One theme really stood out this year.
The Eagles crashed and burned in 2020 for a number of reasons: lack of playmakers at the offensive and defensive skill positions, poor quarterback play, bad injury luck, and worse depth … but what was evident over the whole year is that the team lacked an identity that had once powered it to a Super Bowl victor and subsequent playoff appearances.
The team lacked spirit and fight.
The Eagles hit the reset button when they hired Nick Sirianni and shipped Carson Wentz out of town. With not much cap space to spend in free agency, all eyes shifted to a draft class where they had 11 picks. A draft class that was deep at cornerback and wide receiver, key positions the team needed to address. Only a day later from the draft ending and it immediately feels like the team didn’t adequately address their needs in the secondary, or at linebacker, or honestly at receiver beyond their most premium pick.
Yet, what feels clear is this class is not about addressing every need ASAP, but rather shifting the tone and identity of the team in a new direction. The 2021 draft class was about drafting winners and, for lack of a better term, drafting ass-kickers.
DeVonta Smith, Wide Receiver, Alabama
It is not hyperbolic to say that the success of this draft class hinges on DeVonta Smith. A year after coming out of left field to draft Jalen Reagor, who the team hoped would immediately contribute as an athletic playmaker, they made the obvious pick by drafting the reigning Heisman winner after a dominant 2020 season. Smith is not without risk, of course. His lack of size and “upside” compared to his peers in the 2020 draft class means the Eagles are betting on his pro-ready game to translate immediately. The thing is, the team bet on upside last year with Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Quez Watkins. The short-term returns were not great. Now they need a guy who can come in on day one and catch 80 passes. They need a guy who will play every snap at 100 miles per hour. A guy who can take over that wide receiver room quickly; an alpha to give some direction to all the young players in that group.
By all measure, DeVonta Smith is that guy. Not only is he a proven winner and a two-time all-SEC receiver, but Smith was also a captain for two years at Alabama. He was highly respected by the coaching staff and the players around him for his work ethic and his leadership. The Eagles didn’t just draft a playmaker at wide receiver. They drafted a leader for the positional group and its impact should reverberate throughout the young guys.
Landon Dickerson, Center, Alabama
The Eagles surprised quite a few people, myself included when they drafted Landon Dickerson in the Early second round. Not because he is a bad player, he is far from it, but because they passed on what felt like premium players at positions of immediate need (cornerback, linebacker, safety) to draft a center with a long injury history. Dickerson’s health concerns are no joke and concerns about them carrying over to the NFL are well-founded.
The selection of Landon Dickerson, however, did signal what the Eagles were trying to accomplish with this class. They drafted another guy who plays every snap like the guy lined up in front of him is his lifelong enemy. He battles through the whistle the same way he battled back from multiple injuries. When Landon Dickerson is on the field, he puts on a highlight reel for offensive linemen. He is smart and technically sound but is able to play with a high motor that borders on violent.
The Eagles bet on a winner and someone who has overcome adversity in his personal journey to keep finding the football field.
Milton Williams, Defensive Tackle, Louisiana Tech
On its face, the Milton Williams pick felt like the Eagles’ first real swing for the fences. Milton Williams is as freaky an athlete as there was in this draft class. Despite weighing in at 284 pounds, Williams posted a 4.65 40-yard dash, a sub-seven second three cone, a 10-foot broad jump, and a near 39 inch vertical… That is hard to fathom! Williams seems like a classic case of a team shooting for upside along the trenches. However Williams is more than just a project player, he is another case of an every down, every moment battler that the team seemed to keep targeting in this class.
Milton Williams got to Louisiana Tech as a 230 pound, two-sport athlete who was in-between positions on the football field. Over the course of his career, Williams gained 50 pounds of mostly muscle while steadily improving on the field to become one of the most dominant players in C-USA. Williams is a technically skilled defensive tackle who makes up for lack of length and weight with impeccable technique and a motor that doesn’t cool. He is a relentless football player, on and off the field, and that is just as much a reason for the Eagles to value him as his general athleticism. His fit in the NFL is still a projection. His lack of size will make interior play a challenge and lack of length tends to hurt outside rushers. However, both of those can be mitigated by his athleticism and the Eagles clearly wanted to get him under Tracy Rocker’s wing.
Zech McPhearson, Cornerback, Texas Tech
The Eagles waiting until the fourth round to address their thin cornerback group still feels like a miscalculation. Going into the draft, everyone knew the Eagles were beyond thin at cornerback. Any and every defensive back they drafted would probably push for starting time early on. Which makes waiting so long to grab a corner a head-scratcher.
However, the Eagles kept up the theme of their draft with Zech McPhearson out of Texas Tech. McPhearson started his college career at Penn State before transferring to Texas Tech due to a lack of playing time. The 5’10”, 190-pound cornerback came into his own as a senior defender with the Red Raiders, picking off four passes and recovering two fumbles. McPhearson stands out on tape not just because he’s a decent athlete with good ball skills but by being the most physical defender on the field at all time. Texas Tech is not exactly known for defense and tends to have the ball thrown against them a lot. So it is meaningful to see McPhearson playing hard in all facets of the game: At the line, s a run defender, tackling receivers after the catch, etc.
The Eagles must’ve valued McPherson’s scrappy play and his ability to play inside and outside as a cornerback. There is still plenty of work for the rookie, with route recognition and general discipline being a problem. Not surprising for a player who carries himself on the field like an aggressive playmaker. No doubt the team saw his tools and demeanor s great fits for Jonothan Gannon’s defense. McPhearson, by way of need alone, will see playing time early in his career. The Eagles are betting on his confidence to sustain him through what is bound to be a challenging rookie season so he can develop into a contributor.
Kenneth Gainwell, Running Back, Memphis
After the DeVonta Smith pick, the Eagles made a handful of selections that lacked the sex appeal of a first-round receiver. Dickerson, Williams, and even McPhearson feel like meat and potatoes selection that fans probably reacted to with a “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”
Kenneth Gainwell felt like a departure from that. The Memphis product is the next in a recent run of impressive running back prospects with Darrell Henderson, Patrick Taylor, Tony Pollard, and Antonio Gibson coming right before him. In fact, those guys were all there with Gainwell, and the main reason he didn’t see a bulk of the carries until 2019. When they gave him the keys, though, Gainwell took off. Not only did Kenneth Gainwell rush for over 1,300 yards and 13 scores at 6.3 yards a clip, but he also caught 51 passes for 610 yards. He was a multifaceted weapon who got deployed all over the field and destroyed offenses with his speed, quickness, and soft hands in the passing game.
Gainwell is short, not small at 5’8”, and over 200 pounds. He is a stout, athletic back who fits into the Sirianni offense in a fairly obvious way. Nick Sirianni loved using multiple backs around the formation while he was in Indianapolis. Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and now Kenneth Gainwell being every-down backs who can play in the slot or even outside gives the team some really exciting flexibility on offense.
Marlon Tuipulotu, DT, USC
The Eagles went back to the meat and potatoes picks with Marlon Tuipolutu. Tuipolutu is a strong, high motor defensive tackle who can eat up space against the run and make a net positive impact against the pass. Once again, the Eagles went for the high motor player. The physical player. The player that overcame injury early in his career and battled back to be a productive player. The theme in this class couldn’t be more obvious.
Tarron Jackson, Edge, CCU
Tarron Jackson was the engine of CCU’s monstrous defensive line in 2020. Not only with his play, but with his leadership. The senior defender played like his hair was on fire, constantly hounding offensive lineman to get through to the ball carriers. It worked as he piled up 8.5 sacks and 14 total TFLs while the rest of the line followed suit with a similar style of nonstop play.
Jackson’s success in the NFL will hinge on his strength and motor to win out over average size. He is a fine overall athlete and could eventually find the field as a valuable role player. Early in his career in Philadelphia, he figures as a special teamer.
JaCoby Stevens, Linebacker, LSU
Another curious decision by the Eagles to wait until the 189th pick in the draft to address their linebacker problem. Similar to defensive back, any rookie linebacker will push for starting time and it makes little sense why they waited to throw a late-round pick into the mix. That poor, or at least questionable tactic, shouldn’t take away from JaCoby Stevens being a solid NFL prospect.
JaCoby Stevens had a solid 2019 season that had people buying in on his draft stock for 2020. However, the Covid-altered season with tumult at the defensive coordinator spot led to general disarray on the LSU defense which impacted Stevens’ play and his stock. Stevens played safety in college but spent most of his time close to the line of scrimmage, making his NFL transition to linebacker a logical one. He lacks the long speed to be a full-time safety in the league, so utilizing his relative quickness and physicality as a linebacker makes sense.
Stevens is a physical, smart player who had tons of production as a tackler. He looked a step slow in 2020 which should be chalked up to a lack of confidence and chemistry with the defensive play-calling that he didn’t show a year prior. Jonathan Gannon values the big Nickel type of defenders, given that box safeties were a big part of the Colts secondary. Stevens will compete with Davion Taylor and K’Von Wallace for this role, most likely. Hopefully, more stability with the coaching staff and offseason will spur Stevens to his 2019 form.
Patrick Johnson, LB, Tulane
Patrick Johnson fit the mold of most other Eagles draft picks before him this year: Not the biggest, with questions about where he fits in the NFL. But certainly, a highly productive college player who won with strength, high motor, and some good straight-line speed. Johnson is playing off-ball in the NFL despite seeing most of his time in college coming off the edge.
The team is betting on his physicality translating and, at the least, him being a core special teams player.
This Eagles draft class is far from perfect. The process feels flawed relative to what the team obviously needed going in. However, it is hard to ignore that this class maintains a philosophy of toughness and grit that was not prevalent in last year’s draft class. In 2020, the team bet on athletes who tested well like Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, and Davion Taylor, but the lack of killer instinct from most of the rookies hurt the team tremendously in the short term. This year, the draft class was all about killer instinct. The hope is not only that this mentality will carry these young players to success, but also signal to the other young players the direction the team is going and what they have to do to be able to go along with it. This draft class signals what Sirianni wants from his players, and that is to be competitive. Every moment on the field, in the gym, and in the meeting rooms.