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Grading the Eagles’ 2021 NFL Draft class

It’s report card time.

2021 NFL Draft Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The 2021 NFL Draft is over, which means that NFL draft grades are well underway. You may believe this exercise is arbitrary and reductive ... but you’re wrong! It’s not about waiting to see how the picks turn out, which qualifies as results-oriented evaluation. The goal here is to evaluate the process behind the selections. Did the Philadelphia Eagles make reasonable bets based on the information that was available to them?

To recap, here’s this year’s Eagles draft class:

1 (10) - DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

2 (37) - Landon Dickerson, C, Alabama

3 (73) - Milton Williams, DT, Louisiana Tech

4 (123) - Zech McPhearson, CB, Texas Tech

5 (150) - Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis

6 (189) - Marlon Tuipulotu, DT, USC

6 (191) - Tarron Jackson, DE, Coastal Carolina

6 (224) - JaCoby Stevens, LB, LSU

7 (234) - Patrick Johnson, LB, Tulane

If we’re accounting transactions made with draft picks when judging a class, here are some additional factors to consider.

  • The Eagles own the Miami Dolphins’ 2022 first-round pick thanks to originally trading down from No. 6.
  • The Eagles traded their 2021 fourth-round pick, which ended up at No. 110, for Genard Avery back in 2019.
  • The Eagles picked up Washington Footballl Team’s 2022 fifth-round pick in exchange for No. 225 and No. 240 this year.

But enough about trades, let’s get to this year’s actual selections.


DEVONTA SMITH

I couldn’t possibly be more confident in Smith being an awesome NFL player. Which is exactly why I made a thorough case for the Birds selecting him with their first-round pick.

When Angelo Cataldi asked Howie Roseman to explain what he loves about Smith, Roseman replied: “What isn’t there to love?” And it’s a fair point. Smith doesn’t really have any significant weaknesses.

But he’s only 166 pounds!

Couldn’t care less. There’s nothing about his weight that has manifested into a concern thus far. He hasn’t had durability issues and he thrived against press coverage.

Smith is going to make an instant impact. He can line up at multiple positions, which Nick Sirianni indicated is the plan for him. Smith figures to be a volume target for Philly but it’s not like they’ll merely be relying on him to move the chains. He’s a threat at every level of the field.

I could really go on about DeVonta forever. It’s impossible to not get excited about him when you consider the marriage of his talent with his insatiable desire to be truly great. I truly believe he has the potential to be the football version of Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. This is a future star we’re talking about here. A true difference-maker.

Kudos to Roseman for being aggressive and trading ahead of the New York Giants to make sure Smith ended up in Philly instead of North Jersey.

My grade: A+

BGN grades the pick:

LANDON DICKERSON

Heading into Day 2, it felt like it was hard for the Eagles to go wrong at No. 37. They had plenty of quality options remaining on the board.

The only direction I felt like they couldn’t/shouldn’t go in — and there’s audio evidence of me saying this minutes before the pick happened — was taking Dickerson. Sure enough, that’s what happened!

It’s not that I can’t fathom the upside. Trust me, I get it. It’s incredibly fun to watch Dickerson simply bully people when he plays. He also seems to have great football character, which is important. He could be a direct replacement for Jason Kelce both on and off the field in the future.

But the downside is just so considerable here. Two ACL tears and two season-ending ankle injuries over five years. How we are to merely assume he’s ever going to stay healthy here? Especially on a team that’s had no shortage of injury issues?!

The bar that Dickerson must clear for this pick to be worth it is very high. It’s not enough if he merely turns out to be a “good” starting center. He needs to be an elite player at his position given the risk the Eagles are associating with a valuable resource.

That Dickerson might not even play in Year 1, barring injury, is also disappointing. And it’s not about the Eagles being all in this year, which they’re not. It’s about extracting maximum value from a rookie contract and also seeing him develop with playing time.

Hopefully, Dickerson will be able to stay healthy and thrive. The risk makes this pick a below-average selection for me.

My grade: C-

BGN grades the pick:

MILTON WILLIAMS

Poor Milton Williams. Hard not to feel bad that his very special life moment got overshadowed by Tom Donahoe’s apparent disapproval.

Williams is an intriguing addition due to his elite athleticism. There’s upside here. Roseman compared him to Malik Jackson, which is fitting since that’s whose role he figures to inherit.

Having watched him some more, I question the extent to which Williams is ready to make an instant impact. And the Eagles might need him to because it’s not like there are other quality depth options behind Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave.

Again, the upside here is intriguing. I just wonder if he can reach it.

My grade: C

BGN grades the pick:

ZECH MCPHEARSON

(It’s actually pronounced “Zach” in case you didn’t already know.)

The Eagles entered Day 3 desperate for cornerback help and selected one with their fourth-round pick. Z McP has only average-ish speed but otherwise boasts good athleticism. He offers some versatility having played on both the outside and nickel. So, that’s good.

It was interesting to see that McPhearson graded out very highly by Pro Football Focus over his final two seasons. Given the barren state of his position, he should figure to challenge for playing time right away. Jonathan Gannon has a track record of doing more with less with his corners so it’s possible McPhearson could give the Eagles some quality production.

My grade: C+

BGN grades the pick:

KENNY GAINWELL

There are those who believe Gainwell was one of the biggest steals of the draft. They were confused he was still on the board in the fifth round. Hopefully, it was simply a case of other teams kind of forgetting about him after he opted out in 2020.

Gainwell doesn’t project as a workhorse running back in the NFL but that’s OK. He can be a very useful role player due to his pass-catching ability. He could be a natural fit for the Nyheim Hines in Sirianni’s offense.

The Eagles needed to add a running back with third-down skills after Miles Sanders really struggled in that regard last year. It’s quite possible that Sanders will bounce back considering he showed such promise as a rookie. But drafting Gainwell gives the Eagles some insurance on that front. With Sanders, Gainwell, and Boston Scott all in the fold, it’s nice to see the Eagles with multiple pass-catching backs. Might we see some more 22 personnel looks than we usually saw from Doug Pederson?

It’s hard not to like the mentality that Gainwell brings to the table. He’s a confident dude.

My grade: B+

BGN grades the pick:

MARLON TUIPULOTU

With just 8.5 sacks in 30 college games, it’s not like the Eagles are drafting Tuipulotu with the expectation he’s going to give them great interior pass-rushing juice. The 6’2”, 317-pound defender projects more as a two-down player. He probably maxes out as being a third or fourth defensive tackle.

There was some thought that Tuipulotu might go higher but there was some chatter about medical concerns. He denied the opportunity to answer a question to clear the air on that shortly after being drafted. He has some back injuries in his past, which is never comforting.

My grade: C

BGN grades the pick:

TARRON JACKSON

The Eagles were in need of defensive end depth with Brandon Graham aging and both Derek Barnett/Josh Sweat currently set to be free agents in 2022. Jackson currently only has to beat out Joe Ostman and Matt Leo to be fourth in Philly’s edge rush rotation.

Jackson had quality production in college with 24.5 sacks in 41 games. He also showed a knack for jarring the ball loose with six forced fumbles. Will his success translate to the NFL? Likely not immediately. The thinking here is that if he turns out to be Vinny Curry (not a direct comparison, just in terms of impact), Jackson would be a very good pick.

My grade: C

BGN grades the pick:

JACOBY STEVENS

Stevens was previously listed as a safety but the Eagles are designating him as a linebacker. The LSU defender certainly doesn’t have linebacker size at just 212 pounds. It’ll be interesting to see if the Eagles have him bulk up or if Jonathan Gannon has a creative role in mind for him. It’s hard to project exactly how Stevens fits in but taking a chance on a tweener at this stage in the draft is the appropriate time for such a gamble.

My grade: C+

BGN grades the pick:

PATRICK JOHNSON

Not unlike Stevens, another tweener. Unlike Stevens, Johnson was projected as a 3-4 edge rusher in the NFL. It seems like the Eagles are trying to have him play as a 4-3 off-ball linebacker. Once again, it’ll be interesting to see what Gannon has in store for this guy. Perhaps it’s something like what the Minnesota Vikings did with Anthony Barr? The combination of Johnson’s elite three-cone time and quality college production (21 sacks, six forced fumbles) contribute to him being an intriguing late-round gamble.

My grade: B-

BGN grades the pick:


ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

  • Please make sure you also check out the great post-draft analyses from John Stolnis (5 winners and 5 losers), Ben Natan (The Eagles’ 2021 NFL Draft is about setting a new tone), and Shamus Clancy (10 Eagles takeaways from the draft).
  • Also, check out Jimmy Kempski and I analyzing each Eagles pick (plus a whole lot more in a jam-packed discussion) in podcast form on the most recent BGN Radio episode.
  • Did I mention how excited I am about DeVonta Smith? That pick really did give the Eagles some much-needed juice. It’s their most exciting first-round pick since ...?
  • Smith is the only sure-fire 2021 starter from this group. Gainwell might be the biggest contributor behind him.
  • I’m not among those sweating the Eagles not doing enough at cornerback or linebacker. 1) The team isn’t all in to win in 2021. 2) They were never going to be able to fill all of their holes in one draft. This roster needs a lot of work.
  • The Eagles can still add a corner in free agency. Steven Nelson would be a strong addition but I’m not sure how realistic that is. Gareon Conley feels the right fit, though it’s weird how the 25-year-old hasn’t had any kind of market.
  • Annual reminder to temper your Day 3 pick expectations. There was a good deal of excitement about who the Eagles drafted between rounds four and seven last year. Two of those six picks are no longer on the roster. Those who remain: Jack Driscoll, John Hightower, Shaun Bradley, and Quez Watkins. There’s still hope for them but they’re far from establishing themselves as starters.
  • The report that stated a Zach Ertz is “going to happen by the end of the draft for sure” was wrong. But I still believe Ertz will be a goner. He doesn’t want to be here. And it doesn’t make sense for the Eagles to carry him at a $12.7 million cap number when they can clear some space to roll over for the future.
  • Remember the name James Hudson. The Cleveland Browns selected him with the pick the Eagles (foolishly) gave up for Genard Avery. That trade will only look worse if Hudson turns out to be a good pro.
  • The Eagles’ trade to pick up Washington’s 2022 fifth-round pick was nothing short of a masterstroke. The two late picks that Philly gave up were valued at one point apiece on the draft pick value chart. The Football Team’s fifth-round pick is valued between 16.2 points and 33 points. And that’s not to mention next year’s class is expected to be deeper in terms of talent. Great move.
  • The Stevens and Johnson picks make you wonder if we’re going to see Gannon be a lot more creative than Jim Schwartz was.
  • Jamie Newman was a nice UDFA addition. It felt like he was a draftable prospect.

OVERALL GRADE

The Eagles mostly went chalk and that’s a good thing. They didn’t go full galaxy brain and outsmart themselves as they’ve done in the past. It wasn’t flawless but it was certainly an above-average draft for them. I’ll give them a solid B, leaning closer to B- than B+. Roseman has much to accomplish before confidence can come close to being fully restored in him. But this draft felt like an encouraging step towards redemption for the Eagles’ general manager.

BGN grades the draft: