Mychal Kendricks among NFL players to still make scrutinized trip to Israel

Mychal Kendricks among NFL players to still make scrutinized trip to Israel

JERUSALEM — It was supposed to be a feel-good visit by a group of professional football players to give a boost to image-conscious Israel.

But in an embarrassing fumble by the Israeli government, only five of 11 NFL players in the delegation showed up after being blitzed by Palestinian activists opposed to the visit.

Israel's ministry for strategic affairs and public diplomacy issued a press release after the Super Bowl boasting that the visit would bring "influencers" who would serve as "goodwill ambassadors" when they returned home.

The announcement led Seattle Seahawks defense lineman Michael Bennett to pull out. In a lengthy Twitter post, he accused the government of trying to use him for PR purposes and cited sympathy for the Palestinians.

"I will not be used in such a manner," he wrote, adding that he still intends to visit Israel, but only on a trip that includes stops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to meet Palestinians.

Citing the example of Muhammad Ali, and the late boxing legend's support for the Palestinians, Bennett said he too wants to be a "voice for the voiceless."

"I cannot do that by going on this kind of trip to Israel," he said.

Several others players followed suit, and at the delegation's first official stop on Tuesday at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, only five players were present, said hospital spokesman David Ratner. He said the players were given a tour of the hospital and shown a presentation of a device developed by one of Rambam's researchers that detects concussions in real time.

Among those who also dropped out were Bennett's brother Martellus, of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, Seahawks' Cliff Avril, San Francisco 49er Carlos Hyde and Justin Forsett of the Denver Broncos.

Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan, whose office spearheaded the visit, had enthusiastically promoted it, saying the NFL players would help boost Israel's image and counter the influence of an international boycott movement.

"I hope that, through their visit, they will get a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world," he said. "I hope that the players will present the beautiful face of Israel to their tens of millions of fans in the United States."

But since Bennett's post on Saturday, the ministry has gone silent. After promising various updates on the delegation, Revital Yakin-Karkovsky, the executive director for communications and strategy in the ministry, said Wednesday it would not comment on the visit. The Tourism Ministry and the nonprofit America's Voices in Israel organization, which were also involved in the planning, have also distanced themselves.

The five players who did make the trip — Delanie Walker of the Tennessee Titans, Mychal Kendricks of the Eagles, Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals and Dan Williams of the Oakland Raiders — have also noticeably kept quiet on social media.

The only evidence of the visit is an Instagram video of Kendricks from a local restaurant, where he sings along to Marvin Gaye's "Let's get it on" and asks locals to say hello to the camera in Hebrew.

An open letter published in The Nation that was signed by pro-Palestinian activists and supporters such as Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and Alice Walker had urged the players to skip the trip.

"The Israeli government sought to use these NFL players, who have tremendous platforms due to their popularity, in an effort to whitewash Israel's ongoing denial of Palestinian rights," said Yousef Munayyer, director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, who initiated the open letter. "It was heartening to see so many players choose not to sit on the sidelines but instead to stand on the right side of history."

With high expectations, Derek Barnett knows he still has plenty to learn

With high expectations, Derek Barnett knows he still has plenty to learn

Back near the far hedges of the NovaCare Complex's practice fields, a small group of defensive linemen in white jerseys and shorts participated in some drills. There were barely enough of them to even assemble a defensive line. More than half of the 90 men on the Eagles’ current roster were not at the team’s facilities. 

One of those few defensive linemen was Derek Barnett. On the first day of his first training camp, reporters later crowded around the first-round pick’s temporary locker as if he were the second-coming. Someone asked if he had any issues, considering his high-profile status, with the location of his locker, which is in the middle of the room and not one of the permanent stalls along the wall.

“I ain't made no plays yet,” Barnett said Monday, “so I'm cool with this locker until I make some plays.”

Good point. In terms of both Barnett’s career and this Eagles season, it is early. Very early. And to overhype the magnitude of Monday’s practice with rookies, quarterbacks and selected veterans would be silly. But Barnett knows where he stands, and he took the day as another opportunity to learn. He knows he must.

"Just keep on repping," Barnett said. "I come in and get better each day. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon."

Barnett has never lived anywhere outside of Tennessee. He hails from Brentwood, a suburb of Nashville. He attended the University of Tennessee, where his 33 sacks in three seasons broke Reggie White’s school record. Now the 21-year-old lives in Philadelphia, away from his family — especially his mother, whom he credits as his greatest influence — for the first time. They talk just about every day, and she’s been helpful in his move. Google Maps has been an aid, too. Barnett wants to know more about the city and its history.

He can absorb that knowledge over time, but the Eagles, of course, would prefer that he learns how to beat NFL offensive tackles as quickly as possible. Barnett joined a defensive end unit led by its only clear-cut starter in Brandon Graham. After that, Barnett, along with Chris Long and Vinny Curry, will get time. He might start, he might not. Any pressure that came along with going 14th overall, Barnett said, he doesn’t feel. But an internal force drives him.

“I have very high expectations for myself,” Barnett said. “And that's every year I go into a football season. I'm the biggest critic of myself.”

To get out on the field a few days early was good for Barnett, he said. After spending the time off over the last few weeks at home in Tennessee and working out with former All-Pro end Chuck Smith and Atlanta, he relished the opportunity. Given the limited numbers, Barnett lined up on both the right and left sides of the ball. He said he feels comfortable on either side. It was the not the game action he’s been anxious for, and it didn’t feel “real” without all the veterans, but it was a start.

The vets are on their way, though. The first full-team practice is Thursday, and with that will come the more polished Graham, Curry and Long. That’s three more sets of eyes to critique him, and three more sets of skills for him to watch; Barnett said observing their methods will help him get “mental reps.” The competition won’t hurt either.

The transition appears to be smooth so far. Barnett said he’s had to “unlearn” some of what he did in college, replacing it with a new set of muscle memory. The pace Monday was faster than during OTAs, but Barnett acknowledged that there are no days off in a league where everyone on the field is more capable. You can’t “slack mentally.”

"Coming in today, my coaches said, 'Just play, go, you can make mistakes, and if you do we'll correct them,'" Barnett said. "I didn't feel like there were many mistakes, but I still got some technique things … Things I need to do better."

All of it is new — the techniques, the coaches, the team and the city. Still, familiarity remains.

“It feels like I'm a freshman again, but I'm a rookie,” Barnett said. “I gotta come in and work hard and prove to my teammates that it's important to me and show the coaches they can trust me if they put me on the field.”

Eagles sign Canadian rugby star Adam Zaruba to be tight end

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AP Images

Eagles sign Canadian rugby star Adam Zaruba to be tight end

The Eagles didn't just look north of the border for their newest player. They looked to a completely different sport. 

On Monday afternoon, the Birds signed undrafted free agent and Canadian rugby star Adam Zaruba to a three-year contract, although the length of the contract is standard. 

Zaruba, a 26-year-old Vancouver native, had a tryout before being signed, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson confirmed earlier on Monday. 

Listed at 6-5, 265 pounds, Zaruba is the Eagles' biggest tight end, even bigger than Brent Celek (6-4, 255). While the Eagles have three tight end spots locked up — Celek, Zach Ertz and Trey Burton — Zaruba will likely need to shine on offense and as a special teamer if he has any chance to make the team. 

While this isn't Zaruba's first time playing football, it is his first time playing football in a while. His last competitive football game came in high school, according to TheProvince

Zaruba redshirted as a football player in his freshman year at college and then never played after that, becoming a full-time member of the Canadian national rugby team by 2014. 

He's apparently made a name for himself in the rugby world. Here are some highlights, including an impressive one-handed grab: 

It likely won't be an easy transition from rugby to American football, but the Eagles were probably impressed by Zaruba's athleticism. On June 29, he posted a video to his Instagram account claiming he ran a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash while weighting 260 pounds. To put that into perspective, that time would have ranked second among all tight end competitors at this year's combine and would have been faster than the time put up by 19th overall pick O.J. Howard. 

Zaruba isn't the first rugby player to attempt the conversion to the NFL. The most famous example is Patriots' special teamer Nate Ebner. The U.S. rugby player has played for the Patriots since 2012 and was a second-team All-Pro in 2016. 

After signing Zaruba, the Eagles' roster is full at 90 men.