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Midseason musings on the Eagles’ rookie class

Progress report on Philadelphia’s picks from the 2021 NFL Draft.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles’ rookies are eight games into their young NFL careers, with already much to say about what they have done and what lies ahead for them. Philadelphia entered the season with ten rookies on their active roster, a number that has fluctuated as players have gone to and from the practice squad and game day inactive lists. Regardless, they have still seen a meaningful contribution from their rookie class. Sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but the Eagles rookies have always factored into game outcomes. Something that speaks to where the Eagles are in their rejuvenation process.

DeVonta Smith

Expectations for DeVonta Smith were higher than they have been for any Eagles rookie since at least Carson Wentz in 2016. The 10th overall pick was coming off a Heisman campaign, national championship and arguably one of the best wide receiver seasons in college history. He came to the team as, basically, the surefire number one receiver with every single fan, player and coach anticipating an immediate impact on what has been an underperforming and undynamic passing game.

The bar that was set in spring and summer has not been met. Not even DeVonta Smith would say he has lived up to lofty goals and expectations. The rookie receiver has not been a consistent, week to week threat in the passing game and he has had many moments where he had costly drops and losses against physical coverage. Eight games in, and it is obvious that Smith is not the rookie of the year candidate and instant game-changer everyone wanted him to be: Especially when you contrast his career start with rookie peer Ja’Marr Chase, who has transformed the Bengals passing game and given hope to a young, rebuilding franchise.

However, and this is a big however, DeVonta Smith is still clearly the future of the Eagles passing game. Despite his inability to have a Ja’Marr Chase/Justin Jefferson/Odell Beckham type rookie season, DeVonta Smith is still clearly a talented player who is producing in the Eagles offense. For one, he leads the team in receptions and receiving yards. He has surpassed Jalen Reagor’s sixteen game rookie yardage total in half as many games and, when he’s at his best, looks like the best receiver the Eagles have had in a decade. His route running is already advanced and he has shown a lot more after the catch then anyone could’ve asked for. DeVonta Smith is still very much a good player at this early stage in his career, and there is plenty of reason to be hopeful for the rest of his rookie season and beyond.

Drops are a frustrating feature when it comes to young receivers. Especially receivers who see a high volume of targets early in their career. The balance has to be Smith maximizing the balls that he does catch. An imbalance which is more frustrating than the drops themselves. Smith is constantly put in low-outcome situations. Both by play calling that uses him on screens, drags, short RPO targets and by shoddy, inaccurate passes by the quarterback. Smith has shown an ability to make plays downfield as a vertical threat, making his usage very questionable. Not only is the team minimizing the impact he can make, but they’re also limiting the explosive ability of the passing game itself.

It is easy to see Smith “has it” in a way an Eagles receiver has not in a long time. His hiccups are that of a young player being put into an extremely high pressure situation with not much to alleviate him in the form of surrounding talent or beneficial play calling. Look at the history of rookie receivers who have set the league on fire and they tend to have a slightly better environment to thrive in. Even with all this, Smith is still on pace to break 900 yards in his rookie season and will likely see an uptick in the second half of the year as the whole offense (hopefully) settles in.

Everyone take a breath. DeVonta Smith is still going to be good. In fact, he is already!

Landon Dickerson

Landon Dickerson’s rookie year has, arguably, been more frustrating than his first round counterpart. Not just because of his own up-and-down play, but because it is impossible to watch him play poorly without thinking of the rookies he went ahead of.

Christian Barmore, Kelvin Joseph, Asante Samuel Junior, Rondale Moore, Azeez Ojulari, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah… Just to name a few!

This isn’t hindsight, either. At the time, it was easy to question why the Eagles went with Dickerson when high impact rookies were on the board at positions of need. A few months later and these rookies are helping their respective teams while the Eagles still wait for Landon Dickerson to settle in.

It is frustrating. No doubt. Though not all hope is lost. Dickerson has not been put in a situation that is conducive to immediate success, to say the least. After an offseason where the rookie spent most of his time rehabbing, Dickerson switched from center to guard to fill in for an injured player, and then had to switch to the other guard spot as the line re-shuffled. While he has been a starting guard, the line has constantly shuffled around him due to absence and injury. This lack of consistency in personnel impacts the cohesion of the unit and will especially make things difficult for a young player, away from his natural position, coming off of injury.

Which is all to say, there is still very good football ahead for Dickerson. At his brightest moments, Dickerson looks like a mauler. Which highlights another way the Eagles have failed his early development. The team’s unwillingness to run the ball and Nick Sirianni’s general lack of play calling identity has done plenty to stunt the success of Dickerson. The Detroit Lions game was a great example of how Dickerson can look great: A run-heavy game plan that gets the rookie lineman playing aggressively and downhill instead of forcing him to be reactive and literally playing on his heels all game.

Be it at guard or eventually at center, Landon Dickerson clearly has what it takes to be a good player. However, the team needs to commit to his growth and doing the things that maximize him, or else it becomes impossible not to question “what could’ve been” by drafting a different player entirely.

Milton Williams

This season has been a waiting game for Milton Williams. Though the rookie defender has seen a lot of playing time, it took until the Lions game before he started showing the athletic, disruptive player that he was at Louisiana Tech.

Williams arguably has been playing out of position for most of his young career. The athletic 285 pounder has mostly been used as a two-gapping defensive end when Jonathan Gannon’s unit uses three-man fronts. This is not the role suited for a player of his explosiveness. A problem that famously plagued Fletcher Cox early in his career playing in Billy Davis’ 3-4 defense.

Against Detroit, we saw a bit more of Williams used as a conventional, penetrating defensive tackle and the results were night and day from his previous seven games. Williams looked dangerous as a run defender and pass rusher. Sure, against a weak offensive line, but games like that go a long way to build a young player’s confidence and hopefully inform a coaching staff’s decision making going forward.

Williams has a very high ceiling. That much is obvious. His development could mean huge things for the defense in the short and long run, but that development hinges on the coaching staff being smart about his usage and understanding what he does best.

Zech McPhearson

Unsurprisingly, Zech McPhearson has had little involvement on the team at this stage in his career. The Eagles have a good trio of cornerbacks that have mostly played well to start the year, keeping McPhearson primarily as a punt gunner.

With Steven Nelson only on a one year deal, McPhearson might only be a year away from starting, but until then he’s a solid special teamer.

Kenneth Gainwell

At this point, no Eagles rookie has had as strange of a season as Kenneth Gainwell.

After a week one performance where Gainwell scored a touchdown and saw a lot of time on the field, it seemed as he had cemented himself as the third down back and the surefire number two behind Miles Sanders.

After a few weeks where he got a healthy dose of catches and carries, Gainwell’s usage started to fade. Not only were the Eagles generally running the ball less and less, but Gainwell went from having 19 touches in the first two games to having 17 touches in the following four.

Then, after a Miles Sanders’ injury against the Raiders, the assumption was that Gainwell would presume his role as the primary back. That expectation was clearly wrong when Jordan Howard and Boston Scott went from afterthoughts on the roster to leading the running game against Detroit on Sunday.

Do the Eagles not think Gainwell can be a primary back? He has certainly shown promise on the touches he has gotten. It is very peculiar.

Hopefully Gainwell’s role increases as the Eagles develop an offensive identity through the rest of the season. It is hard to argue that he is talented, but one wonders how much of the load he can handle in this offense.

JaCoby Stevens

Jacoby Stevens has spent his rookie year on the practice squad thus far. The safety-to-linebacker convert was a project when the team drafted him and remains one at this point.

There is no doubt that the Eagles need to add some speed and young blood to their linebacking group, so hopefully Stevens comes along nicely in his development and can contribute next year.

Marlon Tuipolotu

Marlon Tuipolotu has been a healthy scratch for most games this year. Against Detroit, though, he got some playing time once the game was out of reach and looked solid!

Tuipolotu was always going to be a depth player this year, though it is encouraging that he held his own given the opportunity to see the field.

Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson’s rookie year has also been curious. After playing as a defensive end in college, the Eagles wanted to convert Johnson to more of a hybrid player. They wanted someone who could stand up on the edge, rush the passer, play the run, drop back into coverage and even play off-ball linebacker.

Patrick Johnson looked promising in preseason, to the point where it seemed possible he could contend for playing time in the Eagles young defense.

Johnson’s regular season started with a few opportunities to play as a rotational outside linebacker in relief of Genard Avery and Derek Barnett. Johnson looked good in limited snaps, but those snaps have diminished over time. Certainly not because Avery or Barnett are clearly better, but possibly because the team wants experience at those positions.

Nonetheless, it is a head-scratcher that Johnson has disappeared from the lineup almost entirely. The staff should see value in getting snaps for young players when the team is clearly not in win-now mode and the veterans playing those positions are not doing so well. Johnson could even push for time at off-ball linebacker, given the woeful nature of that positional unit, but has not yet been given that chance.

It is not the end of the world. He is a sixth round rookie and his upside is still limited. Though it speaks to some philosophically questionable things about the coaching staff at large.

Tarron Jackson

Tarron Jackson was a value pick when the team got him in the seventh round last spring. He showed out nicely in preseason and made the team despite the defensive line being a deep unit. The former Coastal Carolina star has seen limited snaps as an edge player, but has rarely looked out of place when he is on the field. Jackson was drafted due to great physicality and a high motor, and that has served him well early in his career.

Jackson might not be a stat-stuffer this year, even after his first career sack against Detroit, but he does look like someone who could meaningfully contribute to this defense in the future.

Jack Stoll

The only rookie UDFA to make the Eagles roster, Jack Stoll has slowly made his way into meaningful snaps as the number two tight end. After Zach Ertz left for Arizona, Stoll stepped into the lineup and has served mostly as a blocker in two tight end sets.

Stoll has one catch so far on the season, which came in garbage time against Detroit, but he has been a capable blocker and could be valuable if the Eagles transform into a running team (once again, hopefully) over the rest of the season.

Stoll’s lack of contribution as a pass catcher might cap his value to the team in the long run, but he is a net-positive on the field when the Eagles want to run the ball.

Outlook

The Eagles have a lot of rookies seeing meaningful snaps. A mark of a team in transition. Luckily for the franchise, these rookies have shown more good than bad, but their main obstacle to taking the next step could not be more clear. The coaching staff’s decision making has hamstrung the entire team, and the rookies especially. These young players have simply not been put in situations to consistently succeed at this extremely early juncture in their NFL careers.

The hope is that could change as an extremely young coaching staff also finds their bearings. When they do, they are lucky to have a rookie class with players who can positively shape this team for years to come.