2017 has arrived ahead of schedule for Eagles' youth

Nick Fierro
Contact ReporterOf The Morning Call
#Eagles keep getting younger quicker than expected.

Much quicker than he had hoped, the transition to younger players that Philadelphia Eagles coach Doug Pederson was planning to make has been forced upon him.

It began eight days before the season opener, when starting quarterback Sam Bradford was suddenly traded to the Minnesota Vikings, thrusting rookie Carson Wentz into his spot. It continued with a series of injuries and other circumstances that eventually led the coach to Wednesday's pronouncement that rookie Isaac Seumalo will be his choice at right tackle if Allen Barbre (hamstring) can't play Sunday at Baltimore against the Ravens.

If Seumalo does wind up there, he would be the fifth player used at that position this season alone, following Matt Tobin, Barbre, fellow rookie Hal Vaitai and original starter Lane Johnson, who is serving a 10-game suspension for use of an illegal performance-enhancing substance.

Barbre is expected to be ready, though he did not practice Wednesday or Thursday.

"Right now we're going to give Isaac all those reps over there and see where he's at," Pederson said. "But Allen's a veteran guy that has played there so he doesn't need a ton of reps necessarily to get himself ready to go."

Though most of the changes forced upon them have been on offense, their defense and special teams have been affected too.

Rookie cornerback Jalen Mills has started two games and played 63 percent of the defensive snaps in the wake of a season-ending injury suffered by Ron Brooks in Week 7.

Third-year safety Jaylen Watkins, who barely played more than 100 snaps his first two seasons, has played 306 this year, with three starts.

And when wide receiver Josh Huff was released after his arrest on weapons and marijuana charges, it left an opening for a deep kickoff returner that has been filled by Nelson Agholor and rookie Paul Turner.

This week, the Eagles have welcomed three newcomers to the 53-man roster, thanks to long snapper Jon Dorenbos, running back Wendell Smallwood and Tobin being placed on the injured reserve list.

Enter cornerback Dwayne Gratz, running back Byron Marshall and long snapper Rick Lovato, stage right.

Marshall is a rookie up from the practice squad, Gratz is in his fourth NFL season and Lovato his second. All could be a part of the team's future.

"I don't know exactly why they did it," Gratz said, "but, I mean, I'm here. So if they need me to play [this year], I'll play. But I'm just looking forward to any opportunity I get."

Gratz was a former starter with the Jacksonville Jaguars who lost his way and eventually wound up with the Los Angeles Rams this season, before being released again.

Marshall could wind up thrown right into the fire as the No. 3 back and expects to play Sunday. Because an injury kept him off the field for all but four games as a senior at Oregon last year, Marshall was a little rusty coming into this season.

Not anymore.

"It's been a long road, just for not having played last year and being hurt. Being on the practice squad allowed me to get my rhythm back and to just feel like myself again, get used to playing football again. So I don't think that game will be too fast for me or anything."

Safety Malcolm Jenkins views what's happening with the Eagles now as more of the norm rather than the exception.

"You see it all the time," he said. "That's this league. A guy isn't expected, especially before the season, to play a big role. Then, all of a sudden, due to a couple of injuries, you've got a rookie or an undrafted guy or a guy who was just a special-teamer playing a major role. We saw it last year with [S] Chris Maragos. At one point, he was probably playing 50 percent of the snaps.

"And now we have [CB] C.J. Smith come in, undrafted guy, nobody knows who he is and makes the [practice squad]. All of a sudden, active. He's one play away from being out there on defense."

So while there's three games left in this season, the stage-setting for 2017 already has commenced.

"I can pick up a few things and hopefully carry it over to next season," Gratz said.

So many other young Eagles now are in similar circumstances.

Gratz chose the Eagles over other offers in part because of his relationship with Jenkins. They grew up across the street from each other in Piscataway, N.J. and were playing backyard football when Jenkins' father, Lee, suggested that Gratz get into organized football.

"It took off from there," Gratz said.

Even Lovato could become a long-term player not too far down the road because Dorenbos is 36 and his phone is ringing approximately every 30 seconds with post-football offers, thanks to his magic act and show business experience.

"You don't want anyone to get hurt in this league," Lovato said, "but it's an opportunity that you have to take advantage of. And this is the NFL and this is how jobs like these work."

Like Dorenbos, who is the longest-tenured Eagle, Lovato played for two other teams before coming to Philadelphia.

Now he's doing whatever he can to fit in with punter and holder Donnie Jones and kicker Caleb Sturgis.

"The chemistry just between me, Caleb and Donnie is what I'm trying to build up right now too," Lovato said.

Nick.Fierro@mcall.com

Twitter: @nickfierro

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