Eagles

Eagles will continue to rely on impressive rookie class in playoffs

Eagles

The Eagles didn’t gain much out of their 51-26 loss to the Cowboys on Saturday night in a game they didn’t care about winning.

They did, however, get a nice reminder: This rookie class looks pretty good.

And as the Eagles head into their playoff matchup against the Buccaneers on Sunday, they’re going to be relying on this rookie class.

“When we first came in here, we came in here with a full head of steam to be great, to be the best rookie class that came through,” running back Kenny Gainwell said. “We just try to work hard to be the best. We came in here and did our thing.”

Yes, they did.

It’s generally unfair to judge a rookie class this soon but early returns on the Eagles’ class of 2021 look pretty good. The Eagles drafted nine players last spring. All nine have played and at least a few of these guys have been major contributors and a couple appear to be foundational building blocks.

READ: Eagles finally learn their first-round playoff opponent

Are these rookies ready for the playoffs?

“I think experience is the best teacher,” Milton Williams said. “Just going throughout the year you learn more and more every week, every practice. You meet with your coaches every week and you try to focus on the little things in your game to improve.

“I feel like I’ve done that this year. I started off a little slow, but like I said, experience and you just learn. Learn more techniques, learn the terminology and language that they’re speaking, and things like that so you can get a feel of what’s coming. Trying to continue to get better.”

 

Here’s a look at what this class has accomplished this year and what the Eagles will need from these rookies as they head into the playoffs:

1-10: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Smith has been a legitimate No. 1 receiver this season. He finished the regular season with 64 catches for 916 yards and 5 touchdowns. His performance in Week 18 pushed him over the previous Eagles rookie receiving record of 912 yards set by DeSean Jackson in 2008.

While Smith fell shy of one of his major goals, to reach 1,000 yards, he still had a very productive rookie season. He is already the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver and has the potential to be a Pro Bowl type of player.

With how productive Smith was as a rookie, that production was a little uneven. He had five games this season with fewer than 30 receiving yards. That won’t be enough to take down the Bucs in the wild card round. But the one thing we learned about Smith at Alabama was that he has the ability to raise his level of play on the biggest stages.

“A lot of us have been playing football all our lives so it’s kind of just like we’ve been here. A lot of us have been here before,” Smith said. “We’ve been in college playing for conference championships and things like that. A lot of us have been here before. You treat it like another game. Just the way you approach it and things like that.”

2-37: Landon Dickerson, OL, Alabama

Dickerson missed training camp as he recovered from his ACL injury and after missing that time, he got off to a rough start early in the season. But once he took over as the Eagles’ starting left guard, he’s played well enough to think he’ll never give that spot back.

Dickerson ended up starting 13 games as a rookie although he missed the regular season finale with a thumb injury. Although, as a starter, he wasn’t going to play anyway in that game.

But as the Eagles head to the playoffs, they’ll simply need Dickerson to keep it up. The Eagles’ offensive line has been their biggest strength all season and Dickerson has been a big part of that.

3-73: Milton Williams, DT, Louisiana Tech

The cool thing about Williams is he seems to be peaking as the Eagles enter the playoffs. He played a great game in Week 18 against the Cowboys’ starters and he did it from the defensive end position. He has played end and tackle during his rookie season.

Williams ended up with 30 tackles, 6 TFLs, 6 QB hits and 2 sacks this season.

As the Eagles enter the playoffs, they’re going to need to get pressure on the QB. That’s easier said than done against Tom Brady. But pressure in this game could really change things. And with some other veterans underperforming on that line, the Eagles would get a huge boost if Williams plays well.

 

4-123: Zech McPhearson, CB, Texas Tech

While McPhearson didn’t play a ton on defense this year, he got the first start of his career on Saturday night as the Eagles rested Darius Slay and Steve Nelson. For the most part, McPhearson was OK in spot duty this year, but he really made an impact on special teams. He led the team with 325 special teams snaps in 2021.

He’ll be the Eagles’ top backup cornerback in the playoffs but unless there’s an injury his main role will be on special teams, where he’s assumed the very important gunner spot opposite Andre Chachere on the punt team. McPhearson has really improved on teams over the course of his rookie season.

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5-150: Kenny Gainwell, RB, Memphis

There were times this season when Gainwell didn’t have a big role on offense and there were times when he was a featured player. The most impressive thing about Gainwell is how he handled those ups and downs. He just stayed ready for whatever role the coaching staff gave him. And by the end of the season, his stats looked pretty good.

Gainwell had 68 carries for 291 yards (4.3) with 5 touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 253 more yards and another touchdown. Gainwell ended up with more touchdowns than Smith, Dallas Goedert and Miles Sanders this year. Who saw that coming?

6-189: Marlon Tuipulotu, DT, USC

Tuipulotu is still a developmental player and didn’t see much action in 2021. He ended up playing in five games this season, just 29 defensive snaps, but still ended up with 5 tackles. That’s two more than Ryan Kerrigan with a fraction of his snaps. Still, Tuipulotu isn’t expected to have much of a role in the playoffs.

6-191: Tarron Jackson, DE, Coastal Carolina

No, Jackson isn’t a star, but he made the most of his opportunities. While the Kerrigan bar is a low one, Jackson began to earn more snaps than the veteran later in the season for good reason. Jackson has flashed a little bit. He ended up with 18 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs and a forced fumble this year. He will be part of the rotation in the playoffs.

 

6-224: JaCoby Stevens: LB, LSU

Stevens has been on the practice squad all season but played the last two games as an elevation. He got some time against Washington on special teams and started at linebacker in Week 18. Things didn’t go well for him on defense against Dak Prescott and the Cowboys but he showed some promise on special teams.

7-234: Patrick Johnson, LB, Tulane

Johnson had a role on defense early in the season but saw that role dry up as the year went on. But he was a big-time special teams contributor all year. He ended up with 254 special teams snaps; just McPhearson, Chachere and Shaun Bradley had more.

UDFA: Jack Stoll, TE, Nebraska

We have to include Stoll in this list. While he wasn’t a draft pick, he’s played a ton this year and was promoted to TE2 after Zach Ertz was traded to Arizona. Stoll’s receiving numbers are unimpressive; 4 catches for 22 yards. But he’s been a big part of the Eagles’ 12 and 13 personnel packages as a blocker. And his role in the Eagles’ dynamic run game shouldn’t be overlooked.