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.”

Mike Mayock: Eagles should weigh Gareon Conley vs. offense at 14

Mike Mayock: Eagles should weigh Gareon Conley vs. offense at 14

The Eagles need cornerbacks. Plural. 

It's not a secret that the team's biggest weakness heading into next week's draft is at the cornerback position. So it would stand to reason that their best bet might be to simply take the best one off the board when they're on the clock at 14.

But NFL Network's Mike Mayock, on his annual pre-draft conference call marathon extravaganza Friday, said he thinks they should take a different approach. 

Looking at the top corners in the draft, Mayock is convinced Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore will be off the board well before the Eagles are on the clock at 14. His next rated corner is Gareon Conley. After that, Mayock has Marlon Humphrey but pointed out his major flaw of struggling to find the football in the air. 

So if Conley makes it to 14, the Eagles should pick him, right? 

Not so fast. 

"So I look at it this way, if Conley's on the board at 14, you have to compare him to the best playmaker on offense on your board," Mayock said. "Because I'm not convinced the Eagles should go defense, to be honest with you. 

"If Conley's not there, I think you want to go get your corner in the second or third round and I think they need two corners. But my perspective is, you drafted Carson Wentz. You better support him. You signed two wideouts in free agency (Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith) who are both effectively one-year contracts. Your slot receiver, (Jordan) Matthews is in the final year of his deal. (Brent) Celek, the tight end, is 32 years old. 

"So you might sit there and go, 'This year looks OK,' but get a running back. Get a (Christian) McCaffrey or a Dalvin Cook. Get a tight end, O.J. Howard. Get weapons. Get one of those wideouts you like. So I would be comparing Conley to the highest playmaker you have on the board offensively. And I might be leaning towards offense if it was me." 

Zach Ertz hopes he and Carson Wentz can be NFL's next great duo

Zach Ertz hopes he and Carson Wentz can be NFL's next great duo

Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. Cam Newton and Greg Olsen. 

When Zach Ertz looks at the recent history of great quarterback-tight end duos in the NFL, he can't help but notice one thing stands out. 

"Those guys have been together for a long time," Ertz said Thursday afternoon. 

Brady and Gronk have been together for seven seasons. Cam and Olsen have been together for six. And Brees and Graham were together for five. 

"And I think just having that, where you're on the same page regardless of the coverage," Ertz continued. "If they give you this coverage, you know exactly what you're going to do. If they give you that coverage, he knows exactly what I'm going to do. When to expect the ball vs. certain coverages, it might be a little earlier, it might be a little later. So it's just that constant camaraderie where we're able to know what the other person is thinking without thinking about it."

Ertz hopes that's the kind of relationship he can forge with Carson Wentz, who will enter his second NFL season in 2017. 

Ertz and Wentz spend a lot of time together in the facility and away from it. A group of Eagles went to Ertz's wedding earlier this offseason, and of course, Wentz was present. If it seems like Ertz is going to great lengths to build a rapport with his quarterback, he is. 

After going through Mike Vick and Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez and Sam Bradford, the Eagles' starting tight end finally has a quarterback that isn't going anywhere for a while.  

"It's going to be huge," Ertz said about playing with Wentz for a second straight year. "I think when Carson was drafted, from the receivers and tight ends, that was the one thing we were really excited about. That we knew for the next five, 10, 20 years, hopefully, in Philadelphia, we knew who our quarterback was going to be."

Since he was drafted in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Stanford, Ertz has been an extremely productive player. But that has set up huge expectations as fans wait for a "breakout year." Zach Ertz might never be Rob Gronkowski, but the numbers are hard to argue. 

In the first four years of his career, Ertz has 247 catches for 2,840 yards and 13 touchdowns. Since 2013, here's the list of tight ends who have more catches and yards than Ertz: Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, Delanie Walker, Antonio Gates. 

Ertz and Jeremy Maclin are the only two players in Eagles history to put up those numbers in their first four seasons. 

The argument often heard about Ertz's numbers is that they come in garbage time. Ertz has historically been an absolute beast in December. In the last few years, that hasn't meant much to a struggling Eagles franchise, but if they're in the playoff hunt in upcoming years, they'll probably want that trend to continue. 

The one statistic that doesn't seem to match the others: touchdowns. While Ertz has been among top tight ends in the league in receptions and yards, his 13 touchdowns rank 17th among tight ends since 2013. (It's not a stat, but for what it's worth, Ertz would likely be among the league leaders in touchdowns called back for penalties in the last few years.)

"I want to be the guy in the red zone, believe me," Ertz said. "For the first four years in my career, I think the most touchdowns I had in a year was four. So this year, we didn't have a lot of red zone touchdowns and that falls on us as players to get it down when we get down there, make plays when the ball's in the air. That's something I do pride myself on, making those tough and contested catches, whether it be in the red zone or third down. I want to be more of a go-to guy in the red zone, but I've got to earn that this spring and summer, earn that trust of the quarterback as well as Doug (Pederson). It's going to be a process, but when you look at the great tight ends in the league, the first thing that stands out is touchdowns."