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Grading Eagles’ 2021 rookie class following season-finale loss to Cowboys | DeVonta Smith, Kenny Gainwell earn high marks


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Grading Eagles’ 2021 rookie class following season-finale loss to Cowboys | DeVonta Smith, Kenny Gainwell earn high marks

Updated: Jan. 09, 2022, 2:23 a.m. | Published: Jan. 08, 2022, 11:17 p.m.

By Mike Kaye | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

PHILADELPHIA — Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni spotlighted his young depth chart — including the bulk of his rookie class — during a largely meaningless 51-26 season-finale loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field.

With notable starters such as quarterback Jalen Hurts, running back Miles Sanders, right tackle Lane Johnson and defensive tackles Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox on the sideline, Sirianni trotted out his young backups to face the Cowboys’ starting lineup.

First-round pick, wide receiver DeVonta Smith, was highlighted during the first quarter, catching three passes for 41 yards, which helped him push past Eagles legend DeSean Jackson to set a new franchise rookie receiving record. Running back Kenny Gainwell and defensive tackle Milton Williams shined with additional playing time. Gainwell picked up 87 total yards and a touchdown with Sanders, Boston Scott and Jordan Howard sitting out of action.

Cornerback Zech McPhearson, defensive end Tarron Jackson and linebackers Patrick Johnson and JaCoby Stevens started on defense with Williams. The group of Day 3 picks had their moments in the game despite being overmatched by the Cowboys’ top players.

With the group’s rookie season now in the books, it’s time to evaluate the class, which was among the most successful of GM Howie Roseman’s polarizing tenure.

Here is how NJ Advance Media graded the Eagles’ rookie class for the entire 2021 season:

WR DeVonta Smith (first-round pick)

Stats: 17 games, 64 catches for 916 yards (franchise rookie record) and five touchdowns

Thoughts: Smith has exceeded expectations internally because of his maturity and workman-like approach. On the field, he’s been what most expected: a young No. 1 wideout with upside.

The Eagles’ run-first approach has dampened Smith’s production from a statistical standpoint, but his intangibles have been off-the-charts for a rookie wideout. He’s an extremely good blocker and hasn’t missed a game, despite his well-publicized lanky frame. One could argue he’s shattered all pre-draft narratives by proving to be a superb jump-ball receiver in the NFL. He set the team’s franchise rookie receiving record on Saturday.

Grade: A-

LG Landon Dickerson (second-round pick)

Stats: 14 games (13 starts), 31 pressures and two sacks allowed (per Pro Football Focus)

Thoughts: While some were quick to criticize the decision to draft the oft-injured lineman in the second round, Dickerson has proven to be a potential star in the making for the Eagles’ offensive line. Despite suffering a torn ACL last December, Dickerson only missed one game due to injury, and he made his NFL debut in Week 2. He struggled in two games at right guard but immediately took off when moved to the left guard spot in Week 4. The combination of Dickerson and Jordan Mailata has the potential to be a scary sight for opposing defenses for the next decade.

Grade: B

DT Milton Williams (third-round pick)

Stats: 17 games, 30 tackles (six for loss) and two sacks

Thoughts: Despite a controversial arrival in the draft, Williams has been a solid member of the Eagles’ defensive line rotation this season. While he hasn’t been particularly impressive from a statistical perspective, his disruptive style of play has stood out all season long on film. His performances against the Detroit Lions and Giants (Week 16) come to mind when thinking of examples of Williams’ flashes of dominance. He’s a work-in-progress with a high ceiling.

Grade: B

CB Zech McPhearson (fourth-round pick)

Stats: 16 games, 16 tackles and a pass breakup

Thoughts: McPhearson has carried over his college special teams success to the pros. While he’s been buried behind Darius Slay and Steven Nelson at cornerback, McPhearson has shined as a gunner on special teams. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon recently said McPhearson has grown a lot behind the scenes from a coverage standpoint and he’s played well when allowed to play on defense. At worst, he’s a solid depth corner.

Grade: C+

RB Kenny Gainwell (fifth-round pick)

Stats: 16 games, 68 carries for 291 yards (4.3 YPC) and five touchdowns; 33 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown

Thoughts: Gainwell started off strong in the running back rotation but was effectively benched after a brutal fumble against the Las Vegas Raiders before the team’s big turnaround. Since then, he’s mostly worked as a returner and pass-catching option. Gainwell has played well in spurts and seems to be a strong long-term No. 2 running back in the rotation. That’s not bad for a rookie who took last year off due to the pandemic. Gainwell has the upside to be a Nyheim Hines/Austin Ekeler-like player for Sirianni.

Grade: B+

DT Marlon Tuipulotu (sixth-round pick)

Stats: Five games, five tackles

Thoughts: Tuipulotu had a "draft steal” outlook when he was selected by the Eagles in the sixth round. However, the big man struggled through training camp and was a healthy scratch for the majority of his rookie campaign. Tuipulotu couldn’t beat out journeyman Hassan Ridgeway for snaps, which isn’t a great look at this stage in the game. Tuipulotu needs to step up to avoid the Elijah Qualls treatment.

Grade: D

DE Tarron Jackson (sixth-round pick)

Stats: 17 games, 18 tackles (two for loss) and a sack

Thoughts: Jackson took some time to find his footing but now looks like a long-term piece in the pass-rushing rotation. The rookie defensive end has had his moments as a run defender, and every once and a while, he’ll make an eye-opening play as a pass rusher. The Eagles are light on young depth at the position, which is a good thing for Jackson, who has a Brandon Graham-like skill set.

Grade: B

LB JaCoby Stevens (sixth-round pick)

Stats: Two games, three tackles

Thoughts: Stevens was the lone draft pick who didn’t make the initial 53-man roster. A college safety who converted to playing NFL linebacker, Stevens was always going to be a work-in-progress. Due to COVID-19 issues, Stevens was able to play in the final two games of the season. While his grade is largely incomplete, he has a shot at sticking around if he continues to play well on special teams and grow as a defender.

Grade: N/A

LB Patrick Johnson (seventh-round pick)

Stats: 17 games, 17 tackles (one for loss)

Thoughts: Johnson was surprisingly thrust into action early on in the season after converting from defensive end to SAM linebacker. However, after a few shaky moments on defense, he was pretty much regulated to special teams the rest of the way. While he’s flashed some upside, his overall trajectory, as expected, has been slow. He has a chance to grow within Gannon’s system, and the rookie playing time should help his development, but right now he’s a flier with upside.

Grade: B-

TE Jack Stoll (undrafted)

Stats: 16 games, 4 catches for 22 yards, 51.4% of special teams snaps (for active games)

Thoughts: Entering Week 18, Stoll, the lone undrafted rookie to make the Week 1 roster, had out-snapped everyone in the draft class outside Smith and Dickerson. With more than 550 combined snaps (offense and special teams) on his rookie resume, Stoll established himself as the Eagles’ No. 2 tight end after Zach Ertz was shipped to Arizona. Stoll was a particular standpoint as a blocker, and his work on special teams stood out on a near-weekly basis. He was a slam-dunk undrafted free-agent signing.

Grade: A

Overall Grade: B

Following back-to-back polarizing draft classes, Roseman put together a solid group in 2021. Smith and Dickerson look like longtime starters with Pro Bowl potential, while Williams, Stoll, Jackson, Gainwell and McPhearson could all turn into notable role players for years to come.

The group has the potential to build a strong foundation for a young Eagles team that is already in the playoffs. However, Roseman will need to nail his four draft picks in the first two rounds of this upcoming draft for this "transition period” to develop into something with long-term legs.


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