PHILADELPHIA — Eagles running back Chris Polk literally saw the writing on the wall.
The depth chart at the entrance to the locker room at the NovaCare Complex listed him as one of four players vying for the No. 3 roster spot behind LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles.
To beat out Henry Josey, Matthew Tucker and newcomer Kenjon Barner, however, he thought he needed to play in Thursday’s preseason finale against the New York Jets at Lincoln Financial Field. Polk had missed the first three preseason games and a month’s worth of practices after suffering a slight tear in his left hamstring during the second day of training camp. The injury still has not healed, but he didn’t think he could afford to sit on the bench any longer.
“I’m not 100 percent,” Polk said this week. “But my goal is to try and play anyway. I’m just going to try to play smart, do what I can do, and hope that’s good enough. I’ve sat out way too long and my team needs me. I have to step up.”
Polk’s plan didn’t work out Thursday, however. When the players came out for pregame warmups, Polk wore sweatpants and a jersey with no shoulder pads.
He did not play in the Eagles’ 37-7 win.
As a result, he has to hope that last season’s accomplishments carry enough weight for coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman to keep him around when they trim the roster from 75 to 53 players. NFL teams are required to be at the regular-season limit of 53 players by 4 p.m. Saturday.
Polk was initially considered a shoo-in for a roster spot after the Eagles traded running back Bryce Brown to Buffalo during this year’s NFL draft weekend in May. Last season, Polk’s second with the team, he rushed for 98 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries and caught four passes for 61 yards.
His status changed July 26. The 5-foot-11, 222-pounder was making a cut during practice when he “felt a pop” in the back of his left leg and hobbled toward the trainer’s tent. Sunday’s workout marked the first time he had practiced since the injury.
“It’s been frustrating because I really feel like this is going to be my year,” Polk said. “You never know what the coaches are thinking. They know what I can do, but this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Nothing is guaranteed in this league. I’m here on a lease. I just hope that it’s a long lease.”
The other contenders have been impressive.
Josey, an undrafted rookie from the University of Missouri, has looked fantastic. He led the Eagles in rushing during the preseason with 225 yards on 34 carries (6.6 yards per carry), including a game-high 121 yards on 22 carries Thursday against the Jets.
Tucker, who spent last season on the Eagles’ practice squad, rushed for 125 yards on 24 carries (5.2 yards per carry) and had four rushing touchdowns. Barner, who was just acquired in a trade from Carolina, ran for 53 yards on 12 carries (4.4 average) in wins over the Steelers and Jets.
“This game (against the Jets) will hopefully give me the opportunity to really show what I can do,” Barner said this week. “There’s competition, but that’s good because competition makes you a better player. I’m just gonna go out and play football and not worry about anything else.”
There was competition Thursday night at several other positions, including wide receiver.
Arrelious Benn, Damaris Johnson, Jeff Maehl, Ifeanyi Momah, Will Murphy, Quron Pratt and Brad Smith were all vying for one or two roster spots behind Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff.
Like Polk, Benn hadn’t had a lot of chances to impress until Thursday, when he scored on a 43-yard pass play. He finished the game with two catches for 55 yards. Before the Jets game, he had just one catch for 6 yards and left last Friday’s game with a concussion. He missed all of last season after sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in training camp.
“This is a very important game for me,” Benn said earlier this week. “It feels good just to be able to play football again, but I need all the reps I can get because it’s been a while. I also have to prove I can stay healthy and show what I can do, but I also still have a lot to prove to myself.
“(The Eagles) know I’m someone who is going to bust his butt on every play, who believes in Chip and his system and is going to work hard every day. I love being in this environment here, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. It just comes down to who they like.”
There’s also competition on defense.
On the line, defensive ends Brandon Bair, Vinny Curry and rookie Taylor Hart are trying to win spots in the rotation with Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton.
Emmanuel Acho, Najee Goode, Travis Long and Casey Matthews are among the linebackers fighting for jobs. In the secondary, cornerbacks Roc Carmichael, Curtis Marsh and rookie Jaylen Watkins; and safeties Keelan Johnson, Chris Maragos and rookie Ed Reynolds are competing for backup roles.
There’s even a duel at place-kicker between Alex Henery and Cody Parkey.
“You can’t ever think you’ve made the team,” Bair said this week. “Once you start doing that, that’s when you get in trouble.”
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