More Sports:

May 12, 2021

Projecting first-year roles for each of the Eagles' nine rookie draft picks

Eagles NFL
051121KennyGainwell Joe Rondone/Memphis Commercial Appeal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Kenny Gainwell

In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected nine players, several of whom are likely to get playing time as rookies. Here we'll look at each of the Birds' additions, and project their roles as rookies.

Round 1, WR DeVonta Smith

Given that (a) the Eagles traded up to the tenth overall pick to select Smith, and (b) the roster isn't exactly flush with wide receiver talent, Smith is not only very likely to start as a rookie, but there's also a good chance that he'll immediately become the team's most targeted player in the passing game.

Playing in the NFL's version of Triple-A (the SEC), Smith averaged 9 catches for 143 yards and 1.8 TDs per game for Alabama in 2020 on his way to the Heisman trophy. He already has the best hands of any receiver on the roster, and is probably also the team's best route runner, out of the box. On top of that, he played for two seasons with Jalen Hurts at Bama, and while their on-field, "real game" experience together was limited, there will still be plenty of familiarity there.

The bet here is that barring injury, Smith lead the team in receptions, yards, and TDs. If that sounds like some sort of monumental achievement for a rookie receiver, it shouldn't, since the Eagles' leaders in receiving were as follows in 2020:

• Receptions: Greg Ward, 53
• Yards: Travis Fulgham, 539
• TDs: Greg Ward, 6

Smith is very talented, and he'll have all kinds of opportunities to rack up big numbers, due to target share, and also the likelihood that the Eagles will be trailing in a lot of games.

Round 2, OL Landon Dickerson

In case you're unaware, Dickerson has a long list of injuries in his past, with the most recent one being a torn ACL in his left knee, suffered in December of 2020. 

The Eagles think that Dickerson will play at some point this season. "We're confident it's not going to be a redshirt season," Howie Roseman said. "[With Sidney Jones] we kind of said, ‘Hey, this is a guy, he's not going to play this year and we're just going to get him right.’ That's not what we were thinking about with Landon."

At the end of March, Dickerson was hamming it up in the background of a Mac Jones interview, doing at least four consecutive cartwheels.

I'm not a doctor, but that seems good? I don't know. Anyway, a typical ACL recovery period is around eight or nine months, which would put Dickerson's initial availability somewhere around August or September. As such, there's a chance he'll start training camp on the NFI list. A recent suggestion that Dickerson can push Jason Kelce for the starting job is pure hooey, given that he almost certainly won't be ready to play by the start of training camp in July.

From the Eagles' perspective, there's no reason to rush Dickerson into action. Assuming all the familiar names make it to Week 1 relatively unscathed, there aren't any starting spots on the interior of the Eagles' offensive line immediately available anyway. Isaac Seumalo will start at LG, Jason Kelce at C, and Brandon Brooks at RG, with Nate Herbig ready to fill in should one of those guys go down.

However, as the season progresses, Dickerson is likely to play at some point, seeing as the Eagles had eleventy billion starting OL combinations due to injury last year, not to mention the average age of their projected starting offensive linemen will be 29.4 at the start of the season, with a combined 419 career starts. Even though Dickerson is probably the heir apparent to Kelce at center, the bet here is that he will play guard only in 2021, with Seumalo likely sliding inside if Kelce goes down, but he'll be the first interior guy off the bench, when ready.

Round 3, DT Milton Williams

Rookie DTs always seem to find their way onto the field for the Eagles. 

• 2020: Raequan Williams, UDFA: 98 snaps.
• 2019: Anthony Rush, UDFA, 152 snaps, and Albert Huggins, UDFA, 44 snaps.
• 2018: Bruce Hector, UDFA, 89 snaps.
• 2017: Elijah Qualls, sixth-round pick, 103 snaps.
• 2016: Destiny Vaeao, UDFA, 268 snaps.

As you can see, there are five undrafted guys and a sixth-round pick who got playing time as rookies for the Birds over the last five seasons. Williams is going to play, though obviously it will be a disappointment if he only plays around 100 snaps on the season, like the JAGs noted above.

There's an argument to be made that Marlon Tuipulotu, who the Eagles selected in the sixth round of this draft, is more ready to play immediately. We'll see in training camp. But it's not as if the Eagles' depth chart at DT is exactly stacked anymore, like it seemingly was a season ago. Here's what it looked like prior to the draft in April: 

Eagles DTs 
DT Fletcher Cox T.Y. McGill Raequan Williams 
DT Javon Hargrave Hassan Ridgeway  

Williams should get his opportunities, and he could see his snap totals increase toward the back end of the season. Beating out guys like Ridgeway or McGill for playing time should be a low bar in terms of rookie year expectations.

Round 4, CB Zech McPhearson

It was expected that the Eagles would sign a cornerback in free agency to fill the gaping hole they had at CB2, and then they didn't. Then many wondered if the Eagles would address that hole with a Day 1 or Day 2 pick in the 2021 draft, and then they didn't. They did select McPhearson in the fourth round, but after the draft was over, many once again anticipated that the Eagles would sign a veteran Band-Aid corner, but they still haven't.

If the roster stays as is, McPhearson's stiffest competition for a starting job would be Craig James and Avonte Maddox, and he'd have a legitimate chance of winning the job. I think we're still in "wait and see if they sign someone" mode at the starting corner spot opposite Darius Slay, but McPhearson will very likely play as a rookie, given the Eagles' extreme lack of depth at corner. 

Round 5, RB Kenny Gainwell

The Eagles have a full depth chart at running back, with Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, Kerryon Johnson, and Jordan Howard. Sanders was good as a runner in 2020, but his poor play in the passing game (both as a receiver and in pass protection) opened the door for a skilled back like Gainwell to potentially come in and contribute right away as a third down back. 

Assuming he shows something in training camp, Gainwell will get playing time immediately, as the running back position does not require much acclimation from college to the pros. It should also be noted that former backs coming out of Memphis played immediately for other NFC East teams:

Memphis RBs as rookies Snaps Rushing stats Receiving stats 
Tony Pollard (DAL, 2019) 204 86-455-2 15-107-1 
Antonio Gibson (WFT, 2020) 406 170-795-11 36-247-0 

Gainwell should share third down opportunities with Sanders and Scott, and it will be interesting to see if he can show enough to become to the No. 2 back behind Sanders on non-passing down plays.

Round 6, DT Marlon Tuipulotu

Like Gainwell, Tuipulotu was thought of as a good Day 3 value pick, and as noted above, he has a chance to play a bigger role early in the season than Williams. Tuipulotu may have a higher floor than Williams, though Williams has a much higher ceiling. I think Tuipulotu is part of the rotation Week 1.

Round 6, DE Tarron Jackson

Jackson is a high motor guy with good college production who lacks ideal size and athletic measurables. The top three DEs will be Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Josh Sweat. There will be competition for that fourth DE spot, and while it's easy pencil Jackson into that spot on paper, for now, there probably won't be many snaps to go around as long as Graham, Barnett, and Sweat stay healthy.

Round 6, LB JaCoby Stevens

Stevens was a safety/linebacker tweener in college (more safety than linebacker) that the team is listing at linebacker. His ceiling is probably as a sub-package guy as a rookie, who also contributes on special teams.

Round 7, LB Patrick Johnson

Johnson was an edge rusher in college who the Eagles are moving to linebacker. To be determined exactly what that means in Jonathan Gannon's scheme. Whether they view Johnson as a situational edge rusher or a full-blown off-ball linebacker early in his career, he would probably be best served to develop behind the scenes for a while. Johnson feels like a good bet for the practice squad initially, with a chance to stick if he has a standout training camp.

Some links provided in this content are sponsored by Pickswise, a Sports Betting Partner, independently created by PhillyVoice. 21+ Please gamble responsibly. 

Follow Jimmy & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @JimmyKempski | thePhillyVoice

Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice Sports

Add Jimmy's RSS feed to your feed reader