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Eagles’ early returns promising on Howie Roseman’s latest draft class

It's only been 10 games, but maybe they’re on the right path again.

DeVonta Smith has given the Eagles that long sought after boost at receiver.
DeVonta Smith has given the Eagles that long sought after boost at receiver.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

In September 2011, the very early returns on the Eagles’ draft class weren’t promising. Their top three picks -- Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett, and Curtis Marsh -- were inactive or didn’t play in the first three games of the season.

This was uncommon.

A story was to be written about this curiosity and a request was made to interview general manager Howie Roseman. He didn’t have final say over personnel -- coach Andy Reid did -- but the 2010-11 drafts marked his first two as GM, and few of the selections were contributing.

Roseman declined through a team spokesperson, but the Eagles did provide an analysis of their last two drafts against a select group of those of other teams. It had various charts and figures about projected starters and 53-man rosters, but the subjective math and the favorable comparisons failed to account for what was becoming apparent to the naked eye: Most of the Eagles’ selections weren’t good enough.

So the paper (see: below) was tossed to the side.

A decade later, Roseman is still GM, and now fully in charge, and his drafts over that span have been mostly subpar. There was a Super Bowl title somewhere in there, and that cannot be erased, but the Eagles’ decline since that watershed moment has as much to do with his drafts as anything.

But the 2021 class could end up as Roseman’s 2012 version, which was the start of a two-year spell when the Eagles drafted as well as most teams. The returns, after just 10 games, suggest that maybe they’re on the right path again.

It is with great caution, however, that the following statistical comparison is offered: Eagles rookies currently average the second-most games played (8) behind the Falcons (8.3), and fourth behind also the Steelers and Packers when their one fewer game played is factored.

There are reasons beyond production that may account for the amount of their playing time, mainly that the roster isn’t deep and the Eagles are in a transitional period. But Roseman appears to have found several core and ancillary pieces if he is, as expected, to continue leading the rebuilding project.

It typically takes two to three years or more, depending upon the position, to make a proper evaluation. The Eagles’ 2010 group was not, overall, a strong one. But the first pick (defensive end Brandon Graham) would prove to be worth the cost, and the last (safety Kurt Coleman) would have a longer career than the other 11 choices.

In 2011, Watkins, Jarrett, Casey Matthews, Alex Henery, Jason Kelce, and Brian Rolle all eventually started at least one game for the Eagles, but only Kelce had legs there. Within three years, most of the class was out of the NFL.

So early projections, outside the NovaCare Complex, proved largely correct. This year’s collection, led by top picks DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson, has gotten off to a solid start. There needs to be a greater sample, but Smith and Dickerson are starting and the other six picks are playing mostly on merit.

With next year’s all-important draft looming -- the Eagles have 10 picks, including three projected first-rounders -- Roseman has the opportunity to add more parts to a roster in great need of foundational youth.

His ability to do so has been justifiably questioned. But this year’s draft, at the very least, doesn’t look like a bust. Here’s a closer look at each of the Eagles’ nine picks:

DeVonta Smith, first round, 10th overall

Roseman was already ahead, having acquired a 2022 first-rounder from the Dolphins in a trade back, when the draft started. He sacrificed a third-rounder to move up two spots for Smith, but he blocked the New York Giants from likely taking the Alabama wide receiver, and snagged a difference maker.

Was it a do-over after whiffing on receiver Jalen Reagor a year earlier? Perhaps. Did it go against the Eagles’ long-held practice of drafting only quarterbacks or linemen in the first half of the first round? Sure. Were there other quality prospects on that board -- like quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones, or linebacker Micah Parsons, or tackle Rashawn Slater -- that might have made more long-term sense? Maybe.

But Smith, the team leader in catches (42) and receiving yards (603) and touchdowns (4), has been as advertised, and should only improve.

» READ MORE: DeVonta Smith showed again why he’s going to be so special | Mike Sielski

Landon Dickerson, second round, 37th overall

Considering the Eagles’ dubious history with acquiring players coming off injury, the Dickerson selection was a curious one. The second round isn’t a reach for an interior offensive lineman, but the Alabama product was a walking medical chart. The Eagles believed they were getting a surefire 10-year starter and culture setter for when Kelce eventually retires.

Dickerson was healthy by the start of the season, though, and was pressed into duty when both guards -- Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo --suffered significant injuries. He had a rough patch in the beginning but has since settled down, particularly as a run blocker, and has been a part of arguably the Eagles’ best unit.

He still looks stiff in pass protection, and that may never change, and there is always the potential that he breaks down again. But Dickerson made some forget the Eagles passed on needed defensive help that could have come in the form of defensive tackle Christian Barmore or safety Trevon Moehrig or cornerback Asante Samuel Jr.

Milton Williams, third round, 73d overall

The controversy surrounding the Williams pick hasn’t subsided, but it’s not as if Tom Donahoe’s preferred choice, Alim McNeill, has been tearing it up with the Lions. Williams, though, has been underwhelming as the third defensive tackle after Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave.

There have been recent glimpses of his upside, and it often takes longer to evaluate defensive linemen than it does other positions. Williams doesn’t necessarily have to become a starter to justify the third-round pick, but it would help.

Zech McPhearson, fourth round, 123d overall

The cornerback is where the Eagles want him: as a backup playing special teams. McPhearson has been called upon for a total of 22 defensive snaps when Darius Slay left with injury, and they haven’t produced disaster. But it’s near-impossible to come to any conclusion about his readiness.

On special teams, his mistakes have stood out more than anything, but that can often be the case when doing the dirty work.

» READ MORE: Ranking the Eagles’ defensive needs for the NFL draft

Kenny Gainwell, fifth round, 150th overall

The running back got off to a hot start in the opener and flashed both as a runner and receiver over the next several weeks. But his fumble against the Raiders after starter Miles Sanders left was costly, and he has taken on a smaller role since.

It’s unclear if the turnover factored into the demotion, or that Jordan Howard and Boston Scott were better suited to carry the load as the Eagles shifted to a balanced offense. But Gainwell had only one catch in the last three games, and his third-down blocking remains suspect.

His receiving skills make him an intriguing prospect, and he runs hard despite his size, but Sanders’ return could push him farther into the background -- for now.

» READ MORE: Eagles coach Nick Sirianni’s creative rush play-calling is keeping defenses off-balance | KC Joyner

Marlon Tuipulotu, sixth round, 189th overall

The defensive tackle had maybe the worst camp and preseason of the group, but he snuck onto the roster and has played in four games. Tuipulotu seemingly epitomizes the notion that draft picks get special treatment. Maybe there’s something there worth developing, but third-day swings often lead to misses.

Tarron Jackson, sixth round, 191st overall

Jackson similarly struggled in the summer and looked overmatched in his first action on defense. Some of the latter had to do with his playing the occasional snap out of position as a 4i-technique. But when lined up on the edge, Jackson has stood out a few times.

He still has a long road.

JaCoby Stevens, sixth round, 224th overall

A converted safety, the linebacker strained a hamstring in camp and never regained his footing. The Eagles signed him to the practice squad, which was likely to be the best spot for him. The NFL position is tough enough for rookies but even more so for transition players.

If Stevens never plays a down for the Eagles, the fact that he was the only one from the class would be noteworthy. Teams sometimes have as many as two or three who fail to make the roster.

Patrick Johnson, seventh round, 234th overall

Another tweener, Johnson was moved from a hand-in-the-ground edge rusher to strong-side linebacker. He split duties with Genard Avery early in the season but has since been relegated mostly to special teams.

It would seem likely, especially if the playoffs are no longer within reach, for Johnson to move up the depth chart. It’s not as if Avery has performed well, and Johnson has made plays -- along with his share of mistakes -- when called upon. But all in all, getting any contribution from a third-day pick can be labeled a success.