For a fanbase, every single draft pick that comes in is a potential savior of a franchise. Someone that can propel your team to greatness for years and years. Unfortunately, in any given NFL Draft, only a few will ever officially play for the team. Even less will become stars. With the exploits of rookies like Justin Jefferson, Justin Herbert and even Saquon Barkley still on our minds, fans expect the world from their teams’ draft picks, even in year one. Which Philadelphia Eagles draft picks have a chance to make an impact in their rookie year? Let’s go through them.
Which Eagles Draft Picks Will be Impactful Rookies?
First Pick: DeVonta Smith, WR
2021 Impact: 10/10
The first pick should usually be the one that has the largest impact, and there’s no difference here. The Eagles have a lot of names on their wide receiver roster, but none of them inspire much confidence. Jalen Reagor and Greg Ward are probably the only ones guaranteed to get snaps, and they had 84 catches, 815 yards and seven touchdowns combined. Besides them, there’s Travis Fulgham, who was a non-factor outside of a five-week stretch, J.J. Arcega Whiteside, who’s one of the biggest busts in recent memory, and two second-year fifth and sixth-round picks.
There is ample opportunity for DeVonta Smith to come in and immediately be the best receiver on the team. In fact, that’s the expectation. If it doesn’t happen, Philadelphia fans will not be happy. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a young guy, especially since there is some evidence that the majority of wide receivers break out in years two and three. Notable examples of star wideouts having poor rookie seasons and breaking out include Davante Adams, Alshon Jeffery and Chris Godwin. That means there is hope for Jalen Reagor yet, and even if Smith doesn’t explode in 2021, that doesn’t mean it was a wasted pick.
Regardless, Smith will be on the field early and often for the Birds, and quarterback Jalen Hurts has played with Smith before. That connection and Smith’s talent should mean a big impact from day one, or at least the opportunity to have a big impact. His positional versatility to go outside or run in the slot will also help his playing time. Even if he doesn’t have a Justin Jefferson-type season, pretty much anything will be better than what the Eagles have been working with. They haven’t had a wide receiver (not including tight end) break 1,000 yards since Jeremy Maclin in 2014. The past two years, they haven’t even had a guy break 600.
Second Pick: Landon Dickerson, C
2021 Impact: (Hopefully) 2/10
Landon Dickerson isn’t a guy that should see many snaps. The keyword being should. Offensive line isn’t something that sees many backups play, barring something bad happening, like underperformance or injury. That second one is the problem, and why Dickerson might see some time.
The Eagles line is very good, when healthy. To start, they have three Pro Bowlers on the squad. Then, they have Jordan Mailata, who had a great 2020, and a solid fifth guy in Isaac Seumalo. There shouldn’t be much reason for Dickerson to play, unless someone declines massively. At the same time, Dickerson’s main positions he played in college were right guard and center. At center, the Eagles have three-time All-Pro Jason Kelce, who hasn’t missed a game in six years. For right guard, they have Brandon Brooks who made the Pro Bowl the last three years he played.
Talent-wise, it’d be surprising for a rookie to beat out any of these guys, especially at his primary two spots. He may not have to, though. As anyone who watched the Eagles play last year can tell you, the Eagles offensive line is injury-ridden. Lane Johnson has missed many games in his career, and more than that often goes in and out of games. Brandon Brooks has two Achilles tears and a season-ending dislocated shoulder to his name. Dickerson’s versatility and experience playing every offensive line position will help here, and he can fill in for basically anyone that misses time. Left tackle has two promising young guys, but the rest of the backup positions are open season for Dickerson.
Dickerson was drafted to be an heir-apparent to Jason Kelce, who is a retirement risk every season. Because of that, he shouldn’t be making a big impact in 2021. In an ideal world, he either is so good he takes Suemalo’s spot at left guard, or he plays only a few snaps filling in for guys who need a breather or to get checked up on.
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Third Pick: Milton Williams, DT
2021 Impact: 5/10
If there’s one thing you know the Eagles love, it’s their defensive line. The Eagles often employ a philosophy of rotating pass rushers, making sure every guy gives 100% each snap. When they need a break, another fresh guy can come in and do the same. It’s an effective strategy, and Williams should be a part of it this year.
Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargreaves have the starter spots locked down, of course, but that still leaves a ton of snaps on the table for Williams. Besides those two, there was really only one other guy that has any DT experience on the team, which is the oft-injured Hassan Ridgeway. Cox himself is also known to pick up stingers from time to time that take him out of multiple plays or even games, even when he technically starts.
Beyond injury, Cox has rarely if ever seen more than 80% of snaps in a season, even when healthy the whole year. The second spot rotates even more often. In the past five years, only 2020 saw the second DT have more than 50% of the snaps. Williams will be expected to contribute on a rotation from day one, and as one of two primary backups, that contribution won’t be tiny.
Fourth Pick: Zech McPhearson
2021 Impact: 8/10
It’s not ideal, but pretty much by default Zech McPhearson will get a shot to be a starter right away. Darius Slay has the top spot locked up, and thankfully he prefers to shadow the opponent’s best receiver. That will limit just how much the Eagles are throwing McPhearson to the wolves.
The other spot is nominally Avonte Maddox’s, but the Eagles have had three years of tape to know Maddox fits the slot position much better. Even if Maddox retains the outside role, McPhearson has the experience to play the slot as well. Either way, unless the Eagles sign someone else or McPhearson is really awful in practice, he’s going to see a lot of playing time. Whether that’s going to be a good thing or not is the question.
Fifth Pick: Kenneth Gainwell, RB
Year One Impact: 4/10
While I like Kenneth Gainwell as a player quite a bit, there is no getting around the fact that it’s a very crowded running back room. Miles Sanders has the number one job all but locked up, and he and Gainwell profile pretty similarly. Both are shifty, speedier types with passing catching chops, versus hulking power guys. That limits Gainwell’s usefulness, as long as Sanders is healthy. Not only that, but the change-of-pace third down back role is filled by Boston Scott, who’s been a solid presence for the Birds. Finally, the power back role will go to Jordan Howard, who may even push to become a true secondary RB like he was in his first stint with Philly. There’s three more running backs on the roster right now as well. It’s unlikely those three remain on the team, but they are technically obstacles for Gainwell too.
Gainwell will need to absolutely dominate in practice and camp to have a shot at any playing time at the running back position. That’s not Gainwells only path to playing however. Gainwell is very well-respected as a pass catcher (51 catches for 610 yards in 2019), so much so that there have been talks that Gainwell could split out at wide receiver. As discussed above, the wide receiver room is less than ideal in Philly. Greg Ward will play most of the slot snaps, but that doesn’t mean Gainwell can’t fill in sometimes. If the Eagles ever go four or five wide Gainwell could be one of the wide receivers there too.
That being said, there is a lot in front of Gainwell. If we do see Gainwell much at all this season, it probably means he’s doing incredibly well in practice. That should only mean good things.
Sixth Pick: Marlon Tuipulotu, DT
2021 Impact: 2/10
Marlon Tuipulotu will have the same chance as Milton Williams to seize a rotational pass rush role. Given their draft positions though, you’d think Williams will have first crack at it. Tuipulotu is known as more of a run defender than someone who gets to the QB, and he’s certainly bigger than Williams, which differentiates them. Still, it’s going to be hard for Tuipulotu to break through four guys to see anything more than mop up snaps.
Seventh Pick: Tarron Jackson, DE
2021 Impact: 5/10
Just like Williams, Tarron Jackson will get a chance to be a part of the Eagles pass rush rotation right away. Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat will be the first three names called upon, but that fourth spot that could see 200+ snaps is open. His main competition will be Joe Ostman, who played all of 29 snaps last year, and possibly fellow draftee Patrick Johnson. In other words, very little competition. The fourth DE last year was Vinny Curry, who saw 310 snaps. The majority of those could easily belong to Jackson.
Eighth Pick: Jacoby Stevens, S
2021 Impact: 0/10
The safety position is not one that rotates much, and Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris have those spots locked up. McLeod played every snap of every game he was healthy for, and his 2020 partner Jalen Mills led the Eagles defense in snaps, with 91.92% taken.
Stevens will almost certainly be used as a linebacker in the NFL though. The again, his prospects of playing time don’t look much better there either. Alex Singleton is the only locked in linebacker, and he played 90%+ of snaps once he became the starter in week 6. The other spots (which will often be just one spot assuming the base formation is in nickel, which is increasingly the norm in football) will be manned by T.J. Edwards and new signing Eric Wilson. Wilson has pass coverage down, while Edwards will cover run stuffing, which is Stevens specialty. Genard Avery is also supposed to play a more traditional linebacker role this year.
While I don’t think any of those guys are necessarily unassailable at their position (although the most likely person for Stevens to replace is Edwards, who posted a decent 66.5 grade last year), it’s not incredibly likely for Stevens to supplant any of them.
Ninth Pick: Patrick Johnson, OLB
2021 Impact: 1/10
Johnson was a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker, which as of right now the Eagles don’t use. Johnson might be able to find a role as a situational pass-rushing linebacker or put his hand in the dirt and join the defensive line rotation. At the same time a lot of players are in his way for both and he’s already an awkward fit position-wise. It’s not likely for him to see much time, but it’s not impossible either. He may see a few snaps just to get after the QB.