Davion Taylor is learning on the job, and the Eagles are willing to let him do it.
When the team drafted the linebacker in the third round of the 2020 draft, he was billed as an athletic outlier with limited playing experience. He hardly played high school football games because of religious restrictions and played just two years of college football at Colorado.
After effectively redshirting his rookie season, Taylor has emerged as a starter for the Eagles’ unheralded linebacking corps in the last three weeks. Even with his up-and-down play, his prominent role isn’t likely to go anywhere after the team waived veteran linebacker Eric Wilson on Wednesday.
Wilson was signed late in the offseason as an expected starter after he showed four years of steady improvement with the Minnesota Vikings, but he quickly saw his role diminish with the Eagles. He was a healthy scratch against the Detroit Lions and Eagles coach Nick Sirianni cited Taylor’s development, along with the special-teams value of reserve linebacker Shaun Bradley as one of the primary reasons for the decision to waive Wilson.
“With Davion developing and doing some good things, we wanted to get him more playing time,” Sirianni said. “And then on special teams, obviously, when it comes to the backup linebackers, they’re such an important part in special teams. Not that Eric didn’t play well on special teams or didn’t do his job when he was practicing with special teams, but the others – Shaun has really flourished on special teams and Alex [Singleton] is their special teams captain.”
Wilson is the latest example of the Eagles front office’s struggles to find serviceable linebackers through free agency recently. He signed a one-year deal with $3.25 million fully guaranteed late in the offseason, and the Eagles will be on the hook for his cap hit unless a team claims him off the waiver wire.
The Eagles have signed several low-cost linebackers in the last three seasons, including Zach Brown, L.J. Fort, and Wilson only to release them midseason. The team signed Jatavis Brown before the 2020 season only for him to retire before training camp.
Taking over for Wilson in recent weeks, Taylor’s performances have been uneven. He struggled at times against the Las Vegas Raiders, falling for misdirections and getting caught out of position in coverage at times. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted four times and gave up four completions for 61 yards against the Raiders, earning a 22.3 defensive grade.
Taylor said after games like that, it’s important for him to be patient with himself.
“I feel like I had one missed assignment and it got to me for the rest of the game,” Taylor said. “Every little play, I was messing up little things. I was taking a little step I shouldn’t have. Last week, going into the game, I felt like, if I messed up, just go onto the next play. I had to teach myself all over again, it’s always the next play. You can’t do anything about the past.”
Against the Lions, Taylor rebounded a bit. He made five total tackles, allowed two completions on two targets, and earned a vote of confidence from Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
Taylor practiced, but hardly played high school football games because of his mother’s strict interpretation of the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath beginning on Friday nights. Taylor has played on those evenings since during 18. He said the in-game experience he’s getting is becoming transformative.
“I can only do so much at the practice field or in the facility,” Taylor said. “When you get to game reps and you’re actually hitting people and playing violently and everything that you don’t do at practice, that has helped me grow each week. Getting that contact, actually tackling people. Now, I’m actually learning when to take that extra step during the tackle, when not to take an extra step.”
Because of his limited playing experience, the Eagles transitioning into a team willing to let younger players endure some growing pains is a boon for Taylor.
“I was really raw last year. This year, I’m still learning each week,” Taylor said. “It just makes me excited because I see how good I can become because I’m still learning..”
Taylor isn’t the only young defensive player starting to see an increase in playing time. Sirianni noted that rookie defensive lineman Milton Williams got a game ball after an uptick in playing time against the Lions. The third-round pick tallied his first career sack and played 55% of the defensive snaps.
“A lot of stuff for any rookie is new, and just what we ask him to do and different things in the run game, in the pass game, he’s improving in those things,” Gannon said. “What happened in the game was some production came with him increasing his role and getting better and better and better and the ball came his way a couple times and he made the plays.”
Assuming Gannon spends the next several seasons running a similar scheme to what he has done so far with the Eagles, Williams could take on an important role in the Eagles’ defense. He has the versatility to play both defensive tackle and defensive end in multiple fronts, something Gannon has used often this season.
The Eagles’ inability to find a trade partner for veteran defensive tackle Fletcher Cox ahead of Tuesday’s deadline means Williams will likely stay in a reserve role barring injury, but the former Louisiana Tech standout said he’s grateful to still have players like Cox, Javon Hargrave, and Brandon Graham in the building.
“He’s a great player and a good player to learn from,” Williams said. “He’s been big for me so far in my career. Him, BG, ‘Grave, all the other D-linemen that we got, they’ve been helping me a lot. I’ve learned a lot from him, and I’m glad he’s still here.”