Fourth in a series evaluating the Eagles’ 2021 draft picks.
EJ Smith: 🤷♂️
There’s a valid argument to be made that the Eagles waited too long to address the cornerback position in the draft, but that’s no fault of Zech McPhearson.
Considering the team’s gaping hole at the second outside cornerback spot opposite Darius Slay, it’s not completely implausible that McPhearson could see some actual playing time next season. Especially when you factor in the number of injuries that have hit the Eagles’ secondary each of the last few seasons and the organization’s shift toward rebuilding with younger players in key roles.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a fourth-rounder coming in and playing early without a fair bit of growing pains. McPhearson played in the slot and on the outside for Texas Tech. Whether you want to call him versatile, or a ‘tweener depends on what side you’re on. Positional flexibility is important, but it’s worth noting the 5-foot-10, 196-pound corner will likely need to fill out a bit more before having a real chance at holding up on the outside.
McPhearson’s testing numbers would suggest he’s an explosive athlete (90th percentile or higher in the broad jump and vertical jump), but one of the knocks on him is his lack of short-area burst at the top of routes. His 20-yard split in the 40 was also 94th percentile, so the play speed and testing speed aren’t quite adding up right now.
If new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon can figure out what’s slowing McPhearson down on the field, the Eagles will likely have gotten good value here. Looking at the depth chart right now, he might not have a choice.
Les Bowen: 🤷♂️
If you’d asked a lot of analysts the safest Eagles prediction going into last week’s NFL draft, they probably would have gone with the Eagles taking a corner sometime in the first two days. So of course, that didn’t happen.
You try not to go into the draft needing to come up with immediate starters, even in the first round. Yet, given the state of the Eagles’ cornerbacking corps, and the salary cap constraints the team faced this offseason in free agency, that was the case. And then the team proceeded not to draft a corner until it got to Day 3, and McPhearson.
Maybe McPhearson will be the steal of the draft, taken 123rd overall. Evaluations vary widely. There are people who think he’s big and smooth and versatile and will fit their new scheme perfectly. There are people who are surprised he was drafted before the seventh round. We know that he wasn’t getting on the field much at Penn State, so he transferred to Texas Tech after the 2018 season. We know that he had a strong 2020 season, intercepting four passes. We know that the Big 12 was not highly regarded, and that it certainly isn’t the cradle of star NFL corners.
From my point of view, having expected to see a corner in the second round if not the first, I’m gonna need for McPhearson to be pretty darned good. What I suspect, though, is that when possible first-round corner targets Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain went off the board in the top nine overall, the Eagles decided to just go best player available, and if they didn’t get a difference-making corner, for the 19th year in a row, well, there’s always next year.
I’m not sure they’re hanging their hat on McPhearson. Maybe there will still be a free-agent move to be made, when Zach Ertz gets traded and some of his money comes off the books.
Paul Domowitch: 🤷♂️
The Big 12, where Zech McPhearson spent the last two years after struggling to move up the depth chart at Penn State, isn’t exactly a hotbed for cornerbacks.
It’s definitely the place to shop for quarterbacks and wide receivers. But cornerbacks? Not so much.
One hundred eighteen corners have been taken in the last four drafts, including 39 this year. Just seven of those 118 have come from the Big 12, including four this year. And only one of those seven — 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney of TCU — went higher than the fourth round.
Does that mean McPhearson can’t play? No. Does it mean the odds are against it? Yes.
McPhearson was a four-star recruit coming out of high school in Baltimore. He was recruited by all of the big schools, including Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State. He opted for Penn State, where he redshirted, then played mostly special teams for the next two years.
Got his degree in labor and employment relations in three years and entered the transfer portal and headed for godforsaken Lubbock, Texas. As someone who started his journalism career 120 miles south of Lubbock in Midland, I know godforsaken.
McPhearson had four interceptions last season and was a first-team All-Big 12 selection. Didn’t get a Senior Bowl invitation, but did get invited to the Hula Bowl, where he made the most of the opportunity.
He’s a smart, aggressive player who put up good numbers at his Pro Day, including a 4.48 forty, a 40½-inch vertical jump and a 4.03 20-yard short shuttle, which was a faster short-shuttle than any of the 16 corners selected ahead of him (Patrick Surtain and Jaycee Horn didn’t run the short-shuttle at their Pro Days).
The scouts I talked to say he’s a solid zone corner and a good run defender, which should be a plus against all of the screens and jet sweeps that NFL teams are using. He has an aggressive “my ball” mentality when he goes after a pass.
We think, but don’t know yet, that the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator, Jonathan Gannon, is going to play a lot of zone. So McPhearson would seem to be a good fit for his scheme. While he played primarily outside at Texas Tech, he does have the quickness and physicality to play inside.
The Eagles took McPhearson after failing to take a corner in the second or third round and then missing out on a corner run late in the third round that saw five of them go in a seven-pick span from No. 99 to No. 105.
The Eagles might’ve been able to trade up and get one of those five corners, but they gave up their original fourth-round pick — No. 110 — two years ago to Cleveland for disappointing edge-rusher Genard Avery. Avery has played just 159 snaps in 19 games with the Eagles and has 1½ sacks.
McPhearson blocked two extra points his first year at Texas Tech and was a solid special teams player at both Tech and Penn State. So, worst-case scenario: the Eagles probably are getting a guy who should be able to help them out on special teams right away.
Whether he’ll ever develop into a starting corner for them remains to be seen. But you never know.
Jeff McLane: 🤷♂️
We’re now entering Day 3 of the draft in our assessments of the Eagles’ class, when even a prospect who develops into a special teams contributor can be labeled a success. It’s lowering the bar time and if Howie Roseman plucked one starter from a group of six, he did well.
McPhearson may have the best opportunity to elevate to such a role. There’s still a vacancy at the outside cornerback spot opposite Darius Slay, although it would be asking a lot out of the rookie for him to win it. Avonte Maddox may be better suited to the slot, and Jonathan Gannon may have him slotted there, but the fourth-year corner has vastly more experience than McPhearson.
Some wanted to see the Eagles expend a higher selection on the position. Maybe there’s a future starter they passed on such as Asante Samuel, Jr. in the second round or Aaron Robinson in the third. But I agree with the Eagles’ approach of not pushing needs, and we don’t know if the team projected either or both to play inside. Is a slot worth a second- or third-rounder?
The 5-foot-11, 191-pound McPhearson played both inside and out in college. He has decent length, if not short arms (30-¾ inches). The scouts I spoke to who liked him talked up his ball skills. They also praised his intellect and character. You need a short memory and long fuse to play corner in the NFL.
He had some technique issues at Texas Tech that he’ll have to improve upon in the NFL, but what corner doesn’t? He seemed to grasp zone concepts well and could be a scheme fit for the zone-preferring Gannon.
I have concerns about deep zone-heavy Big 12 corners, though. McPhearson shouldn’t be judged solely upon the conference’s dubious recent history of drafted corners, but he’s going to have to play a fair amount of man defense. That’s just the way it goes in the NFL, especially if Slay continues to shadow top receivers.
But I can’t kill the pick because it didn’t seem like a reach, and even if McPhearson becomes a reliable reserve and special teams guy — e.g. Rasul Douglas — that isn’t half bad for a fourth-round selection.