Every summer there is always a player or two who seems to rise from obscurity and turn heads during training camp to put themselves in position to make an NFL roster.
This summer, Eagles second-year receiver Rashard Davis intends to become one of those players.
After a decorated career at James Madison University, where he closed out his collegiate career as a National Champion, the AFCA selected him as a FCS First Team All-American and the conference coaches named him Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Special Teams Player of the Year, accolades that garnered him significant buzz among NFL circles. Davis proved his versatility to NFL scouts after he recorded 42 receptions for 530 yards and three touchdowns as a senior and set a JMU record with 426 yards on 15 punt returns, including an FCS-best 4 punt returns for a touchdown.
Davis continued to impress all potential suitors when he ran a blistering 4.47 40-time at his JMU Pro Day. “Leading up to the draft, I had literally almost every team call me and my agent,” he said. “Some teams called more than once. I had high hopes because a lot of teams said if I didn’t get drafted late, then they would pick me up in free agency.”
Despite the buzz he received late in the draft process, the draft came to a close and Davis did not have a team. As disappointing as that was, the former JMU Duke did not have to wait long to hear from an NFL team.
“After the draft, Chicago and the Jets called me to come to tryouts,” he explained. “I really thought I balled out - especially for the Bears - but I just didn’t hear anything after the tryouts. I went back home and trained the whole summer, then after the first preseason game the Eagles called me up for a tryout, and I just went out there and balled out.”
Davis officially became a Philadelphia Eagle on Aug. 13, 2017.
Any undrafted free agent faces a tall task to catch a coach’s eye with limited reps and time. Davis had to do it while learning the playbook three weeks into camp. “I didn’t really have to get in shape because I was staying optimistic the whole summer training myself, just waiting for that call,” he said. “I didn’t really want to play catch up when a call came around, but the fact I had to go in super fast and learn the playbook was kind of hard.”
Davis had one advantage. During his time at James Madison, Davis had three different head coaches, which allowed him to retain information quicker than most since he had to switch over playbooks nearly every season.
During the 2017 NFL preseason, Davis reviewed plays after practice with Eagles’ then-receivers coach and current offensive coordinator Mike Groh, learning the plays that the third stringers ran. With three preseason games left to make an impression, Davis did everything to make sure he was ready when his number was called.
Davis played in the final three preseason games. The Eagles mainly looked at him as a punt returner.
“I played the last three preseason games at punt returner, then the last game I did a little bit of wide receiver,” he described. “It wasn’t as nerve-racking as I thought. Honestly that was the first NFL game I had ever been to. It honestly wasn’t too nerve-racking, its football at the end of the day.”
While Davis posted modest preseason numbers despite limited opportunities, he caught the attention of the coaching staff after he proved himself dynamic with the ball in his hands, demonstrated the innate ability to retain information quickly, and displayed an unparalleled work ethic. The front office remained enamored that he hones a skill that is hard to teach: punt returner.
“When they brought me in for final cuts, they were saying I’m a dynamic player with the ball in my hands, so just stay in shape and keep working out, because I could be called back at any moment,” he said. “After a couple of games into the regular season, they called me back to bring me up on the practice squad.”
After the Eagles waived him on Sept. 1, the team signed Davis to the practice squad on Oct. 4. He did not stay long on the practice squad. Numerous injuries plagued the Eagles defensive line, which led the team to sign defensive end Alex McCalister to the practice squad to add an extra body. Davis became the casualty.
As Rashard Davis learned, life on the practice squad is essentially NFL limbo since no one’s spot is etched in stone. Davis returned to the Eagles on Oct. 19, where he remained for the majority of the season before the team released him once again on Dec. 14. Davis came back to the Eagles for good on Dec. 27.
As a member of the practice squad, Davis embraced his role of getting the starting defense ready for the opposing offense each week, rotating with fellow scout team receivers Greg Ward and Bryce Treggs. Davis grew exponentially as a player throughout the season, concentrating on the little things.
“My 12th-grade year and college – I don’t know what it was – but I became uncomfortable catching the ball with my hands,” he mentioned “When I came up on the practice squad last year I made an emphasis on catching everything with my hands.”
Davis, grateful to have a spot on a team that had an opportunity to be part of something special, immediately began to see the parallels of his 2017 National Championship team.
“My senior year we won the National Championship, and the family atmosphere that was in the locker room at JMU, I could see the same in the locker room here,” he described. “The whole season I could tell that something was special.”
It turns out Davis was onto something, as the Philadelphia Eagles headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years after they defeated the Falcons and Vikings in successive rounds. Davis suddenly found himself in the unique position of having the opportunity to be a part of the first Eagles team to win the Super Bowl – as a rookie.
The fact that the Super Bowl took place in Minnesota worked out perfectly for the Eagles. Dealing with frigid temperatures and few distractions to speak of, the team used their time away from the media frenzy to spend time with one another. Their unprecedented sense of togetherness was what made the 2017 Eagles special. The various position groups spent most of the week walking around Mall of America and bonding.
“We went to the escape room and the mirror maze a couple times,” said Davis. “We have the young guys – me, Greg, Treggs is pretty young, Gibby. Then you have the older guys like Alshon, Torrey – Nelson is getting up there. It was just a good group of guys that cared for each other as a unit and just bonded.”
Davis played a pivotal role despite not suiting up for Super Bowl LII. Remaining diligent in his film study as he had all season, Davis had the task o
f emulating the Patriot wide receivers in practice, giving the defense a feel for what they would see during the game.
“I was switching between Amendola and sometimes Brandin Cooks, but not too much,” Davis explained. “They’re speedy guys; me and Greg [Ward] were switching between the two.”
Davis played his role well, and he watched from the sideline as the Eagles walked off the field as Super Bowl Champions for the first time in franchise history.
The Eagles promptly resigned Davis on Feb. 7, viewing him as a potential piece for the future. After an unforgettable rookie season, Davis has his eyes set on becoming one of the 53 players on the active roster this September. Determined to get a head start, Davis opted to say in Philadelphia for the offseason, where he could train with teammates and be around the facility.
“I was at the facility basically the whole time working with our strength coaches so I could show my face and get connected with our staff here,” he said.
Part of taking that next step in year 2 is forming a connection with star quarterback Carson Wentz.
“While I was training here, Carson was training here too, and he asked me if I wanted to go to Haiti,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do a trip like that out of the country, where you’re going to help people. When he approached me with the idea, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.”
Davis and Wentz, along with fellow teammates Nate Sudfeld and Zach Ertz, traveled to the island where they worked on a brand-new sports facility and interacted with the community. The complex will reportedly include 10 indoor soccer fields, 2 indoor basketball courts, 6 outdoor basketball courts, and a community park with WiFi, among other amenities. Davis feels grateful for the opportunity, saying, “You got to see how much love they have for the community. Everybody there was welcoming. They take care of the stuff they have. When you’re here, we have a lot of resources and people don’t take advantage of it. Over there, where there’s nothing, they’ll make something out of it.''
We’ve had over 80 donations into the @ao1foundation for the @mohhaiti Sports Complex fundraiser in the first day! Thanks so much for all the support thus far. Let’s see if we can get over 200 by tomorrow! pic.twitter.com/uMciLjMymS— Carson Wentz (@cj_wentz) May 1, 2018
Following his eye-opening trip to Haiti, Davis returned to Philadelphia, ready to work towards his bid for a roster spot in the fall. When asked what his mindset was going into his second NFL training camp, Davis said, “Learn everything from the ground up, work on my craft, and work on how I can maximize my potential in the offense."
After not selecting a wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft or signing a wide receiver after the draft, the Eagles are showing confidence in their young receiving quartet: Rashard Davis, Shelton Gibson, Greg Ward, and Bryce Treggs. In fact, at the annual NFL Coaches breakfast in March, Davis received a ringing endorsement from his head coach:
When asked if anyone could be this year’s Nelson Agholor (in terms of stepping up), Doug Pederson mentions Sidney Jones and Mack Hollins. Also says one of Greg Ward, Rashard Davis, Bryce Treggs, Shelton Gibson will emerge. #Eagles— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) March 27, 2018
Davis’ game is predicated on speed. Besides entering his second year in coach Doug Pederson’s system, his elusiveness, combined with his ability to get in and out of his routes, make people miss in open space, and his feel in the return game, make him the ideal candidate to rise from obscurity this summer.
Truly learning from the ground up, Davis is one of a handful of non-rookies participating in Rookie Minicamp this weekend, utilizing every precious opportunity to become one of those players.