When the season began, Kelee Ringo, Sydney Brown and Eli Ricks weren’t even playing.
That trio of rookie defensive backs got 43 snaps the first six weeks of the season.
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Then things began to change.
Justin Evans got hurt. Terrell Edmunds got traded. Reed Blankenship and James Bradberry missed time with injuries. Josh Jobe got benched.
And gradually, the secondary began to transform. Brown began playing in Week 7 vs. Miami. Ricks entered the rotation a week later in Washington. Ringo got his chance in the second Dallas game.
That promising trio is among a host of young defensive backs the Eagles have relied heavily on this year, some by choice, some by necessity. They’ve made mistakes. It hasn’t always been pretty. But they’ve added speed, life and juice to a secondary that really needed it.
“When they got their opportunities those guys took their shots and made the most of them,” Reed Blankenship said.
“You can get a young group of guys that come in and see the dollar signs more than the actual nitty-gritty of it. These guys aren't like that. You can definitely tell they love the game, they love everything about it. They love the challenge they face every day and it shows on the field.”
In all, the Eagles have used eight defensive backs 24 or younger this year, 3rd-most in franchise history and 2nd-most in the NFL this year. The one team that’s played more this year is the Bears.
It’s one thing to play a ton of young, raw defensive backs when you’re a rebuilding team. But the Eagles are 11-4 and closing in on their second NFC East title in a row.
And their young secondary has been in the middle of all of it. Some good, some not so good. But for a group of rookies and first-year players, there’s been a lot to like.
Their eight young d-backs have started a combined 21 games and played a combined 1,582 snaps.
“We're all super tight,” Brown said. “We’re all close. We all started the same, without a real role, and we all kind of built our own way up here. It started for all of us on special teams and we’ve just grown from there.”
The Eagles have a number of very experienced defensive backs as well – Bradley Roby, James Bradberry, Darius Slay and Kevin Byard are all in their 30s and have had long successful careers.
But there’s something about experiencing something new together that’s very valuable for all these guys.
“It’s definitely important,” Brown said. “We're all going through the same thing at the same time, and emotionally and mentally, you can kind of bounce ideas off each other and we’re all here to support each other.”
It’s easy to forget Blankenship is only 24 and made his first career start a year ago this month. Ringo, 21, has played so well in his first two starts he’s made benching James Bradberry a legitimate consideration. Brown, 23, has made some mistakes in his first five starts, but he brings an extreme level of fearlessness to the secondary. Ricks, 22, has been getting regular snaps on third down.
Six of these young d-backs - Blankenship, Jobe, Ricks, Mario Goodrich, Mekhi Garner and Tristin McCollum - are undrafted.
All of them got their start on special teams.
And one by one, they got promoted to defense.
“That takes a lot of mental toughness because you don't know when your number is going to be called,” said Blankenship, who played only on special teams until Week 10 last year. “
“You've got to prepare every week, every day like you're the starter and those guys have done that. It shows. When they got shot, they were all ready.”
You never know what the future holds, but it’s possible to visualize a starting secondary in the next year or two that includes Ringo, Brown, Ricks and Blankenship.
“Oh man, it's the greatest experience, honestly, going through this with people that are right next to you going through the same exact type of thing,” Ringo said. “To be able to lean on each other, as well as guys like Reed. He's in his second year himself but he carries himself like a five-year veteran.
“Just learning from all those veterans and seeing how they were able to grow as football players and also as men going through a situation like this, that means everything to us.”
There’s still a lot to work on, still a lot to learn. All these young guys are works in progress with very little experience.
But you can see what young legs and unbridled spirit brings to the defense.
Especially the last two weeks, you saw the potential of these young db's.
“They've got a long career ahead of them,” Blankenship said. “I feel like they're in one of the best rooms to learn from, too, with Slay and James and all of them. They're in a great place and their headspace is a great space. Can't wait to watch them grow.”