Eagles' Long a sleeper at linebacker

MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Travis Long fell off 2013 draft lists due to knee injury, spent year on practice squad.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Travis Long fell off 2013 draft lists due to knee injury, spent year on practice squad.
Posted: June 19, 2014

NOT ALL PLAYERS are created equal.

Marcus Smith was the 26th overall pick in the draft last month. The only ways the outside linebacker from Louisville doesn't make the Eagles' roster this season are if he hijacks a plane or sucker-punches Chip Kelly.

Travis Long plays the same position as Smith, but doesn't have the same roster assurances. He is going to have to make the team the old-fashioned way. He is going to have to earn it.

Long is an undrafted free agent who was signed by the Eagles last summer after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the next-to-last game of his college career.

Long started 47 straight games at Washington State, including 11 his sophomore year with a dislocated shoulder. Despite the shoulder injury, he still led the team in sacks and tackles for losses that season.

Had 9 1/2 sacks his senior year, and was expected to be no worse than a midround draft pick before the knee went bump in the night in a mid-November loss to Arizona State.

"It had been bothering me for a couple of weeks," Long said. "I kept playing on it. Then it just went.

"When it first happened, it was like, 'Why me?' But I still wanted to play football. So [I was determined to] get healthy. That was my focus for the next 8 months."

The knee injury turned him into an invisible man. NFL teams forgot about him; forgot about his 20 1/2 career sacks. He didn't get an invitation to the scouting combine in Indianapolis. He wasn't able to work out for teams at Washington State's pro day.

Nobody was willing to take a gamble on him in the draft. And nobody was even willing to sign him as a free agent after the draft. After he finally was medically cleared to play again late last July, the Chargers and Eagles were the only teams to bring him in for workouts. He ended up signing with the Eagles and spent last season on their practice squad.

"I came in a week into training camp," Long said. "I was already behind. I didn't know the defense. I was just thrown in there. My first practice here was with pads. No warming up. Just right into pads."

Long is among 19 Pac-12 players currently on the Eagles' roster. Chip Kelly clearly has an affection for players from his old college conference. But while that affiliation might help you get in the door, it won't guarantee you a roster job. Long must now prove he belongs here.

So far, so good.

"He's really improved," Kelly said yesterday when asked about Long. "I think obviously when we got him, he was coming off of an injury. He spent a year on the practice squad and didn't miss any time. But you could tell he was still recovering from the injury.

"But he has really made some great strides and is a guy that's really pushing hard to make this football team. I think he'll be able to contribute from a special-teams standpoint and add some depth at the outside-linebacker spot. So he's definitely a guy you have to keep an eye on right now."

The Eagles had just 37 sacks last season. They finished 31st in sacks per pass play. They need players who can get pressure on the quarterback if they're going to make a serious Super Bowl run. It doesn't matter whether that pressure comes from a first-round blue blood or an undrafted mutt with an ACL history.

"You're always looking to add pass rushers," general manager Howie Roseman said last month. "We're always going to be looking for those guys.

"We have some young guys that we're excited to see [develop]. Guys like Travis. He got kind of overlooked because of his knee injury. But we had a chance to watch him [practice] every week last year and get better in his drops. He's shown the ability to rush the passer in the Pac-12."

Long was a 4-3 defensive end his first 3 years at Washington State. But the Cougars switched to a 3-4 his last year there and he responded with the best season of his career. Had 13 tackles for losses and four batted passes in addition to those 9 1/2 sacks.

But then he hurt the knee.Long said it took until last November before his injured knee finally felt whole again.

"About the middle of the season last year," he said. "I was able to do everything prior to that. But I was finally not thinking about my knee a year after [the injury]."

Long benefited from the year on the practice squad. It gave him the opportunity to completely recover from the injury and learn Bill Davis' defense.

"I got to get a year in the defense and come back this year and know what I was doing," he said. "It was good."

From that standpoint, Long has a leg up on first-rounder Smith, who still is trying to get his arms around Davis' defense.

Long has been working at both the left and right outside linebacker spots in the spring OTAs and this week's mandatory minicamp.

"They just want to make sure I can play multiple positions," he said. "That's good for me. I want to show them I can do that. It gives me more value than some of these other guys."

For an undrafted player like Long, every little bit helps.


On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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