Draft PHILADELPHIA – NFL coaches will often tell you that the most improvement from the typical player will come between Years 1 and 2 of their professional careers after things settle down a bit for them and they become more comfortable both on and off the field after what can be a whirlwind of life changes in a short period of time post-college.
The early returns were very good when it comes to the Eagles’ 2021 draft class, especially at the top when it came to the Alabama duo of DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson.
Here’s a look at where each of Philadelphia’s 2021 draft class stands in advance of training camp beginning in late July:
Round 1 (No. 10 overall) – WR DeVonta Smith – The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner was as advertised as an advanced prospect who hit the ground running in the form of 64 receptions for a franchise rookie record of 916 yards and five touchdowns. With a higher-volume passer, Smith would have easily passed 1K in receiving yardage and concerns over his slim 166-pound frame proved to be specious.
Moving forward the Eagles want to see more attention to detail from Smith when it comes to what is advanced route-running when compared to others in his rookie class. The presence of A.J. Brown opposite Smith should also help the second-year player. Whether you want to call Brown and Smith WRs 1 and 2 or 1A and 1B, it’s going to be very difficult for opposing defenses to double one without allowing the other to excel.
Round 2 (No. 37 overall) – LG Landon Dickerson – Dickerson struggled a bit early last season when pressed into action at right guard after finishing an ACL rehab. When flipped over to the left side, Dickerson started to excel as the season wore on and he got farther away from his injury which happened late in his final season at Alabama. By the second half, Dickerson had turned into a road-grader and teamed with Jordan Mailata to help fuel the Eagles’ top-ranked running game.
Moving forward, the Eagles expect a healthier Dickerson in 2022 and improved pass protection from a player with Pro Bowl potential.
Round 3 (No. 73 overall) – DT Milton Williams – The explosive Williams played in all 18 games (including the playoff loss to Tampa Bay) as a rookie and was in on 40% of the defensive snaps, a number that spiked to 53% against the Bucs. The Louisiana Tech product provided inside/outside versatility on the line and has significant upside.
However, the Eagles have more depth up front after the additions of Haason Reddick on the edge and Jordan Davis on the interior. Barring injury you might see a step back when it comes to playing time for Williams in 2022 but he’s still a big part of the team’s future and potential starter by 2023 if either Fletcher Cox or Javon Hargrave moves on.
Round 4 (No. 123 overall) – CB Zech McPhearson – Before the Eagles signed James Bradberry, there was some talk that the team was prepared to move forward with McPhearson as the starter opposite Darius Slay after a rookie season in which the Texas Tech product via Penn State got his feet wet, playing in 179 defensive snaps.
Of course, if you remember the prior offseason the Eagles acted that way as well right up until signing Steve Nelson two days before training camp. There was no messing around this time with a former Pro Bowl CB like Bradberry available and Howie Roseman struck earlier.
For now, McPhearson is penciled in as the CB3 on the outside but will likely face plenty of competition from Mac McCain, Tay Gowan, and Kary Vincent, Jr. McCain is listed first there because he was opposite McPhearson on the second-team defense in OTAs which was a bit of a surprise.
Round 5 (No. 150 overall) – RB Kenny Gainwell – The Eagles expect big things from Gainwell, especially in the passing game this season. Much like 2021 things are penciled in with a two-main committee with Miles Sanders being the lead back while entering a contract year and Gainwell handling third-down and hurry-up duties.
Some ball-security issues and the efficacy of Boston Scott and Jordan Howard once Sanders was injured in Las Vegas last season put Gainwell on the backburner for a bit. Remember, though, that Gainwell sat out his last season at Memphis due to COVID-19 so he was knocking off some rust off last season but still managed 291 rushing yards and five touchdowns at 4.3 yards-per-clip and added 33 receptions with another TD through the air.
Gainwell is a natural pass-catcher and has a chance to be one of the better outlet receivers in the NFL but is somewhat limited in Philadelphia because Jalen Hurts often defaults to running himself instead of taking the safety valve, often the correct decision by the way.
Round 6 (No. 189 overall) – DT Marlon Tuipulotu – Tuipuloto barely played as a rookie, playing in five games with 55 defensive reps. Billed as a run-stuffer, the fact that the 307-pound Tuipilotu didn’t carve out a bigger role despite the fact Jonathan Gannon was desperately looking for an interior run-stuffer was not a positive sign.
Come September that role will be Jordan Davis’ and don’t be surprised if the 346-pound Noah Elliss also makes a push for the roster. At this point, the odds are probably far less than 50/50 that Tuipulotu earns a 53-man roster spot.
Round 6 (No. 191 overall) – DE Tarron Jackson – The undersized Jackson (6-2, 254) really showed some promise as a late-round pick, playing in all 18 games as part of the DE rotation. His role increased after Brandon Graham’s Achilles’ injury and Jackson topped out playing 47% of the defensive snaps against the Giants on Dec. 26.
Graham is returning in 2022 so Jackson will clearly be behind the veteran as well as Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett when it comes to the DE rotation but he will continue to have a role as one of Jonathan Gannon’s overhang players.
Round 6 (No. 224 overall) – LB JaCoby Stevens – Stevens spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before being elevated for the final two games as he attempted to make the transition from king-sized LSU safety to NFL linebacker. The problem for Stevens is that the Eagles added significant talent at LB in the offseason in both free agency (Kyzir White) and the draft (Nakobe Dean).
Stevens began the offseason working with Dean in the third-team defensive group during OTAs behind T.J. Edwards and White as well as Davion Taylor and Christian Elliss. The numbers look daunting for Stevens right now.
Round 7 (No. 234 overall) – SAM Patrick Johnson – Johnson played all 18 games in his rookie campaign, seeing action in 111 defensive snaps as the backup SAM LB to Genard Avery. The Eagles, of course, made a significant upgrade at the position as a whole in the offseason by signing Haason Reddick. The Eagles also drafted Kyron Johnson, who they project as a SAM LB, in the fifth round.
SAM is a position the Eagles are likely only keeping two due to the versatility of some of the undersized defensive ends and that means it could come down to Johnson vs. Johnson with this year’s version likely having the edge because Kyron is a very good special-teams player.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and NFL for JAKIB Sports. You can reach him at JMcMullen44@gmail.com and on Twitter @JFMcMullen.