Class has been in session for nearly five months for the Eagles’ rookie class since it was drafted in April, and now the team’s first exam is rapidly approaching.
The Eagles, who kept eight of nine rookie draft picks on the 53-man roster, kick off the regular season on Sunday at Atlanta.
“With the draft class, [I’m] really confident in the abilities of the guys,” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “I felt like everybody that we drafted I was super excited about, [general manager] Howie [Roseman] was super excited about. We were genuinely excited about these guys. Why? Because they had talent.
“But the other things that these guys had, in my opinion, all these guys, they were high-character people that love football and that were tough. And when you have talent -- talent is the most important thing -- but if you’re high character and if you love ball and you’re tough, you’re going to reach your ceiling, and you’re going to reach your ceiling quicker.
“As long as us as coaches are doing our jobs of developing them. I don’t think it’s any secret that the type of players first and then the type of people we brought in here have made this roster. Really excited about that and excited to see how they continue to develop as the season goes along.”
Here’s a look at the progress of the entire 2021 draft class.
WR DeVonta Smith (first round, No. 10 overall)
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner missed a few weeks of practice with a sprained MCL. Then he had a couple of drops in his preseason debut vs. New England. But, no doubt about it, Smith comes from a different breed of receivers and he is exactly what the Eagles’ offense needs.
After being tabbed with the team’s top selection, Smith has been immediately slotted into the No. 1 wide receiver role. His route running is as advertised and Smith consistently torched opposing defensive backs during joint practices against the Jets. Smith’s usage is expected to be high in Sirianni’s passing offense.
“I give so much credit to DeVonta and his fundamentals,” Sirianni said. “He’s worked at his game and worked at his craft. We have these guys out here that are world-class athletes and if you can combine athleticism with fundamentals, the sky is the limit for a lot of these guys and that’s where I see DeVonta; his fundamentals are really polished for a young player.”
OL Landon Dickerson (second round, No. 37)
Dickerson spent the entire training camp on the non-football injury list, recovering from a knee injury he suffered at Alabama. He participated in his first practice last week, but was only seen during individual drills.
Three-time Pro Bowler Jason Kelce has handled 100% of the snaps with the first-team offense at center, while Nate Herbig was the backup. When Dickerson returns, he could battle Herbig for the second-team job.
DL Milton Williams (third round, No. 73)
Among all the defensive rookies, Williams offers the most intrigue. He displays explosiveness and power in the trenches and plays even bigger than his 6-foot-3, 290-pound frame. Williams has made an impact on one of the team’s deepest position groups and he could have carved himself an early role in defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s packages.
“He’s just a physical player and he’s got a bunch of raw talent and that’s what you want to see, especially in a young d-lineman, a guy who can play two positions,” six-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said of Williams.
CB Zech McPhearson (fourth round, No. 123)
The 5-foot-11 defensive back was thrusted into immediate game action with starter Darius Slay missing two of the three exhibition games. McPhearson went through some rough patches, including when he was picked on by former Patriots quarterback Cam Newton.
McPhearson should benefit from learning behind veterans Slay and Steven Nelson during his rookie season. But if either of them go down, he’ll be tasked with the heavy responsibility of shadowing the opposing team’s top wideouts. McPhearson has the talent to keep up, but the transition from college to the NFL has been historically tough for past rookie defensive backs.
RB Kenneth Gainwell, (fifth round, No. 150)
Behind Smith, Gainwell has been the most exciting rookie to watch. He averaged 6-plus yards per carry at the University of Memphis, where he built his reputation as a receiving back. Some of that success has carried over, albeit in a small sample size; Gainwell averaged 5.6 yards on 12 carries during the preseason.
Gainwell exudes toughness, which leads to plenty of yards after the catch. His pass-catching skills, paired with his ability to make defenders miss, can only make Sirianni salivate about the possibilities.
“One thing that you really notice about him is he’s shifty and can make guys miss,” Sirianni said. “He’s got great hands, can run routes, hit the hole, and make big runs. He is tough. He just shows his physical and mental toughness every day. Usually guys that are tough players, those are guys who [make me think], ‘I can’t go to the game without him.’ ”
DL Marlon Tuipulotu (sixth round, No. 189) and DE Tarron Jackson (sixth round, No. 191)
Tuipulotu and Jackson are grouped together here mainly because they had similar experiences in camp. Plus, their draft selections were only separated by a single pick. Both defensive linemen had slow starts to camp. They had trouble shedding their blockers and clogging up the lanes. But Tuipulotu and Jackson had strong outings in the final preseason game, when they recorded a combined nine tackles.
“They got the tools in their body,” Roseman said of Tuipulotu and Jackson. “We had good grades on both those guys coming out. We love the character and the work ethic, and so we want to work with those guys and develop them.
“I think we’re investing in our player development program. We’re investing in our coaches and trusting in those guys to get these guys better and be ready to play this season.”
LB JaCoby Stevens (sixth round, No. 224)
Stevens was converted from safety to linebacker upon his arrival to Philadelphia. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two preseason games and prevented him from building game tape. Stevens did play in the preseason finale, recording six tackles.
Stevens was the only draft pick that was waived on cut day. Subsequently, he was added to the practice squad.
LB Patrick Johnson (seventh round, No. 234)
Johnson was the most productive in-game rookie, finishing with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss. Earlier in camp, Gannon pointed out Johnson’s ability to provide multiple looks in his position overseeing as an outside linebacker and pass rusher. The Eagles have plenty of depth across the front seven, but Johnson could crack the rotation at some point this season.
TE Jack Stoll (undrafted)
Stoll arrived to a tight end room already featuring nine-year veteran Zach Ertz and rising stud Dallas Goedert. Pair that with the emergence of 6-foot-7 Tyree Jackson, and the odds of Stoll making the roster at the beginning of camp were probably slim to none. But Stoll did enough to convince his bosses and he made the 53-man roster outright.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to learn,” Stoll said. “And being the undrafted guy, you come to the reality that you’re not going to walk in and be the starter Day 1. Being able to learn from guys like that and have an opportunity to be in a city like this is really what drew me.”