Dave Zangaro

Eagles' newcomers not surprised 'special' team atop NFC

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Eagles' newcomers not surprised 'special' team atop NFC

Tim Jernigan didn't have any choice in the matter. 

While he might be the Eagles' most important offseason acquisition, Jernigan was brought to Philadelphia in early April in a trade with Baltimore. 

Things have worked out pretty well, though. In a contract year, Jernigan has been great playing in a system that's almost completely foreign to him and he's probably earning himself a ton of money. But aside from that, he's been a key to the Eagles' quick 5-1 start. 

The Eagles are sitting pretty at the top of the NFC East and the entire NFC. 

That's not a shock to Jernigan or the rest of the Eagles' newcomers. 

"I'm not surprised at all," Jernigan said. "I knew that we had talent coming into the season. And more than that, I knew the work we had put in on the field in the weight room and away from football. Guys really bought in. The biggest thing now is not getting complacent with 5-1. Things can change fast. You never know. We still have 10 games guaranteed left. We have to focus on that."

This is Jernigan's fourth NFL season and he has been on just one team with a winning record. That came in his rookie season in 2014, when the Ravens went 10-6. 

There seems to be a really good chance this season could be even better for the Eagles. 

"I think we have a pretty good team, man," Jernigan said, echoing Carson Wentz. "I think we're going to be special."

While Jernigan had no choice in coming to Philadelphia, plenty of big-name free agents did. Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, LeGarrette Blount and even Chris Long all chose to come and play for the Eagles, who were coming off a 7-9 season. 

Obviously, one of the big reasons, especially for the receivers, was the chance to play with Wentz. While Wentz didn't have a stellar rookie season, he showed flashes of what might make him a franchise quarterback. 

The Eagles also had some other key positions with talent. Their offensive line featured two Pro Bowl-caliber offensive tackles, a veteran center and a really solid guard. Their safety duo is one of the best in the league. Their middle linebacker is young and good. Their tight end has been productive. There were question marks, sure, but still talent. 

And then the team added those key free agents. 

"There's a reason I signed here," Jeffery said. "A lot of key additions, picking up Torrey, picking up LeGarrette, me and Timmy and some other guys. The front office staff did a great job putting us together. But just seeing how they were last year, just a few pieces here and there, it could be big." 

While Jernigan missed the really good years in Baltimore, Smith didn't. Jernigan's first year with the Ravens was Smith's last, which meant Smith was there for the 2011 season when the Ravens lost in the AFC championship game and the 2012 season when they won the Super Bowl. 

So Smith knows what a special team looks like. And he sees something special in the Eagles' locker room. That's why 5-1 is coming as no surprise. 

"I knew as soon as I came in here, it just looks right," he said. "That's from the top down. It has the right feel. I said that the first day I came here and I still feel that way and obviously, you're able to see that, the way guys have been working." 

On the short list of five guys in the Eagles' locker room who have won Super Bowls, three of them came this offseason: Smith, Long and Blount. 

On Tuesday, Blount preached the importance of not getting caught up in the hype (see story). He preached the importance of focusing on only the game in front of them. They haven't accomplished anything yet. 

While Blount is trying to make sure the team stays grounded, he's not surprised either. It seems like no one is. 

"I feel like we've been a confident team since we started, all the way back from OTAs, training camp, preseason," he said. "I feel like we've always been a confident group. That's one of the things that you need in order for you to be a winning team. You have to have confidence. You have to have confidence in yourself, as well as the guys that you're going to be playing with, the coaches, and it goes on from there. You have to have confidence."

Ronald Darby gets cheers from fellow DBs in 1st practice since injury

Ronald Darby gets cheers from fellow DBs in 1st practice since injury

There was a little more buzz around the Eagles' defensive backs at practice on Thursday. 

All eyes were on No. 41. 

For the first time since he left the season opener in Washington following a gruesome right ankle dislocation, cornerback Ronald Darby practiced on Thursday. He was limited and it seems rather unlikely he'll be able to play on Monday night, but it was still a boost for his teammates to see him back out on the field. 

"We were all just joking and letting him know the spotlight was on him," safety Rodney McLeod said. 

Doug Pederson said the "stars have to align" for Darby to play on Monday night against Washington (see story). So it seems unlikely. Still, it was a good sign to get him back to practice.

Darby was with the team from the start of Thursday's practice and went through the entire warmup and stretching period. He wore high black socks and didn't appear to have any sort of brace on his injured right ankle. 

When the Eagles broke into the individual portion of practice, Darby went through all of the backpedal drills; he was the last to go through each. 

So how did he look? 

"He looked good," corner Jalen Mills said. "The guy had some clean breaks. We did a couple deep-ball drills, you know, he jumped up and high-pointed the ball. A lot of DBs, we got excited when we saw him, cheering him on. He looked good."

Mills was maybe a little overly excited about how good Darby looked on Thursday. It was, after all, just his first day back. 

Defensive back Jaylen Watkins said Darby looked "better" but acknowledged it's "going to take time." Watkins pointed out Darby's recovery is largely about being able to trust his ankle and getting back into a groove. 

"He didn't do much but I think this is his first time being back with us in that capacity," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I think he looked decent. I don't really know what to compare it to. Hopefully he feels good. I'm just concerned with him not having any kind of setbacks. I think he looked fine." 

What all of his defensive back teammates agreed on was that it was pretty crazy to see Darby practicing just seven weeks after he was carted off the field in Washington. At the time of the gruesome injury, it looked to be pretty obvious that Darby's season was over. 

When the play happened, Mills was on the other side of the field so he didn't see how bad the injury looked until after the game. He credited the training staff and Darby's dedication for getting him back on the field so soon. 

"In that moment, what you feel, for him to even be back out there at all, to have a possibility to get him back, is great," Jenkins said. "Because I think at first glance, everybody probably thought he was done for the season. Obviously, whenever he is 100 percent, he's going to instantly make our defense better." 

Ronald Darby returns to practice for Eagles, status for Monday uncertain

Ronald Darby returns to practice for Eagles, status for Monday uncertain

There's some good news coming out of the NovaCare Complex on Thursday: Ronald Darby is back at practice. 

Head coach Doug Pederson said Darby, who has missed every game since the opener with a dislocated ankle, will practice this week, at least as a limited participant. 

"I can't commit at this time if he's going to be ready (to play on Monday night)," Pederson said, "but we're going to give him some reps this week and see where he's at but he's doing extremely well."

Darby will be practicing this week but it seems unlikely he'll play on Monday night at the Linc. Pederson said "stars (would) have to align" for that to happen. 

Still, practicing is a great sign.

Darby was carted off the field in the second quarter of the opener against Washington with a pretty gruesome-looking ankle injury. It looked like his season was over. But the Eagles put a "4-6 week" label on the injury and there's a reason they didn't put him on IR. 

The injury was a dislocated ankle that didn't need surgery. That last time he spoke to reporters, in mid-September, Darby was confident he'd return in 4-6 weeks. 

So what would Darby have to show to play this week? 

"Obviously with the time off, there's a lot of things that are involved, conditioning No. 1," Pederson said. "That's probably the most important thing. How sore does he get during the week? And by no means do I want to rush him back and just say 'hey, we said this is the week, let's go play.' There's a lot of factors that have to be sort of right, stars have to align for him to be ready to go. But this week will be good just to get back and begin that process of practice and getting that conditioning back."

Darby's return to practice isn't the only good news on Thursday. Jordan Hicks (ankle) and Wendell Smallwood (knee) will also practice. 

Hicks left last week's game early with that ankle injury but Pederson said Hicks is "fine " and there "should be no issues."  

Smallwood has missed the last two games with a knee injury he suffered in LA against the Chargers. Pederson said Smallwood will be limited to start the week but they'll ramp it up as the week goes on.