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June 19, 2021

Eagles rookie NFL player comparisons: The full series

Eagles NFL
060921DeVontaSmith Matt Slocum/Eagles pool photo

Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith during a team practice in the summer of 2021.

Over the last couple of weeks, we compared each of the Philadelphia Eagles' rookie draft picks to current or former NFL players. In case you missed any of them, here's the full series in its entirety.

WR DeVonta Smith

The most obvious and commonly comped player to Smith has been Marvin Harrison, who you should all be aware of, regardless of age. Harrison played for the Colts from 1996 to 2008, twice leading the NFL in receptions and yards, and once in TDs. Over a Hall of Fame career, Harrison was a high-volume receiver who racked up 1,102 catches (fifth all-time), 14,580 yards (ninth all-time), and 128 TDs (fifth all-time).

Harrison stood at a hair under 6'0, and weighed in at 181 pounds at the NFL Combine in 1996, and played his entire career as an undersized receiver who won by gaining copious amounts of separation though outstanding route running, rarely ever dropping passes, and threatening the defense at all three levels. 

But beyond that, he was also probably the most consistent of the star receivers of his era, as he had at least 80 catches and 1,100 receiving yards in eight consecutive seasons, which included a four-year stretch in which he had at least 100 catches and 1,400 receiving yards, playing in a loaded offense. Similarly, Smith racked up huge numbers in his final two years at Alabama in a loaded offense, outproducing first round picks in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Jaylen Waddle, as well as a possible future first round pick in John Metchie. 

And then even stylistically, Smith's on-field demeanor mirrors Harrison's. After touchdowns, like Barry Sanders, Harrison was always a "hand the ball to the official" guy. Everything about this highlight reel from Harrison's 2006 season reminds me of highlight reels I've watched of Smith, most notably that he wasn't a 4.3 guy, but he got open, was a weapon after the catch, and just knew how to play the position.

As you'll see in this crazy long highlight reel of Smith, stylistically, they're just so similar.

It's just such a good comp, but since it feels kind of boring to just recycle Harrison's name again, I'll throw out two more comps.

Isaac Bruce, Rams and 49ers: Bruce is another undersized Hall of Famer who was a rare good player on some crappy Rams teams for the first half decade of his career, before Kurt Warner and "The Greatest Show on Turf" happened.

Like Harrison, Bruce was an under-sized receiver for the duration of his career, and he had an even slighter build than Harrison when he measured in at a hair under 6'0 and 173 pounds at the 1994 Combine. Smith infamously weighed in at 166 pounds at his pre-draft medical check.

Bruce was a little bit more a deep threat-oriented player, as he averaged over 15 yards per catch for the bulk of his career, while Harrison was more of a high-volume guy. Still, Bruce could win at all three levels of the defense, getting separation, making highlight reel catches, etc.

Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers, Broncos, Niners, Saints: And then if we're going to set the bar a little lower than a couple of Hall of Famers, a current player who's game reminds me of Smith's is Sanders, who has a similar slight build (5'11, 186 at the 2010 Combine), but who played bigger than his actual size, and was an inside-outside receiver who produced because of his excellent route running and sticky hands.

Obviously, these are some lofty comparisons, but I think they're fair, as long as Smith is able to prove that he can be durable over the course of his career.

iOL Landon Dickerson

Dickerson is an abnormality in two ways:

  1. He doesn't have any comparisons that I could think of with the sheer number of serious injuries he suffered during his college career. (I'll note here that I didn't factor injuries in at all in terms of finding a comp.)
  2. 6'6, 333-pound centers aren't exactly super common.

On the size front, a look at Dickerson's spider chart at the center position: 

As you can see, he's at least in the 90th percentile in height (96th), weight (98th), wingspan (90th), and hand size (91st). He is a monster.

One of the biggest starting centers in the NFL is Ryan Jensen of the Buccaneers, who is two inches shorter than Dickerson at 6'4, and his lighted weight is 13 pounds lighter, at 320. Like Dickerson, Jensen has some positional versatility, and it's maybe notable that the Ravens drafted Jensen in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, when Andy Weidl was a part of Baltimore's scouting department.

If you watched NFL playoff football this past season, Jensen was pretty hard to miss. He was the guy with the long red hair who kept getting into fights with opposing defenders. As you can see in the following highlight reel (from his days in Baltimore), Jensen is big, deceptively athletic, and very nasty.

Dickerson's play style and intensity is reminiscent of Jensen's. The following is a great video breakdown of Dickerson's game from my friend Fran Duffy. I can't recall Fran laughing very often during these breakdowns, but he does several times here, as Dickerson is able to put defenders on the ground. This is probably worth watching in full:

"It's not going to end well for this defensive end, No. 29." Lol.

Anyway, the similarities in terms of play style, and ability to execute blocks in the run game are there between Jensen and Dickerson. However, Dickerson will likely be a better pass protector out of the box than Jensen was in 2020. ProFootballFocus had Jensen down for four sacks allowed, and when I watched all of Tom Brady's sacks in 2020 (there were only 21 of them), I would agree that four were on Jensen, a very high number for a center, especially when you're playing in front of a quarterback who knows how to avoid sacks like Brady.

According to his bio on Alabama's website, Dickerson did not allow any sacks (727 total snaps) in 2020, and he only allowed one sack and four QB hurries in 2019.

If Dickerson can stay healthy — and certainly, that is a big "if" — Jensen is his floor.

DT Milton Williams

To begin, after Williams was drafted — once we got past the dissension in the Eagles' war room after the pick, anyway — the most obvious takeaway from Williams' draft profile was his incredible athletic testing measurables from his pro day workouts.

As you can see, among DTs, Williams was in the 99th percentile in the 40 yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, and 3-cone drill. He was also at least in the 93rd percentile in the 10 yard split, 20 yard split, and the 20 yard shuttle. Oh, and he's strong, too, as he put up 34 bench reps at 225 pounds. 

Compare him with Miles Sanders, who also tested well as a running back, and here's what you get:

Athletic measurable Milton Williams Miles Sanders 
 Vertical jump38 1/2" 36" 
Broad jump 121" 124" 
3-cone drill 6.96 6.89 
20 yard shuttle 4.33 4.19 

The point we're going a long way to make here is that Williams is an elite athlete.

Williams started his career at Louisiana Tech at DE, before moving inside for his junior season. In a small sample size (10 games) at DT, playing at an undersized weight somewhere in the 260-270 range, he had 45 tackles (10 for loss) and 4.5 sacks. He had his share of very impressive reps in 2020: 

Watching that explosiveness, I was reminded of another explosive, undersized DT from a non-Power Five conference, Ed Oliver. To be clear, Oliver was a far superior prospect coming out of college (I mean, he got drafted ninth overall), and was much more productive at Houston than Williams was a La Tech.

 PlayerTackles TFL Sacks FF 
Ed Oliver, Houston (32 games, 2016-18) 192 53 13.5 
Milton Williams (25 games, 2018-20)108 19 10.5 

From a measurables perspective, they are very similar:

 MeasurableMilton Williams Ed Oliver 
 Height6'3 6'2 
 Weight284 287 
 Wingspan78 1/2" 77 3/8" 
 Arm length31 1/2" 31 3/4" 
 Hand size9 3/4" 9 1/4" 
 Vertical jump38 1/2" 36" 
 Broad jump121" 120" 
 Bench press34 reps 32 reps 

And then from a play style perspective, like Williams, Oliver played at a very low weight (lower than his listed college weight, likely at under 280 pounds), and struggled at times against the run, but was obviously an explosive force on the interior against college guards and centers who could not handle his quickness.

Compare highlights of both players, and they really look a lot alike. The difference was that Oliver made plays with significantly more frequency throughout his college career, so while the Bills drafted him on consistently impressive results, the Eagles drafted a late bloomer in Williams on his potentially high ceiling.

CB Zech McPhearson

McPhearson originally enrolled at Penn State, didn't play much there, and transferred to Texas Tech, where he was a two-year starter. In 2020, he had a productive season in which he showed good ball skills, collecting 53 tackles, 4 INTs (including a pick six), and 6 pass breakups.

At 5'11, 191 pounds, McPhearson is slightly undersized, but has the ability to play outside or in the slot. He has very good athleticism overall, but did not post an ideal 40 time, at 4.50.

McPhearson also showed that he can be a positive contributor on special teams, as he had 2 blocked PATs in his college career, as well as long blocked FG return for a TD.

A player who caught my eye during the Eagles' 2020 season was Cincinnati Bengals CB Darius Phillips. He is similar in many ways to McPhearson:

  1. Undersized at 5'10, 193.
  2. Inside-outside versatility, though you'd prefer not to play him outside.
  3. Good athleticism overall, but lacking a good 40 time (Phillips ran a 4.54).
  4. Both players were good college special teamers. Phillips was the MAC Special Teams Player of the Year twice, though he was recognized for his return ability, while McPhearson made special teams plays in other ways.
  5. Phillips has good ball skills. In limited action, he has 5 INTs in the pros, and he had 12 INTs his last three seasons in college.
  6. Both players are sort of "hang on, drag down" tacklers in run support.

Phillips was the 18th highest-graded CB in the NFL last season by PFF. Of course, take that with a grain of salt, seeing as they had Marcus Epps sandwiched in between Harrison Smith and Budda Baker in their safety rankings. But it's noteworthy nevertheless, I guess.

Phillips was forced into action on a bad Bengals team early in his career, and he has held up, while showing good promise. McPhearson will very likely play early on as a rookie as well, out of sheer necessity on a team that lacks a clear starting CB2, as well as adequate depth.

RB Kenny Gainwell

Leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, Gainwell was one of my favorite prospects to watch. He opted out of the 2020 season, after he lost four family members to COVID, but he was extremely productive in 2019, when he rushed 231 times for 1459 yards (6.1 yards per carry), and 13 TDs, while also adding 51 receptions for 610 yards and 3 TDs through the air.

You've likely all seen his highlight reels, but in case you haven't, here you go: 

As a player, Gainwell has some running back / slot receiver versatility, much like a number of other players coming out of Memphis in recent years, like Tony Pollard (Cowboys) and Antonio Gibson (WASTEAM). But the player he most reminds me of is Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler.

First, their measurables:

Measurable Kenny Gainwell Austin Ekeler 
Height 5'8 3/8" 5'8 5/8" 
Weight 201 198 
40 time 4.47 4.48 
Vertical jump 35" 40 1/2" 
 Broad jump121" 128" 
 Short shuttle4.46 4.28 
 3-cone7.26 6.92 

Like Gainwell, Ekeler was an extremely productive player in college (at tiny Western Colorado), both as a runner and as a receiver. He had 5,857(!) career rushing yards, and added 1,215 yards as a receiver. In hindsight, I'm not quite sure how Ekeler didn't get drafted.

In the NFL, Ekeler has been highly productive as a passing down back. In his four seasons, he has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 401 carries, and he has 212 career catches for 2079 yards and 16 TDs. A look at his highlights: 

It's reasonable to assume that the Eagles will use Gainwell similarly to the way the Chargers have used Ekeler, especially since offensive coordinator Shane Steichen coached Ekeler for four years in San Diego and L.A.

DT Marlon Tuipulotu

After selecting DT Milton Williams in the third round, the Eagles continued to add to their DT depth with their selection of Tuipulotu, a shorter 6'2, 317-pound nose tackle type. Over the last three seasons, in 29 games, Tuipulotu had 102 tackles, 15 for loss, and 8.5 sacks. A highlight reel: 

Tuipulotu is a good run defender, and his value will likely be on early downs. As a pass rusher, even if he's not getting to the quarterback, he could be effective pushing the pocket and giving the edge rushers more opportunities to get home because the passer can't step up into the pocket. He might even play more early on in his career than Williams, the third-rounder.

Dane Brugler of The Athletic had Tuipulotu as his 69th overall prospect. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network had him at 126th. ProFootballFocus had him at 130th. At pick No. 189, Tuipulotu was a nice late-round value.

Tuipulotu reminds me of Kelly Gregg, another sixth-rounder who played in the NFL for 11 years, mostly with the Ravens, racking up 574 tackles, and also contributing 20.5 sacks (about 2 per season). You want to see a Kelly Gregg highlight reel from his time in college at Oklahoma? Of course you do!

As you can see from each players' highlight reels, they were both very good at shedding blocks, which can be partly attributed to their wrestling backgrounds. In high school, Gregg was a three-time state wresting champion (Oklahoma 1993-1995), while Tuipulotu was a high school state wrestling champion as well (Oregon, 2016).

"The only reason I did wrestling back in high school was to help me become a better football player," Tuipulotu explained. "Just understanding the body and how to maneuver it in certain positions to your advantage, and then it helps with having violent hands, and good feet, being able to stay balanced in uncomfortable situations."

From a measurables standpoint, Tuipulotu and Gregg are very similar there as well. Gregg weighed in at 301 pounds at the Combine, but he played in the NFL at around 320, similar to Tuipulotu at 317. Their athletic measurables:

 Athletic measurablesMarlon Tuipulotu Kelly Gregg 
 40 yard dash5.38 5.34 
 10 yard split1.79 1.81 
 20 yard split3.00 3.03 
 Vertical jump30 1/2"  24"
 Broad jump103"  96"
 3-cone7.65 7.72 
 20 yard shuttle4.65 4.45 
 Bench press29 reps 26 reps 

As you can see, Tuipulotu and Gregg aren't going to beat many other football players in a sprint, but their power and wrestling backgrounds make/made them effective at the line of scrimmage.

DE Tarron Jackson

Jackson is a short, thick pass rusher who had good production (18 sacks, 26.5 TFL) his last two seasons (23 games) at Coastal Carolina. His highlight reel:

Jackson is known as a power rusher with hand fighting ability, and (Andy Reid alert!) a high motor, which are sort of a necessary traits given his lack of height/length and ideal athletic measurables, shown here:

Jackson displayed inside-outside versatility in college, and as such, it came as a surprise that he only weighed in at 254 pounds at the Combine. The bet here is that the Eagles will try to get him to bulk up to around the 270 range, to put him in a position to contribute as a high-effort rotational guy both inside and outside in the pros. He'll have the opportunity to learn from Brandon Graham early in his career.

A player who might serve as something of a more realistic target profile than Graham, however, is Seahawks defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, who has had an interesting career. He's not a perfect comp, because he entered the league as an undersized, 290-pound DT, who lost weight and became primarily a DE, whereas Jackson is entering the league as a DE, but will have to gain weight to also be able to play inside.

Hyder, who is now listed at 6'2, 270, has carved out a decent career as a backup D-lineman, who has played inside and outside. He had 8 sacks with the Lions in 2016, and 8.5 sacks with the 49ers in 2020, but has otherwise not put up impressive numbers. Like Jackson, Hyder is a high-energy, high-effort player who has had pockets of good production despite not being blessed with good length or athleticism. A look at his 2020 season:

Jackson will bring that same intensity, but ideally he can become a productive, versatile, rotational role player. 

LB JaCoby Stevens

New Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon is a Mike Zimmer disciple, which means that there's a decent bet that Eagles linebackers are going to get more opportunities as blitzers. There's also speculation that Gannon will run a lot of zone coverages, which means that those linebackers better also, you know, be able to play zone coverage.

One of the players that I thought fit that mold during free agency was Raiders LB Nicholas Morrow, a player that Oakland converted from safety after signing him as an undrafted free agent in 2017. In 2020, Morrow allowed just 4.5 yards per target, per He was also a threat as a blitzer, as he collected three sacks and eight pressures on the season.

You can see Morrow's zone coverage and blitzing ability in the highlight reel below. Note that he also has a little pop when he hits:

Stevens reminds me of Morrow. A comparison of their measurables coming out of college:

 MeasurableJaCoby Stevens Nicholas Morrow 
 Height6'1 1/8" 6'0 3/8" 
 Weight212 216 
 Arm length31 3/4" 32" 
 Hand size9 1/4" 9 1/8" 
 40 yard dash4.62 4.52 
 10 yard split1.68 1.66 
 Vertical jump42" 37" 
 Broad jump130" 123" 

At LSU, Stevens was a safety/linebacker hybrid. He was a savvy blitzer (8 sacks the last two seasons), he delivered some big hits, and you can get a little taste of his ability in zone coverage when he played in the box in the highlight reel below from 2019:

I would not have liked Stevens' fit in Jim Schwartz's scheme, however, if he's free to attack and make plays in a Zimmer-like scheme, Stevens' transition to linebacker makes a lot of sense. 

LB Patrick Johnson

At Tulane, Johnson was a high energy pass rusher with some burst who at one point in 2020 led the nation in sacks, and finished in a tie for third with 10. Since 2018, Johnson has 24.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, and 11 batted passes. As you can see here, Johnson won with speed against lesser competition, and effectively countered that speed with speed-to-power rushes.

Johnson's athletic measurables aren't super impressive, but his 3-cone time is certainly notable:

At 6'2, 240, Johnson is simply too small to play as a base down DE in the NFL. The Eagles announced him as a linebacker, and his conversion to the second level will be an interesting one in the Eagles' scheme, as it is expected that linebackers will have more blitzing opportunities under Jonathan Gannon than they did under Jim Schwartz.

There are already plenty of hints that Jonathan Gannon will have an Anthony Barr-like role in the Eagles' defense. Players who fit that role include Ryan Kerrigan, Genard Avery, Joe Ostman, and Johnson.

The player that Johnson reminds me a bit of is Kamalei Correa, a formerly over-drafted second-round pick of the Ravens in 2016, who has since gone on to play for the Titans and Jaguars, and who is currently with the Chiefs. At times during his NFL career, Correa played a similar role to Barr, in that he was often tasked with spying opposing quarterbacks, while also covering running backs and tight ends, in addition to the obvious edge defender duties of rushing the passer and stopping the run. 

Correa has mostly been a role player, however, as he only has 19 career starts in five seasons, and never more than six starts in any season. He has 8.5 career sacks and two forced fumbles. In college (at Boise State), like Johnson, Correa was very productive. Over his final two seasons, he had 19 sacks, 30 TFLs, and five forced fumbles.

Also like Johnson, Correa had underwhelming measurables overall, but did extremely well in the 3-cone.

Measuarable Patrick Johnson Kamalei Correa 
Height 6'2 6'2 5/8" 
Weight 240 243 
Arm length 32" 31 5/8" 
Hand size 10" 9 3/8" 
40 yard dash 4.66 4.69 
10 yard split 1.62 1.62 
Vertical jump 35" 33" 
Broad jump 119" 108" 
3-cone 6.96 6.97 
20 yard shuttle 4.45 4.15 
Bench press 16 reps 21 reps 

The "Barr role" isn't really a glory position. It often requires just doing your job soundly while putting teammates in a better position to make plays. Johnson's best chance of finding a role in this defense, assuming that "Barr role" will exist, is to become an unselfish player who capitalizes when opportunities are there.

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