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Does Devon Allen experiment really have a chance to work? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
He hasn’t played football in six years. He hasn’t played regularly in eight years. He’s a 27-year-old rookie in a sport where youth reigns supreme.
Devon Allen is a world-class athlete, but can he play football? Is he the ultimate longshot or does he have a realistic shot at making the Eagles’ roster?
These are great questions without clear answers. Allen wasn’t at either OTA practice that was open to the media, so we haven’t even seen him in uniform yet.
But there are reasons to believe he at least has a chance to pull this off.
The biggest concern is how long it’s been since he’s played. How can you play NFL football after not suiting up for six years?
But it’s not unprecedented.
Remember Clinton Hart? He played high school football in Florida but stuck to baseball in college. He graduated from high school in the spring of 1996, so his last season of football was the fall of 1995. He didn’t play another snap until 2001 when he got a shot in Arena League 2. The Eagles signed him as an undrafted free agent the next summer, he made the team and started nine games in place of injured Brian Dawkins. Hart wound up playing eight seasons in the NFL after a five-year layoff.
Remember Michael Lewis? He played high school football in Louisiana but never even went to college. He was 27 and driving a beer truck in New Orleans when he decided to try playing some semipro football despite an eight-year layoff. That led to a workout with the Eagles in 2000 and although he never played a regular-season game here, he did spend nine years in the NFL, had four punt and kick returns for touchdowns and made 1st-team all-pro and the Pro Bowl as a returner in 2002.
Vince Papale went 10 years between high school and the Philadelphia Bell, and we all know how that went. Heck, Jordan Mailata never played football before he got here.
Is it rare? Yeah. Is it possible? Sure.
With any athlete who’s had a long layoff from football the first thing you wonder about is his fitness level, and there probably aren’t very many people on the planet fitter right now than Allen, whose 12.84 performance in the 110-meter high hurdles in New York last month is 3rd-fastest in world history. He ran a 4.35 at Oregon’s pro day this past spring. Only five draft-eligible receivers ran faster at the Combine.
And, as Allen explained recently, track fitness and football fitness are not mutually exclusive.
“I train to be explosive and as strong as possible on the track,” Allen said on John Clark’s Takeoff podcast in June. “And that’s pretty much what I’ll be doing in football.”
Allen played football at Oregon from 2014 through 2016 and caught 54 passes for 919 yards and eight touchdowns in 23 games. He averaged 26.1 yards on eight kick returns.
His only season as a regular was 2014, when he ranked 3rd in the Pac-12 with 16.7 yards per catch and 10th with seven touchdown catches. He would have ranked 3rd in kick return average if he had enough attempts to qualify.
So he was once a legit prospect, although that was a long time ago.
But he also doesn’t have the wear and tear on his body that most players his age have. He’s a world-class athlete in a non-contact sport.
Also, there’s no pressure on Allen to be a star. The Eagles have A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Quez Watkins and Zach Pascal set at wide receiver, so if Allen is here and he’s active, he’d presumably be asked to run the occasional go route and maybe return some kicks.
When you look at the Eagles’ roster, the competition he’ll be facing for a roster spot comes from guys like Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward, John Hightower, Deon Cain and Britain Covey for a fifth and possibly sixth spot on the 53. Not an insurmountable task.
If Allen shows anything at all in camp, there’s also the option of keeping him on the practice squad, which would pay him over $200,000 for the full season. Allen makes more than that from track, but it’s probably enough to keep him interested even if he’s not playing. It's not like there's any track meets in November that he'd be missing. And that would give the Eagles a chance to develop him over the full season and give Allen a chance to knock off the rust running scout team.
The biggest thing Allen has going for him - aside from his speed - is his determination. To become a two-time Olympian you need to be maniacally driven and supremely motivated, and those qualities will serve him well as he tries to carve out a niche in the NFL.
Allen races in the first round of the 110-meter hurdles at the World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday afternoon, with the semis and finals following on Sunday evening.
After that, it’s time to begin life as one of the highest-profile undrafted free agents the NFL has ever seen.