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May 18, 2023

Five Eagles breakout candidates in 2023

From second-year defenders Nakobe Dean and Jordan dave to returner Britain Covey, these Eagles could break out in 2023.

Eagles NFL
032123NakobeDean Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Nakobe Dean (17)

Heading into 2023, the Philadelphia Eagles have a strong veteran roster, but they also have a number of young players who are in a position to have breakout seasons. To note, we are not including rookies here, so you won't find guys like Jalen Carter or Nolan Smith below.

1) LB Nakobe Dean

When the Eagles' selected Dean in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, it was widely hailed as a steal. Many (self included) thought that Dean had a chance to start as a rookie in the Eagles' defense. It didn't happen that way, as he had a quiet training camp, while T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White made plays regularly in practice.

Dean is challenged by his lack of ideal size, and he isn't an elite athlete by NFL standards. He'll have to rely on his instincts and intelligence at the NFL level. At some point, if his professional career follows in the same path as his college career, he'll be one of the smartest players on the field, but he didn't have that advantage last summer while trying to learn two positions (MIKE and WILL) simultaneously in a new defensive scheme.

Edwards and White earned starting roles, and mostly stayed healthy in 2022, keeping Dean sidelined. Dean got to play 15 snaps in the regular defense in a December game against the Titans after White got hurt, and he had a promising performance. 

Dean will head into 2023 as the presumptive top player on the Eagles' linebacker totem pole. Whether he is successful or not will depend on his ability to transition mentally from reactionary player to a player who sees the action before it happens. 

2) DT Jordan Davis

Through the first seven games of his rookie season in 2022, Davis' stats (14 tackles, 1 batted pass) weren't super impressive, but he was effective in clogging up running lanes in the middle of the defense. He was averaging 22 snaps per game, almost solely as a nose tackle, when he was carted off with an ankle injury against the Steelers Week 8, landing him on injured reserve. In that Steelers game, the Eagles seemed to expand Davis' role, allowing him to play additional positions, thus getting him on the field with more personnel groups.

With Davis and Marlon Tuipulotu both on injured reserve, the Eagles signed Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh to bolster their interior defensive line depth. Joseph made an immediate impact on the Eagles' run defense and became the No. 1 early down, run-stuffing nose tackle. After returning from injured reserve, Davis saw fewer snaps, and he became something of an afterthought.

While Davis' rookie season may have been disappointing to some, there are reasons to be optimistic about his future outlook. His blend of size, power, and athleticism is extremely rare, and we saw throughout training camp that he can do things that players his size should not be able to do. He is an intelligent young kid who loves to play, and it typically takes some time for defensive tackles to grow as players at the NFL level. It certainly didn't help that he suffered an injury at a time that he was beginning to build some momentum. If the season began today (it doesn't), he would be the starting NT.

3) DT Milton Williams

Williams was a potential breakout candidate in 2022 as a second-year player, but he got off to a slow start. Through the first five games he had 7 tackles and no sacks. During the back half of the season, however, Williams seemed to make an impressive play or two in every game. He finished the season with 36 tackles (9 for loss), 4 sacks, and 2 batted passes on just 395 snaps. There wasn't a single game in 2022 in which Williams played at least half of the Eagles' defensive snaps. By comparison, Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave were each up over 700 snaps apiece.

After the Eagles lost Hargrave in free agency this offseason, it seemed like Williams was poised to become a starter for the first time in his professional career, but after the Eagles selected Jalen Carter with the ninth overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Williams will probably remain a non-starting rotational player. Still, Williams should have more opportunities for playing time in 2023, as Carter is highly unlikely to play as many snaps as a rookie as Hargrave played in 2022.

4) iOL Cam Jurgens

Last year we named Landon Dickerson as a potential breakout candidate, and he earned Pro Bowl recognition in his second season as a pro. Like Dickerson this time a year ago, Jurgens will be a second-year player who the Eagles had selected in the second round of the draft. Unlike Dickerson, Jurgens didn't get much playing time as a rookie. He played just 35 snaps in the regular offense, while Dickerson played 859 as a rookie. Dickerson also had experience playing multiple positions in college at Florida State and Alabama, while Jurgens was solely a center at Nebraska.

In 2023, it is anticipated that Jurgens will be the starting RG, but first he will have to beat out rookie third-round pick Tyler Steen and fourth-year veteran Jack Driscoll for that job. Whoever wins that job will have the advantage of being sandwiched in between the best offensive lineman in the NFL (Lane Johnson) and the best center in the NFL (Jason Kelce).

5) PR Britain Covey

Covey was the team's primary punt returner all season long after he eventually joined the active 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie free agent. Covey's rookie season got off to a bad start, as he had two fumbles and averaged 6.1 yards per punt return in the Eagles' first five games. However, the Eagles stuck with him and over the last 15 games (including the playoffs) Covey played well, averaging 12.3 yards per return with no fumbles. He even had a good showing in the Super Bowl, returning two punts for 30 yards.

To put Covey's 12.3 yards per return over the last 15 games in context, the NFL's leading punt returner (minimum 20 punt returns) was New England's Marcus Jones, who averaged 12.5 yards per return. Covey was quietly very effective, and probably doesn't get proper recognition for his 2022 season because it started so poorly. If he can keep up the level of play that he showed during the back end of the 2022 season, Covey could be one of the top punt returners in the NFL in 2023.

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