As we put a bow on the Eagles’ 2022 season, we need to take a moment to reflect on the rookie class. Last year’s group had nothing on the Eagles’ 2021 class, but these were also two very different stages in the team’s overall development.
2021 was a year of rebuilding. It was a year where the Eagles needed fresh blood and instant impact players on offense and defense to rejuvenate the old, expensive roster of the Doug Pederson Era. DeVonta Smith, Landon Dickerson, Milton Williams, Kenneth Gainwell and Jack Stoll were all big time contributors relative to their draft position. The Eagles made the playoffs as a Wild Card team in part because of the rookie contributions. Last offseason was different. The team had higher expectations going into year two of the Nick Sirianni era, they had landed a high profile free agent in Haason Reddick and expected Jalen Hurts to take a big step in year three.
So, it was all about looking ahead to 2023 and beyond. They didn’t need instant impact players. They needed to prepare for a life without the likes of Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox, TJ Edwards, etc.
Jordan Davis being the first pick ended up being emblematic of that philosophy. Davis was an all-world defender at Georgia and one of the best athletes to come out of college football in a long time. He was a nose tackle prospect with upside to be a three down menace on the defensive line. However, in a defensive line room with Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave and Milton Williams, it was obvious that Davis would not be seeing a huge chunk of snaps in his first season. And he didn’t.
Davis started the season playing nose-tackle on obvious run downs, excelling in limited snaps. As a nose tackle, Davis’ job was functionally a facilitator on defense. He controlled blockers and ate up space, letting his teammates flow freely to the ball. This role is important, but doesn’t fully take advantage of Davis’ unique athleticism. However, as Davis was seemingly getting more and more play time, he was injured against the Steelers, suffering an ankle sprain.
The Eagles signed Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph to hold down the fort while Davis was injured and the vets both proved to be very solid. This meant that when Davis returned, his playing time was decreased even more because of the presence of the newly added veterans. Overall, his contributions in year one were negligible.
That isn’t an awful thing, though. He got his feet wet as an interior defender in the NFL and likely sees a big role next year. Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Suh and Joseph might all be gone and thus Davis will be trusted with a much bigger role on defense. His deployment will be defined by who they hire to replace Jonathan Gannon and how they add depth to the position. But Davis will be a building block for the youth movement on the Eagles defensive line.
Cam Jurgens barely played in 2022 for obvious reasons. The rookie center was drafted as an heir to Jason Kelce’s position once the Hall of Famer decides to hang it up. Kelce played another brilliant season where he stayed mostly healthy so there was no need for Jurgens to step on the field.
With the offseason here, speculation will swirl about Kelce’s future with the team. While Kelce could certainly play another season at a high level, some signs point to retirement. If it happens, Jurgens will step up as the team’s next center. The athletic lineman looked really promising in preseason and during limited snaps this year. The hope should be it is a seamless transition and Jurgens can be solid to start his time as starter, eventually stepping his game up as he becomes more comfortable with NFL competition.
Of the Eagles’ 2022 rookies, Nakobe Dean should make the biggest jump next season. Dean infrequently saw the field on defense as a rookie. It was clear Gannon did not want variance from his linebackers, trusting more experienced players in Edwards and Kyzir White to hold it down in the middle of the field. While both were solid and mostly dependable, there was nothing dynamic about the duo. That was partially due to the defensive design and also due to the players themselves. They were never going to be playmakers in Gannon’s defense.
Now Gannon is gone while Edwards and White are impending free agents. It is Dean’s turn to step up and, likely, bring a much more dynamic element to the position. Once again, this will partially hinge on who is up next at defensive coordinator, but it is clear just looking at Dean’s skillset that he will bring a spark to the middle of the defense. Dean was a tremendous blitzer at Georgia, using a combination of great speed, anticipation and physicality to knife through offensive lines to disrupt the backfield. He is a defensive weapon and the hope should be that a smart coordinator will use him as such.
Most of the rest of the Eagles rookies should offer a lot more in year two.
Reed Blankenship broke out in a big way midway through this season. The undrafted safety proved himself a steady presence on defense with the potential to make big plays as a run defender. The exit of either Marcus Epps and/or CJ Gardner Johnson will leave the door open for Blankenship to have a big role in year two.
Grant Calcaterra showed a bit as a blocking tight end and he has the athleticism to be a dangerous pass catcher. The Eagles need a legit TE2 so Calcaterra will be in a position to compete with Jack Stoll for that role in the summer.
Josh Jobe and Kyron Johnson figure to be core special teamers and defensive backups after looking really solid on kick coverage as year one.
The one rookie I am not overly optimistic about is Britain Covey. Covey, who starred as a kick returner in college, failed to do much as a return man in the NFL. His athleticism and physical profile just doesn’t quite hold up in the NFL. Ironically his best returns of the season were in the Super Bowl, but the team should think they can do a lot better at his position.
Overall, the Eagles’ 2022 rookie class has a ton of potential going forward. A host of veterans are leaving this offseason and this group was selected with that in mind. The 2023 Eagles will be much younger and the last rookie class will provide a few major pieces on that team.