The ‘Rocky’ Class of 2017

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By GORDON GLANTZ

@Managing2Edit

GORDONVILLE — Blame it on George Washington.

No, not the high school in Northeast Philly.

No, not the double-decker bridge connecting Fort Lee, N.J., to Upper Manhattan.

Talking about the father of our country.

The original GW.

The guy who could tell no lies.

Why, you may ask?

Because when he led the rag-tag Colonial army to victory over the superior forces of the British Army, it was the upset of all upsets.

Vegas odds had the war ending, in Britain’s favor, within an over/under time frame of eight months. Instead, after eight years, a new nation was born.

And we Americans have embraced underdogs ever since.

Even if a nameless and faceless No. 5 seed is playing a No. 4 seed during March Madness, we are now genetically engineered to cheer for the No. 5 seed for no other reason.

In Philadelphia, where the country was born, we have an incurable case of US (Underdog Syndrome). We have it so bad that we erect statues to a fictional character, Rocky Balboa, because he was the ultimate cinematic underdog.

And when it comes to our football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, a new Rocky figure is born every August when some kid with a relatable tale to tell comes out of nowhere to make an unlikely run for a roster spot.

The franchise’s past includes many such figures – such as 1948 and 1949 title-winning quarterback Tommy Thompson, who was blind in one eye – but really came into focus during the tenure of Dick Vermeil, who molded a championship contender out of a lot of undrafted and recycled free agents and low draft picks.

The most notable Rocky figure in football gear is Vince Papale, whose story – although “Hollyweirded” – was told in the movie “Invincible.”

In actuality, another Eagle in the Dick Vermeil Era – Lem Burnham – may have made for a better flick. Originally a 15th round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1974 (out of U.S. International, where he played after a decorated four-year stint in the Marines), Burnham played with the Hawaii team in the ill-fated WFL (as did Papale, for the Philadelphia Bell) and then made the Eagles, albeit after stopover with the Washington Redskins and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Burnham led the Eagles in sacks with in 1977 with 10.

An undersized defensive end (234 pounds), he remained with the Eagles all the way through the 1980 NFC championship season, although he spent it on IR. Burnham then worked as the team psychologist for the Eagles and 76ers, and later the Baltimore Orioles before moving on work as an executive with the NFL and developing the rookie symposium.

The Buddy Ryan Era saw several Rocky types. Running back Junior Tautalatasi was a college backup out of Washington drafted in the 10th round who turned a big preseason, and a Keith Byars injury, into an opening-day start in the backfield. He started one other game as a rookie and caught 41 passes after settling in as the third-down back. Unable, or unwilling, to say his last name, Ryan dubbed the oft-injured Tautalatasi “Junior Smith.”

And who could forget Marvin Hargove? He was the Willingboro, N.J., native who had an OK college career at Richmond, but still asked Ryan for a chance. A receiver/returner, Hargrove ran a 4.5 40 and, probably as more of a PR stunt, was put on the training camp roster in 1990. Added to the roster during the season, he caught a touchdown pass from Randall Cunningham on his first snap, only to never catch a pass again before being released before the end of the season.

Running back Vaughan Hebron and quarterback Jay Fiedler each made the team as undrafted rookies under Rich Kotite. Hebron later won a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos while Fielder bounced around, including a stint in Europe, before becoming the starter in Miami and leading the Dolphins to their only playoff win since Dan Marino retired.

Andy Reid was known for giving undrafted rookies opportunities and folk heroes included Sam “Truck Driver” Rayburn and receiver Chad Hall, who came by way of a hitch in the Air Force.

Since Chip Kelly generally had his 53-man roster set in his head no matter who did what in training camp, we’ll give him credit for current tight end Trey Burton – and deduct points for not even finding a spot on the practice squad for home-grown receiver Rasheed Bailey – and move to the present regime.

A year ago, in Doug Pederson’s first year, it was undrafted receiver Paul Turner out of Louisiana Tech who turned a strong preseason into practice squad berth and an eventual promotion to the active roster.

Which brings us to the present. Who will be this year’s player who steps out of the shadows and threatens to shake up the depth chart and, at the very least, create a nice storyline for a few weeks?

Here is a list of likely suspects to steal your heart:

1. David Watford, WR: A college quarterback (three years at Virginia, one at Hampton), Watford had a promising showing as a UDFA last summer while learning the receiver position, even catching a touchdown pass in a preseason game. He was kept on the practice squad and could really shine, without much advance fanfare this year. He was the athleticism and size (6-foot-2, 209 pounds) as well as a work ethic and desire to learn that has made him a favorite among the coaches, who seem to have seen more long-term potential than with Turner. He could just as easily become a fan favorite next. If drafted rookies Mack Hollins and/or Shelton Gibson struggle or Nelson Agholor continues to play himself off team while Watford makes plays, look out.

2. Aaron Grymes, CB: Like Watford, Grymes plays a noticeable position and one of dire need, meaning fans could be drawn to any light he might shine on a dark situation. Grymes, like Watford, played well last preseason – after standing out in the CFL – and could not only push for a roster spot but for playing time in nickel and dime packages.

3. Joe Walker, LB: Almost a lock to make the team, Walker is the reason the Eagles didn’t really go hard for linebacker depth during the offseason. A seventh-round pick last year, he had the team made before a knee injury. Still, for the average fan there is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind aspect that will make him popular in the preseason. Plus, the whole “battling-back-from-injury” angle always plays well in Philly.

4. Corey Clement, RB: Like Papale, Hargrove and Bailey, the undrafted 1,000-yard rusher last season at Wisconsin has the local thing working for him, as he is from Glassboro, N.J. Clement was projected be a mid-round pick but his tweener status – 5-11, 209 with middling speed and power – made him hard to peg and he slipped through the cracks. Nonetheless, backs in this category have found by-committee success in the NFL by just hitting the holes that are there without any extra fancy footwork. While fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey is the most likely rookie to excite in the preseason, Clement only has the likes of last year’s fifth-round pick Wendell Smallword and Byron Marshall in his way to carve a place for himself.

5. Randall Goforth, DB: An UDFA out of UCLA, Goforth was productive, passionate and always around the ball in college. His size (a generous 5-10, 190) makes him tough to project at safety, and a lack of elite speed (north of 4.5) limits him at just the slot as a corner. Still, a football player is a football player is a football player. As is the case with Grymes, the lack of clarity in the secondary creates a real chance here.

This column originally appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com

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