As the hot summer months relentlessly bear down upon us all, Philadelphia sports fans are tired of being pessimistic. The Sixers and Phillies have been hurting us for a long time, and perhaps as a result, there is a growing groundswell of optimism surrounding the chances of the 2021 Eagles, a hope and a feeling that maybe they won’t be as bad as some believe they will be. Maybe they can contend for the NFC East crown, a weak division with no surefire powerhouse.
Maybe, just maybe.
Now, PFF is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to this stuff, but their ranking largely tracks with how the team played last year (a 4-11-1 disaster), the lack of activity in the free agent market this off-season, and the uncertainty the team has at multiple positions, specifically in the secondary, at linebacker, wide receiver and quarterback.
One of the reasons the NFL Draft is so important is it provides teams who are astute at selecting college football players to get an influx of good, young, cheap talent quickly. The Philadelphia Eagles, of course, have not been very good at this in recent years (decades?).
That being said, even a team that has struggled in the draft over the last few years cannot be completely devoid of young talent and thankfully the Birds have at least a handful of youngsters who seem to have a bright future. They just may not have as many as a normal “good” team might have.
With training camp still a few weeks away, here is my ranking of the 10 best Eagles players under 25.
10. Kenneth Gainwell (22)
Am I overly optimistic about a 5th round rookie running back from Memphis for any reason other than I really want him to be successful because he’s a running back whose last name is Gain-well? It’s possible. But Gainwell could prove to be a rare draft steal and, given the lack of other top-flight young talent on the roster, and the possibility Gainwell could be the team’s No. 2 running back and a true weapon out of the backfield in ‘21, I’m willing to put him ahead of veterans like J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and other unproven second and third-year players like Shaun Bradley or K’Von Wallace.
Gainwell put up really nice numbers last year at Memphis, rushing for 1459 yards and hauling in 51 balls for another 610 yards receiving. So yeah, I’ve got him in my top-10 and, by season’s end, he’ll prove to have been worth the roll of the dice. Also, I’m not expecting the long-awaited JJAW renaissance in 2021.
9. Jordan Mailata (24)
Speaking of players who could shoot up this list dramatically, if Mailata wins the starting left tackle job over former first-round pick Andre Dillard, and if Mailata can hold onto the job and improve on last year’s encouraging but up-and-down season, he’ll prove to be a top-five player under 25.
Make no mistake, there are miles to go before Mailata becomes a franchise left tackle, but he showed enough last year to be optimistic that his impressive athleticism, coupled with Jeff Stoutland’s coaching, will help him become a very good tackle in the NFL.
8. T.J. Edwards (24)
It seems as though every time someone talks about Eagles' middle linebacker T.J. Edwards, they are contractually obligated to refer to him as “not flashy” or a “no-nonsense” defender, or some other kind of adjective that describes a pretty boring yet adequate player.
And hey, there’s a reason for that. T.J. Edwards isn’t flashy and he is a no-nonsense defender. He doesn’t play the pass well, but Edwards does provide stability in the run game. When he has a chance to make a tackle, he generally does so. Again, the bar is low for this team, but Edwards is a starting middle linebacker in the NFL and, for now, he’s in the Birds’ top-10 under 25.
7. Nate Herbig (22)
For all their faults, the Eagles’ best positional unit is their stacked offensive line. Last year, Herbig was thrust into action as virtually every starter on the line went down for maintenance at some point in the season, and Herbig proved to be a stout run blocker and promising young lineman. Stoutland is working his magic once again and Herbig should be around for a long time, providing depth and the occasional start at right guard.
6. Jalen Reagor (22)
One of two things is going to happen this year. Either Reagor is going to prove last year’s rookie season was a fluke and he’s going to blossom into a quality slot receiver with the arrival of DeVonta Smith, or he’s going to once again show lackluster route running, poor body language, and a surprising inability to separate from defenders down the field.
Reagor has the tools to be a productive deep threat in the NFL, and perhaps getting more snaps in the slot, in a new offense, will help unlock his potential, because it is in there. Until he realizes it, he cannot be ranked any higher than this.
5. Jack Driscoll (24)
Driscoll is everything you want in a young offensive lineman. He’s versatile, capable of playing tackle or guard, and he doesn’t make many mistakes, a rare feature in a second-year player. Truth be told, Driscoll was the Eagles’ most valuable rookie last year and enters the season as Lane Johnson’s backup at right tackle. The job will one day be his, but until Lane retires or another spot on the O-line opens up, Driscoll would provide solid depth on the offensive line in 2021.
4. Josh Sweat (24)
Sweat is the best young defensive lineman on the Eagles and finished third on the team in sacks last year with 6, behind Brandon Graham (8) and Fletcher Cox (6.5). Still just 24, Sweat has improved each and every season and has become a more productive player than former first-round pick Derek Barnett, who finished with 5.5 sacks last season. It’s unlikely there’s a Pro Bowl player lying in there somewhere, but he’s a solid rotational edge rusher. Look for those sack numbers to increase a bit more in ‘21, too.
3. Jalen Hurts (22)
I almost put him at No. 1 because, as the team’s starting QB, he’s going to get a chance to shine. He has the advantage of playing behind a good offensive line, when healthy, and the potential is there for some of his skill position players to be productive as well. But there is still so much unknown about Hurts. There are some in the league (Chris Simms I’m looking in your general direction here) who don’t think he can play at all, and there are some in the league, and in the Eagles locker room, who swear by him.
Regardless, he’s going to get a chance to sink or swim this year, but he may only get this one season to prove himself. With three potential first round picks next year, the Eagles have the capital to select or trade for a franchise quarterback next off-season if Hurts looks anything other than awesome this year. No pressure, Jalen!
2. DeVonta Smith (22)
Is this too high to put a player who’s never played a single snap in the NFL? Yeah, it probably is, but like everyone else, I’m excited about the Birds’ first-round pick this year. Everything we’ve seen so far makes one think he’s legit. His route-running is so fluid and explosive, his body control is incredible, and his hands are amazing. Everything he does is done well.
He’s likely the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, unless one of the first-round signal-callers breaks out in a big way in ‘21.
1. Miles Sanders (24)
There’s no doubt Miles Sanders is an incredibly talented running back, a game-changing player who, two years ago, showed explosiveness both as a runner and a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Those were the same traits we saw at Penn State, too. Last year, Sanders death with some injuries early in the season and, when he returned, did an outstanding job running the ball but was a non-factor in the passing game.
Now, some of that may have been due to Carson Wentz’ struggles, but for a guy who some thought could put up 2,000 yards of total offense last year, Sanders’ season was not what anyone was hoping for. That being said, despite Maurice Jones-Drew saying he is not a top-25 running back in the league, Sanders does have Pro Bowl potential and is, right now, before any games have been played this season, the Birds’ best player under 25 years old.