It doesn’t matter if practices are held in a steady rain or under the sweltering south Philadelphia sun, there is one constant at Philadelphia Eagles practices these days.
Long after the practice fields are empty and the last interviews conducted with his teammates following a frenetic Chip Kelly-led practice, Jason Avant can be seen loading footballs into the JUGS passing machine as they are fired at short range in the direction of the likes of Arrelious Benn, Clay Harbor, Kurt Coleman and others before the 30-year old takes his turn catching passes.
As if a two-hour high intensity, music filled session wasn’t enough for Avant and his receiver and secondary teammates, each player’s end of practice routine includes catching 100 passes each from the machine.
Avant has always been a consummate locker room leader during his seven-year career, but he is looked upon by Kelly and his teammates to take that role to the next level this season as a new regime plants its roots at the Novacare Complex.
One player already looking up to Avant is rookie free agent signing Russell Shepard, who looks to make his mark immediately and has latched onto No. 81 like a puppy during the offseason program and OTAs.
“That was the first piece of advice that we got talking to Harold (Carmichael, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver and the team’s player programs director),” Shepard last week. “He said, ‘Find Jason and watch what he does and do everything he does.’ That’s what I’m doing.”
To Avant’s credit, he has taken on a mentor role not only towards Shepard but overall on this team, even taking snaps as a defensive back in practice earlier this month.
“I’m willing to help anyone that’s willing to work,” Avant explained of his relationship with Shepard. “He came to me and asked me, ‘What I can do to get better? What can I do to give me the best opportunity to make the team? If any guy wants that, you want to give him the best opportunity, so I just do what I normally do – catch passes, talk to him about life, talk to him about plays, talk to him about what to do and what not to do in order to be successful, eliminate distractions, those types of things.”
Avant is one of the surer-handed players on the roster, but as Kelly takes over in his first NFL season, he will likely have little loyalty to players held over from Reid’s tenure. That means for the first time in his career, Avant must prove himself worthy of a roster spot this season, as one only six players over the age of 30 currently on the roster and one of the hardest working and looked-up to players in the Eagles locker room.
Coming off a season in which the Michigan product was held out of the end zone in 2012 while notching 53 catches for 648 yards, it may take more than just leadership to assure him a roster spot.
One thing is certain though: Avant understands the situation and even while battling for his own roster spot, and knows the mentality it takes not only for himself to succeed, but what his teammates must adopt moving forward.