex-boyfriend -- said he “wouldn’t advise” making a tackle without headgear. Those kinds of stories are why Donnie Jones, who played with Braman in Houston, called him a “war daddy” for his “will-sacrifice-body mentality.”

“It was a long road,” Braman said, “but I ended up where I wanted to be.”

Maragos managed to avoid backbreaking labor and mushroom possession and face collisions with fire hydrants, but his path wasn’t much easier. Maragos, who is listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, didn’t receive any recruiting attention coming out of high school. Western Michigan gave him a chance to walk on, and he spent two years there before sending a Facebook message to Luke Swan, a receiver at Wisconsin who was also a walk-on. Maragos asked Swan to look at his tape and bring it to the head coach. Swan obliged.

Maragos got a call, transferred, walked on, and switched to defense for the Badgers. He became a team captain for Wisconsin and was put on scholarship in his fifth year. Then he went undrafted. Maragos signed with the 49ers in 2010. He spent the last three years in Seattle where he played 43 games for the Seahawks and earned a Super Bowl ring. Maragos played 51 snaps on defense for Seattle this past season but was on the field for 80 percent of the special teams reps.

“It was kind of real similar,” Maragos said about the unlikely way he and Braman ended up with NFL careers. “And here we are today.”

Eagles-Bengals: 5 matchups to watch

Eagles-Bengals: 5 matchups to watch

The Eagles (5-6) have lost six of their last eight games and travel to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team that dropped to 3-7-1 last week. 

Judging by the records, this is a game the Eagles should win easily, but of course it's not that easy. And these two teams aren't that far apart (see story)

The Eagles are absolutely desperate. They would likely need to win their last five games to make the playoffs. 

It'll have to start with a win in Cinci this weekend. Here are five matchups to watch. 

Wendell Smallwood vs. Bengals' run D
With Ryan Mathews (knee) out again this week, expect to see plenty of rookie Smallwood on Sunday afternoon (see story). He carried the ball just nine times against the Packers, but the Eagles barely ran the ball. On Friday, Doug Pederson said Smallwood wasn't the reason why. 

There should be some decent opportunity for Smallwood this weekend against a Bengals defense that has given up 120.5 yards per game on the ground, the fifth worst average in the NFL. They've given up 100-plus yards on the ground if four of the last five weeks. 

Allen Barbre vs. Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap leads the Bengals with 6½ sacks and he'll get to face off against Barbre, who's a veteran but is now out of position. With rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai still out with his knee injury, Barbre is the new right tackle. 

Another matchup will be Geno Atkins vs. the Eagles' guards. Atkins lines up on both sides of the line, but he'll likely see plenty of Stefen Wisniewski instead of Brandon Brooks. 

Tyler Eifert vs. Malcolm Jenkins/Nigel Bradham
With the injury to A.J. Green, whom Eifert said was the Bengals' best player, Eifert has become Cincinnati's No. 1 target. 

He was targeted 11 times and had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown last week against the Ravens. 

He'll see a mix of Jenkins and Bradham on him this Sunday. 

Cedric Ogbuehi vs. Brandon Graham
The Bengals have one really good offensive tackle on the left side of the line (Andrew Witworth) and Ogbuehi on the other. So far this season, Ogbuehi, according to ProFootballFocus, has given up eight sacks, three quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries. Only three offensive tackles have given up more sacks than Ogbuehi this year. 

With Witworth likely shutting down Barwin and with Fletcher Cox likely getting double-teamed inside, Graham vs. Ogbuehi might be the Eagles' best opportunity to create pressure. 

Jeremy Hill vs. Eagles run defense
The Eagles, at times this season, have had trouble with running backs who run hard. And they've at times had trouble with missing tackles. 

That could be a problem against Hill. This could be a grind-it-out type of game for both teams, which means Hill could play a huge role. Of his 644 rushing yards this year, 404 have come after contact. To put that into perspective, Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing yards after contact, but 62.7 percent of Hill's yards have come after contact, compared to 57 percent of Elliott's.

Eagles' rookies adjusting to NFL life while contributing in key roles

Eagles' rookies adjusting to NFL life while contributing in key roles

Their quarterback is a rookie, of course, but so is their current lead running back, two offensive linemen who’ve started games, two of their wide receivers, their cornerback who’s played the second-most snaps and one of their more surprising defensive linemen.
 
There are rookies up and down the Eagles’ roster. But not just rookies. These are guys in key roles.
 
With Carson Wentz starting all year, Wendell Smallwood currently at tailback and Bryce Treggs starting last weekend in place of Nelson Agholor at wide out, this became only the second season in the last 30 years the Eagles have had a rookie start a game at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
 
It also happened in 2012 with Nick Foles, Bryce Brown and Damaris Johnson.
 
Throw in Jalen Mills, second on the team in cornerback reps; Destiny Vaiao, the Eagles’ first undrafted rookie since Sam Rayburn in 2003 with two sacks in a season; offensive linemen Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo; plus special teamers like Kamu Grugier-Hill and C.J. Smith, and rookies really make up a significant portion of the roster.
 
“All of us being in the same situation, it really helps just knowing we’re all rookies and we’re all out here trying to make plays and help the team,” said Smallwood, whose 4.4 rushing average would be fourth-highest ever by an Eagles rookie if he gets 31 more carries.
 
“It kind of keeps us together. Looking at each other and seeing the other guys doing good, that gives you the confidence that you can make plays, too. They’re in the same position as me being rookies.
 
“I look at Carson and he’s got so much on his plate, man, and he’s going out there and doing it, why can’t I do it? I look at Jalen, he plays a lot. It goes unsaid but we definitely watch each other and it pushes you to do well as well.”
 
After a 3-0 start, the Eagles are 5-6 going into their game Sunday against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
 
Their playoff chances are dwindling but if nothing else this season could be serving as a launching pad for a number of rookies who seem to have bright futures here.
 
Wentz should be the Eagles’ quarterback for the next decade. Smallwood is their most promising rookie running back since LeSean McCoy in 2009. Vaitai will be a starter whenever Jason Peters decides to retire. Seumalo has a shot at becoming a starter somewhere along the interior of the O-line. Mills has been uneven but never stops battling. Treggs hasn’t done a lot but at least he can run and did reel in one 58-yard pass.
 
On a roster decimated by years of terrible drafting and Chip Kelly’s talent purge, the Eagles had to get contributions from their rookies this year to be competitive, and they have.
 
“Rookies, in unchartered territory for some of them, but really for us, in one respect, we say there are no more rookies,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
 
“You've been into it this far. The expectations are high on them from themselves, and of course as coaches we put high expectations on them. We just want to focus on today. Let's go out there today and have a good practice today, because we believe what we do today will show up on Sunday.”
 
There are two big challenges facing rookies. No. 1 is on the field, No. 2 is off the field.
 
On the field, rookies are dealing with a 16-game season that runs into January after playing 11 or 12 games in college and finishing the regular season in mid-November.
 
“The college football season is winding down so they kind of hit that wall just a little bit now with us,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “We have five games left and they are either getting ready for a bowl game or not going getting ready for Christmas break. So that's obviously a challenge with the young players, just keeping them plugged in mentally and physically going down the stretch.


 
“And then just the grind of how important every single rep in practice is, to get it right in practice, and that corresponds to the game. And you just can't show up and go through the motions during the week and expect it on Sunday. Not at this level. 
 
“You might get away with that in college because you're a better athlete or you're a better team than your opponent, but here, everybody is good. The challenge is for them to practice well because then it helps them when crunch time comes in the games.”
 
Mills isn’t a starter, but he has played 454 snaps, which is about two-thirds of the Eagles’ defensive reps this year. That’s 10th-most on the team, fourth-most in the secondary.
 
“It’s a grind, for sure,” he said. “My body’s used to right now getting ready to shut down or go to a bowl game, so physically you have to learn how to take care of yourself and how to recover. The older guys help me through that. 
 
“That means for me getting a minimum of nine hours sleep every night and making sure I eat healthy. Our cafeteria does a great job getting us healthy food. Just have to take care of your body and eat healthy.
 
“Mentally it’s a grind. Being mentally sharp the same way I was in Week 1, that’s tough to do. Just stay focused. Anything negative or anything that could cloud my judgment or anything that doesn’t have to do with football, I have to just eliminate that from my life right now.” 
 
Wentz, of course, is the centerpiece of the Eagles’ 2016 rookie class. 
 
Even though his numbers have dipped after a very hot start, he’s still on pace for the fourth-most passing yards in NFL history by a rookie, the seventh-best intereption ratio and the seventh-highest completion percentage.
 
Wentz said when it comes to making sure the other rookies are grounded and stay positive, he takes the lead from the veterans on the offense.
 
“I think we all have a hand in it,” he said. “When things are going poorly, in the huddle all eyes are on me, but we have some really good leaders. Jason Kelce, Brent Celek, Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, they’ve been around, they get it, they do a great job, and I try to follow the lead a little bit and take the lead a little bit. 
 
“That’s one thing we don’t lack is leadership on both sides of the ball.”
 
There’s a football adjustment for these kids but there’s also a hidden non-football aspect that fans don’t see.
 
Remember, these are kids — 21, 22, 23 years old — who all of a sudden are making an enormous amount of money, have tremendous demands on them from outside and are thrown into a foreign city without friends or family trying to make a living.
 
“The hardest thing for me was adjusting to life,” Jason Kelce said. “You’re in a whole new city, for the first time you’re off on your own, paying taxes and doing all these other things and it’s easy to kind of get overwhelmed in your thought process instead of really focusing just on the little things. 
 
“It’s a tough just getting to the point where you feel comfortable because there’s so much drastic change everywhere. There’s all this chaos around you outside football and it can be a little much. 
 
“For me with young guys, you just tell them to keep staying with it, keep improving it, keep paying attention to the details. 
 
“You can run into certain situations where guys over-think things and it can really affect how they’re playing out there and if you’re an older guy you try and take that burden off of them and just try to remind them to go out there and play hard and focus on the minute details that allow you to be successful and just go play.”