With the Philadelphia Eagles in a re-tooling phase, there’s bound to be some players who unexpectedly contribute in big ways this season.
As I’ve said numerous times throughout this offseason, there are several unknowns with this roster right now. We can project what the depth chart may look like, but it’s impossible to know how it could shift as we get closer to training camp.
Here are three under the radar Eagles players who could be in for big seasons in 2021.
K’Von Wallace quickly became a fan favorite after being drafted in the fourth round in last year’s draft. Being the first Clemson safety to be taken by the Eagles since Brian Dawkins, on top of the fact that he actually roomed with Dawkins’ son at Clemson, and it should be to no one’s surprise that Wallace had the fans’ hearts from day one.
But after a very lack luster rookie season, Wallace is being somewhat overlooked this offseason. In three starts last season, Wallace recorded 21 combined tackles and 1 fumble recovery. Although he wasn’t targeted a whole lot in pass coverage, in the limited coverage snaps he played, Wallace struggled. On 9 targets, Wallace allowed 6 receptions for 53 yards and gave up a passer rating of 82.2. Not terrible, but there’s certainly room for improvement.
Wallace’s best fit is probably in a box safety role, or even in the nickel where he can get closer to the line of scrimmage. He’s a physical player with average to above average athletic ability. Moving him closer to the line would allow him to be more physical with receivers off the line and make more plays on the ball.
It’s still unclear exactly where Wallace fits into Jonathan Gannon’s defense. But what we do know is that Avonte Maddox could be forced to play on the outside yet again this season — unless the team acquires a suitable option to place opposite of Darius Slay. Regardless, the nickel spot could be there for the taking if Wallace wants it. He’s bigger and more physical than Maddox, and we know Gannon likes physicality and length in his defensive backs — something Maddox sorely lacks.
If he does carve out a role for himself, Wallace could be a nice contributor for Gannon on the backend of his defense.
John Hightower was another name that fans were high on coming out of last year’s draft. The Eagles strategy at receiver last offseason was clear — speed, speed, and more speed. With Hightower’s 4.43 40-time, he clearly fills that criteria. And with his unique length, standing at 6-foot-1 with 38.5-inch arms, there really isn’t a receiver on this roster built quite like Hightower.
Given that, Hightower could be a jack of all trades weapon for Nick Sirianni this season. He primarily lined up on the outside last season, which is probably where his highest potential is, but his athletic ability and size could make him a matchup nightmare from the slot. Not only does he have the speed and quickness to match nearly every nickel corner he’ll face, he’ll more than likely have the size advantage over them.
As of right now, only two Eagles wideouts are penciled in as starters, DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor. Reagor eluded to Sirianni moving his receivers all over the formation when speaking with the media on Monday. Hightower may be the best equipped wideout outside of Smith to play any receiver position.
He’ll have to clean up the drops a bit, as he let four balls fall through his hands last season. But his 16.7 yards per reception is a pretty solid mark, and it shows that his best strength is on the deep ball.
Sirianni has emphasized numerous times how important it is to put players in positions that will play to their strengths. I’m sure he’ll find a handful of ways to utilize Hightower’s speed and size this season.
Heading into 2021, many expect the Eagles top two linebackers to be Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton. Wilson proved to be one of the better coverage linebackers in the league last season, and after Singleton lead the team in total tackles last season, it’s fair to assume he’s a lock.
So where does that leave T.J. Edwards? He feels like the odd man out, especially when you consider some of the other depth at the position like Shaun Bradley and Davion Taylor, both of whom were drafted just last season. But we shouldn’t count Edwards out just yet.
While both Singleton and Wilson fit the profile of the athletic type of linebacker most teams covet in today’s NFL, neither of them have experience playing middle linebacker, which is the only position Edwards has played since his days at Wisconsin.
He’s not the coverage guy that either Singleton or Wilson are, but he’s certainly developed in that area over the past two seasons. And he’s definitely a better thumper than Wilson is, which could give him the edge in early down snaps.
Jonathan Gannon’s new defensive scheme should benefit Edwards’ skill set as well. With more two safety looks, it’ll allow the linebackers to play more aggressively and attack the line of scrimmage more frequently. Edwards has always been solid at diagnosing the run and getting himself in position to make the tackle or to make the ball carrier change directions right into an oncoming defender.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Edwards ends up playing more snaps than Wilson or Singleton this year. It’s not all about athleticism at the linebacker position, like some may lead you to believe. You still need to be able to put your nose in there and make tackles or disrupt passes. In that regard, Edwards may be the best of the bunch right now.
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