Eagles: 3 young defenders who may contribute earlier than expected

As we all know, the Eagles are in the midst of a transitional period. Out are the coaches who helped bring the Lombardi Trophy to Philly three years ago, and in are the likes of Nick Sirianni, Jonathan Gannon, and Shane Steichen, none of whom are over 41 years old.

With new young coaches comes new young talent as well, and the Eagles have several young players that they’ll be relying on this year. Players like Jalen Hurts, DeVonta Smith, and Jalen Reagor are the obvious first and second year players expected to produce this year.

But what about the rest of the first and second year players on the defensive side of the ball? With the amount of turnover this roster saw throughout the offseason, surely some of these young pups will get a chance to shine on Sundays this fall.

Here are three young players we should expect to contribute in 2021.

Zech McPhearson

The Eagles 2021 fourth round pick, Zech McPhearson may have to start from day one in his rookie season. The team has two corners on their roster with legitimate NFL experience, Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox. Slay will start at CB1, with Maddox shifting into the nickel. That leaves a gaping hole at the second cornerback spot — a hole that may be McPhearson’s to fill.

Jonathan Gannon has several names to choose from to fill the CB2 vacancy, but there aren’t many that bring great potential to the table. Outside of McPhearson, Michael Jacquet is the only other corner left on the roster who seems to have NFL quality tools at his disposal.

If the battle for the CB2 spot comes down to these two, don’t be shocked if McPhearson comes out victorious. He has great ball skills and he looks like your prototypical NFL corner, standing at 5-foot-11 and weighing in at 191 pounds. McPhearson wasn’t the most sought after cornerback prospect in this year’s draft, obviously, but there were a handful of prominent draft analysts who were quite high on the Texas Tech product.

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network had McPhearson ranked as his 85th overall prospect, and the Eagles selected him at 123rd overall. Former NFL head coach Rex Ryan also had high praise for the rookie fourth rounder. Ryan coached Team Kai at the annual Hula Bowl this year, where he got his first glimpse of McPhearson in person.

“This kid jumped out,” Ryan said. “In 1-on-1s, he jumped out in that, he jumped out on the field. He’s not the biggest guy, maybe 5-11ish, around that, but he can run and, man, he can shadow and mirror and he has ball skills. To me, I was like, ‘Hell, this kid looks pretty damn good to me.'”

Ryan has coached the likes of Darrelle Revis in his coaching career, so he knows good cornerback play when he sees it.

Out of all the rookies in this year’s Eagles class, McPhearson could be the most important in the grand scheme of things. If he solidifies himself as a viable starting corner this year, the Eagles will have a good young corner for the first time since Lito Shepard and Sheldon Brown. It’s been that long.

I’m anxious to see what this kid can do during camp and the preseason.

K’Von Wallace

Most fans expected K’Von Wallace to have a bigger role in Jim Schwartz’s defense last season, but due to the COVID-shortened offseason, he never seemed to get fully acclimated to the defense in his rookie season.

In total, Wallace played 202 defensive snaps and recorded 21 combined tackles. Not a whole lot in terms of productions during his rookie campaign, but we did see glimpses of what he can do at the end of the season.

Wallace typically did a nice job in coverage, sticking with tight ends or running backs whenever he was matched up on them. He also displayed some nice football IQ in his limited snaps — whether it was bailing on a failed blitz to get back into coverage, or taking certain angles to cut off potential touchdown runs, Wallace obviously has the football smarts to contribute.

Where he did see some struggles was in his tackling and blitzing. On nearly all of Wallace’s tackle attempts, he opted to go low on the runner and just torpedo himself into the ball carriers. Sometimes this paid off and he got the tackle, but more often than not the runner would hurdle him or bounce right off his shoulder pads.

Here’s a quick one-minute reel of some of Wallace’s tackling attempts in 2020 (via Philly Voice’s Jimmy Kempski):

Not great.

Wallace will likely be looked at as the third safety going into camp; a position that should fit his skill set nicely. He’ll be matched up primarily on tight ends, which he proved last year he’s capable of covering. And it’ll allow his high football IQ to shine and hopefully create turnovers.

With a more defined role in the defense this year, Wallace will have his opportunity to cement himself as a fixture in Gannon’s defense for years to come.

Milton Williams

While the Eagles have tremendous depth at their defensive end positions, they’re lacking that same kind of depth along the interior. Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave are good starters, but behind them, the Eagles have a bunch of question marks.

Third round pick Milton Williams is someone who will have the opportunity to earn playing time during camp. He’s a rangy lineman who has the athletic traits to line up at pretty much every position along the defensive front. From the three-tech, to the five-tech, to even an EDGE position, Williams is a true tweener who presents great upside.

We don’t know much about what Gannon’s defense will look like quite yet, but it’s safe to assume he’ll utilize a hybrid front based on the personnel at his disposal. This should work in Williams’ favor from day one.

With his athletic ability, he’s a natural choice to have come off the bench in pass rushing situations as an interior rusher. Cox will gobble up the double teams, allowing Williams to have one-on-one matchups with guards. He brings a nice pallet of pass rushing moves to the table, with room for growth with some refinement.

If Williams can be a suitable depth piece in year one, it’ll take a ton of pressure off Cox and Hargrave and it’ll make the defensive line better as a whole.

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