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."

Fletcher Cox among Eagles not at OTAs; Doug Pederson updates position battles

Fletcher Cox among Eagles not at OTAs; Doug Pederson updates position battles

The Eagles had near-perfect attendance as they kicked off their Organized Team Activities (OTAs) on Tuesday morning, but there were a few notable absences.

Fletcher Cox, Jason Peters and Donnie Jones are not with the team.

"Obviously as you guys know too, it's a voluntary offseason program," head coach Doug Pederson said. "I've been in touch with all three of those guys, so we've communicated for the reasons for them not being here. But no worries with them going forward."

This is the second year in a row that Cox has missed the start of OTAs. Last year, he was waiting on his big contract, which came after the minicamp in June.

Cox, who signed a mega contract less than a year ago, send out an Instagram story on Monday in Philipsburg, Netherlands Antilles.

"The reason is satisfactory, but again it's a voluntary program," Pederson said. "I would love for everybody to be here. That's just me personally, I would love everybody to be here. But I know it's not always going to work out that way.

"Fletcher is one of the leaders on the football team and guys like that, you do expect to be here, but I get the rules, we abide by the rules and he's one of the guys too, at the end of the day, I'm gonna hang my hat on and go to war with."

As far as the guys who are with the Eagles this week, Pederson revealed some of the starters at positions in question (see OTA storylines).

Second-year guard Isaac Seumalo will begin OTAs as the team's starting left guard, taking Allen Barbre's place. Pederson did say Barbre is getting over a calf injury.

"This gives [Seumalo] an opportunity to work in there so we can get Allen," the head coach said. "Allen's a guy, as you guys know, one of those versatile offensive linemen who can play guard and tackle, so when we get Allen back we want to work him not just at guard but also at tackle."

Jason Kelce, who has been the center of plenty of rumors and whispers this offseason, is still going to take first-team reps at center, while Stefen Wisniewski and Seumalo will also get some reps at center.

And second-year player Jalen Mills and free agent pickup Patrick Robinson will start the camp running with the ones at corner (see players to watch at OTAs).

This first round of OTAs runs three days: May 23-25.

5 Eagles to watch on offense and defense at OTAs

5 Eagles to watch on offense and defense at OTAs

Tuesday is a big day in the progression of the 2017 Eagles

The team is finally all together as OTAs kick off at the NovaCare Complex. We've already looked at the biggest storylines of the week (see story), but how about the individual players? 

Well, let's look at five offensive and five defensive players to watch this week, leaving out Carson Wentz. Yeah, we're going to watch the QB. 

Offense

Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery won't be hard to spot. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound receiver was brought in on a one-year deal this offseason. He's been in Philly working out, but this will be his first time at a real practice with his new team. Maybe we'll quickly get a sense of his chemistry with Wentz. 

Torrey Smith
At his introductory press conference in March, Smith was asked about his speed and responded by jokingly challenging a reporter to a race. While that never happened, it's fair to wonder what the Eagles are getting in Smith. He wasn't the same player in San Francisco, so we'll get to see if he has some gas left in the tank. 

Donnel Pumphrey
We already got a glimpse of Pumphrey during rookie camp, but didn't get a long time to watch practice. At OTAs, we'll see everything. The biggest thing that stood out about Pumphrey a couple weeks ago was his size — or lack of size. How will Doug Pederson use his new weapon? We might get some hints this week. 

LeGarrette Blount
Pumphrey and Blount technically play the same position, yet Blount is 74 pounds heavier. To put that in perspective, 74 pounds is about the weight of an average 10-year-old. Blount has been in the league for nearly a decade, but he's in a new offense in Philly (without a true fullback), so we'll see where he is in a short time with the team.  

Taylor Hart
Normally we wouldn't put an offensive lineman on a list of guys to watch in shorts, but Hart is transitioning from defensive tackle to offensive tackle and this is the first chance to see him on offense. Worth watching. He was pretty excited about the switch in January (see story).

Defense

Timmy Jernigan
Honestly, it's harder to evaluate defensive players during OTAs because there's no hitting, and it's even harder to evaluate linemen. Jernigan, though, is worth watching because he's replacing Bennie Logan. 

Rasul Douglas
We've already seen Douglas at rookie camp, but he was really looking forward to lining up against some veterans like Jeffery. Douglas was a third-rounder, but he might be more important to the team in 2017 than any other rookie simply because of his position. 

Patrick Robinson
Speaking of the cornerback position, this week is the first of seeing Robinson, who signed a one-year deal that's mostly gone forgotten. The 29-year-old former first-round pick is coming off a rough yearlong stint with the Colts, but he was much better in 2015 with the Chargers. He's on a prove-it deal, so who knows if he'll be the Eagles' best option. 

Ron Brooks
One of the biggest losses the Eagles suffered during the 2016 season occurred when Brooks went down with a bad leg injury. No, Brooks wasn't great before the injury, but he was the team's slot corner, which kept Malcolm Jenkins at safety. Not sure where Brooks is in his recovery, but don't forget about him. Jim Schwartz clearly likes Brooks. 

Joe Walker
Walker is recovering from an ACL tear from last preseason. He was lining up to be the team's backup middle linebacker before the injury, and the 2016 seventh-round pick will probably have the inside track to win that job this year ... as long as he regains his form from before the injury.