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May 06, 2024

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

How many (eventual) starters did the Eagles draft last month?

Eagles NFL
050624CooperDeJean Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports

Cooper DeJean's role in the Eagles' defense will be interesting to monitor throughout his rookie season.

In the 2024 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected nine players, some 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: CB Quinyon Mitchell

Darius Slay will start at one of the outside cornerback spots. Mitchell will have to beat out guys like Isaiah Rodgers, Kelee Ringo, and Cooper DeJean for the other. The Eagles also still employ James Bradberry, who is likely to eventually be released. 

There were four cornerbacks selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. They were Devon Witherspoon (Seahawks), Emmanuel Forbes (Commanders), Christian Gonzalez (Patriots), and Deonte Banks (Giants). All four started Week 1. If Mitchell is a not a starter Week 1, that would probably feel like a disappointment.

Round 2: DB Cooper DeJean

DeJean's role is the most interesting among all the Eagles' rookie draft picks. He is an extremely versatile player who played outside corner, slot corner, safety, and even some linebacker at Iowa. He was also one of the best punt returners in college football, and he was an outstanding gunner on Iowa's punt coverage teams. He will play as a rookie, and is almost certain to be a core special teamer. The question is where he will play in the regular defense, and how much.

The Eagles' defensive backfield depth chart probably looks like something like this, DeJean and Bradberry excluded:

CB Darius Slay Isaiah Rodgers
Josh Jobe
Reed Blankenship Sydney Brown
Mekhi Garner 
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson Tristin McCollum Andre' Sam
CB Quinyon Mitchell Kelee Ringo 
Eli Ricks
SCB Avonte Maddox Zech McPhearson
Tyler Hall
Mario Goodrich 

To begin, the Eagles drafted DeJean because they like what he did throughout his college career at cornerback, both on the outside and in the slot. However, the starting outside corner spots are occupied by Slay (duh) and Mitchell (barring an aforementioned disappointment). DeJean very likely won't start on the outside, barring injury.

At safety, the Eagles have the following trio:

  1. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who can also play slot corner at a high level.
  2. Reed Blankenship, who was the team's No. 1 safety in 2023, and had an up-and-down season.
  3. Sydney Brown, who played out of position at times in the slot last season, but showed flashes of ability before an ACL tear in January ended his season.

Gardner-Johnson wants to play safety. Yes, he can play in the slot too, but he will almost certainly be starting at safety because he is very clearly the best safety on the team. There's no need to overthink that. 

Some fans soured on Blankenship down the stretch last season, when he (and literally everyone else on defense) had some rough moments. But the team still likes him. He is highly likely to start at the other safety spot. 

And then there's Brown, who is a wildcard, because his availability for the start of the season is in question. But certainly, he is in the team's long-term plans. 

It feels unlikely that DeJean will start at safety, barring injury.

And finally, there's the slot, where the team signed Avonte Maddox to a one-year deal after cutting him earlier in the offseason. Maddox is a good player when healthy, but he has had serious durability issues. Even if Maddox plays well in camp, I imagine the Eagles will give DeJean a chance to win that starting job, knowing that Maddox is likely to eventually miss time.

The slot is DeJean's best chance of cracking the starting lineup. In training camp, I imagine the Eagles will get DeJean work all over the secondary, perhaps even occasionally at safety in anticipation of needing players for depth, even though... again... they drafted him because they like him as a corner.

It will also be interesting to see what the Eagles do at the returner spots, especially with the new kick return rules. They now have a whole slew of players with returning chops, like DeJean, Britain Covey, Will Shipley, Ainias Smith, and Isaiah Rodgers. 

Round 3: EDGE Jalyx Hunt

The Eagles have plenty of short-term depth on the edges in Bryce Huff, Josh Sweat, Nolan Smith, Brandon Graham, and Zack Baun. Hunt is developmental prospect and likely won't get much playing time as a rookie. The Eagles will hope that they can get the most out of his raw athletic ability long-term. 

In the short-term, Hunt could potentially carve out a role as a special teams regular, given his size and athleticism, but that is not a given. There's a chance that he could be a healthy scratch on gamedays early in his career.

Round 4: RB Will Shipley

With Kenny Gainwell in the final year of his rookie deal in 2024, Shipley makes sense as an eventual RB2 behind Saquon Barkley if he shows promise as a rookie. In 2024, he'll probably replace Boston Scott as the RB3, and possibly also as the team's kick returner, though again, he'll have competition.

Round 5: WR Ainias Smith

A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith are star receivers, and then the Eagles have a slew of players they added this offseason who will be competing for playing time and roster spots otherwise.

  1. DeVante Parker (free agency)
  2. Parris Campbell (free agency)
  3. Ainias Smith (Round 5)
  4. Johnny Wilson (Round 6)

There's also Britain Covey, who will be returning for his third season.

Ainias Smith and Covey best fit the profile of the classic slot receiver, in that they're both smaller, shifty guys. However, Brown and DeVonta Smith are both weapons out of the slot in addition to the outside, so it's not imperative that the WR3 fits the classic slot receiver profile. When the Eagles signed a big receiver in Julio Jones last season, for example, he quickly became the WR3, even if that didn't exactly pan out.

Smith will have a chance to contribute immediately with an impressive training camp and preseason, but I imagine the best receiver will play regardless of body type or play style.

And, as noted above, Smith will be in the mix for return duties.

Round 5: LB Jeremiah Trotter, Jr.

Nakobe Dean and Devin White are the starters. Trotter will probably be either the LB3 or LB4 heading into training camp, along with Oren Burks. I'd probably have it Burks, then Trotter, for now, though Trotter will be given every opportunity to prove that he deserves a role. Dean has not been able to stay healthy in his two NFL seasons, and Trotter has a similar profile, in that both he and Dean are small linebackers with good instincts who don't possess elite athleticism, so he does make sense as a direct fill in should Dean go down again.

Round 5: OG Trevor Keegan

Keegan spent his entire college career at LG, but he played all three interior line spots in high school and should be able to play both guard spots in the pros. Keegan was part of a stellar offensive line that carried Michigan to a National Championship. He is a rugged, physical guard whose calling card is as a mauler in the run game. 

Tyler Steen was an offensive tackle in college who trained at guard last season. He is currently the favorite to start at RG for the Eagles in 2024, but he'll have competition from Keegan and free agent acquisition Matt Hennessy. 

Round 6: WR Johnny Wilson

Wilson is a fascinating oddity of a receiver at 6'6, 231. There was some thought that he could move to tight end because of his size, but the Eagles announced him as a wide receiver, so that's where he'll begin his pro career. It should also be noted that a move to tight end isn't all that simple, and that asking a rookie wide receiver to suddenly try to block professional defensive ends isn't all that realistic.

Wilson can play outside, but FSU also used him at times as a big slot. He can make plays down the field with his size (20.9 YPC in 2022), but he's also a red zone target. He is a low-volume, big play receiver who would allow A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert to dominate targets, but would also be a unique player opposing defenses cannot ignore and would have to account for. If he can show early on that he is worth putting on the field, he would be an intriguing player. It's probably more likely that he'll be inactive on gameday, since he doesn't offer as much special teams upside as many of the Eagles' younger players.

Round 6: iOL Dylan McMahon

McMahon played at C, LG, and RG during his college career, but at 6'3, 299, with sub-32" arms, his most ideal fit is at center. With Cam Jurgens starting at center in 2024 and Hennessy having experience playing center in the NFL, the Eagles have a starter and an immediate backup in place. McMahon will be a given a chance to bulk up in the weight room as rookie and perhaps become a primary backup at multiple interior offensive line spots in 2025, but he may not be active on gameday as a rookie, barring injuries.

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