To Kamu Grugier-Hill, winning the Eagles' starting weakside linebacker job in his third NFL season would represent a sort of natural progression.
"First year, played special teams. Second year, was a really good special-teamer. This year, I want to move it on to defense. Every year I want to grow," Grugier-Hill said Friday.
Grugier-Hill's quest to replace Mychal Kendricks as an Eagles starter is a familiar one to special teams stars leaguewide. Nobody wants to be "just" a special teams guy. There's a limited upside to that. Just ask Bryan Braman, who did it well for six years in Houston and Philadelphia, but after being released by the Saints last September, sat until Dec. 12 when the Eagles brought him back to the role he had played here the previous three years.
Braman got a Super Bowl ring out of it, but now he is again without a team. Braman also is listed as a linebacker, but at age 31, he has never proven himself to be a solid asset at that position.
Grugier-Hill acknowledges that "I kind of put myself in that situation," of being known for special teams, after leading the Eagles with 19 special teams tackles in 2017. But at 24, he feels he is still young enough to prove he can do more.
Chris Maragos, still rehabbing a serious knee injury suffered last October, knows Grugier-Hill's fight very well. This is Maragos' eighth NFL season, at 31. He's a safety, but only once in his career – 2015 with the Eagles – has Maragos ever played as many as 10 percent of his team's defensive snaps. That year, as the Chip Kelly era crumbled, Maragos got up to 25 percent.
Maragos noted that Grugier-Hill was a soccer player until his final two years of high school in Hawaii, then was a hybrid safety-linebacker at Eastern Illinois. He is still defining what he can be. It's too early to typecast him.
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"You look at a guy like Kamu, he's real raw, and he has a lot of things he needs to develop. I think he's in that zone, man, to really make a run," Maragos said. "He's got tremendous ability … He made great strides from Year 1 to Year 2."
Grugier-Hill said he had never left Hawaii until he got a scholarship offer from Eastern Illinois, on the strength of the recommendation of a high school teammate who'd been recruited by the Panthers.
"From the beach to the cornfields," he said.
Grugier-Hill was a sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2016, based on the startling 4.45-second 40 he ran at his school's pro day. New England cut him just before the season, hoping to develop him on the practice squad, but the Eagles claimed him, and activated him for a dozen games, as a special-teamer. Grugier-Hill played just one defensive snap all season.
Obviously, beating the team that drafted and cut him made Super Bowl LII that much sweeter. Along the way, Grugier-Hill blocked a punt against the Giants and kicked off four times at Dallas, after Jake Elliott suffered a concussion. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate, but had other things to do the weekend before the Super Bowl.
"Anyone who gets released is going to be upset. I wouldn't have it any other way now; I'd rather be here, for sure," Grugier-Hill said.
Grugier-Hill played 85 defensive snaps last season, but to truly be taken seriously as a linebacker, he had to add muscle. He said he played last season at 6-2, 215. He said he reported this spring at 230 and has been able to keep the weight on.
There was a time not too long ago when even 230 would have been a tad light for an Eagles linebacker, but now that tight ends have become pretty much just really tall wideouts, that day has passed.
"I think the day of 250, 265-pound linebackers is definitely dead. (But) you still need to be able to be physical in the run game," Grugier-Hill said. "It's a lot easier when you're a little heavier."
Strongside starter Nigel Bradham was asked what Grugier-Hill brings to the group.
"He brings a lot – athleticism, speed, a combination of everything. His speed is incredible," Bradham said. "There's a lot of chemistry with me, him and Jordan [Hicks], making things smoother.
"We got him linebacker-ready now. He used to be a DB. We got him converted over. He had to add that weight. He's in the box, he's taking on blocks, he's using his hands. He can officially call himself a linebacker."
The Eagles signed Corey Nelson from Denver in free agency, and the assumption was that he might replace Kendricks. Nate Gerry, a former safety like Grugier-Hill, seems to be making solid strides in his second Eagles camp. Grugier-Hill has a lot of work to do to nail down the spot.
"Everybody's fighting for that spot. There's going to be a lot of competition at that spot," Hicks said. "Obviously, he's doing well, but a lot of people are doing well."
"He's obviously a tremendous four-core special teams guy for us," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "That role is going to stay the same for him. He's very valuable there. His weight has gone up this offseason, this training camp. He's a guy that we can kind of plug and play in that weakside linebacker position. He's done an outstanding job there right now.