"Between your first and second year and your second and third year, that's the biggest transition you have, as far as your improvement," Eagles wideout Jason Avant said this week. Avant's catch total has gone up in each of his five NFL seasons. "The grasping of the playbook - you grasp it in your first year, but you don't really know the ins and outs, when you can ad-lib and when you can't . . . you don't understand that if the defense is playing Cover 3, I can buy time, because the quarterback is looking at me on the third read.
"All those are things that come with playing a year, being in meetings a year . . . When you're a rookie, you just do what they tell you to do. Your second year, you start to feel the game."
But the 15 rookies who suited up for the Eagles last season haven't seen a NovaCare practice field since January. The defensive guys haven't lined up under new coordinator Juan Castillo; the d-linemen have only the barest notion of the changes in philosophy new line coach Jim Washburn plans to bring. How much growth can we logically expect from this huge segment of the 2011 team, even if the NFL lockout gets wrapped up in the next week or so, as seems quite possible?
We already know that 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham is unlikely to be ready to start the season, after December ACL surgery. What we learned this week, from Graham's comments to an Ann Arbor reporter who caught up with him at a Michigan charity golf tournament, is that his surgery included a microfracture procedure, an attempt to create cartilage where none exists. That's a serious complication; it was Victor Abiamiri's microfracture surgery last year that might have led the Eagles to draft Graham. Abiamiri ended up missing the 2010 season. It isn't clear that Graham's injury is as severe as Abiamiri's.
Neither Graham nor agent Joel Segal responded to messages seeking comment, but Graham did author a series of tweets on the subject yesterday. The gist was that he will be OK. One read: "Everybody needs to worry about this lockout if anything. I got this."
But even if you're completely healthy, like linebacker Jamar Chaney, progress from 2010 seems hard to project. Chaney, a seventh-round pick, was a pleasant surprise, starting the final three games, including the playoff loss, at middle linebacker, recording a dozen solo tackles in his first start, Dec. 19 against the Giants.
Asked yesterday what he'd been told to work on in his first pro offseason, Chaney said his postseason exit interview was conducted with former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott and former linebackers coach Bill Shuey, so he isn't sure much of that matters. Brief conversations with Castillo and new linebackers coach Mike Caldwell before the lockout netted only the information that they plan to play him either in the middle or on the weakside.
"I think so," Chaney said, when asked if he thinks he can make a leap forward in 2011. Chaney has worked out diligently in South Jersey and seems to be in excellent shape.
"The only [problem] is just not being in meetings with Juan and coach Caldwell," Chaney said. "[Usually] by the time training camp comes around, you pretty much already know the defense . . . I got a little form of the playbook, but going over it on paper is not like running the defense with your teammates."
Chaney said he has concentrated on "making sure I'm ready to go" when the lockout ends. Like many observers, he feels that day is close; Chaney said he headed home to Florida this week partly because he feels he needs to get his visits with relatives in before he is called back to work.
He said his goal is "not just being a starter, but being an impact player on our defense . . . When we need a forced fumble, an open-field tackle, I can go out and make that play."
Mike Kafka, a fourth-round rookie quarterback last season, also has spent the offseason in the area, working hard. Kafka's stock figures to improve at least a little if the Eagles deal Kevin Kolb at lockout's end, as expected.
"Although I'm not with the coaches, I'm still working on the same fundamentals they taught me in the first year," Kafka said this week. "I can't control what happened with the lockout, so I'm just making the best of the chance I've got to go out here and throw with my teammates. I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think it was helping."
Kafka said he has some film cutups given him last season by then-quarterbacks coach James Urban. "Just watching football has been really great," he said, even if he hasn't been doing it under the guidance of new quarterbacks coach Doug Pederson, who assisted Urban last year.
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