In reality, it’s impossible to truly grade a draft class after just one year. But it’s certainly possible to see which way a draft class is leaning after one season.
The Eagles had a solid haul in their 2021 draft class. Four of the rookies saw significant playing time throughout the year, and a few others made strong contributions on special teams.
Let’s take a look at this draft class and hand out our final grades for this year’s rookie crop.
1st Round Pick: WR DeVonta Smith
DeVonta Smith was everything fans hoped he’d be during his rookie season. He broke DeSean Jackson’s rookie receiving record, finishing the year with 916 yards on 64 receptions (14.3 YPC). That’s the most receiving yards put up by an Eagles wideout since Jordan Matthews totaled 997 in 2015.
From his elite route running to his ability make contested catches and high point the ball, Smith does it all, and it helped propel this Eagles offense to the postseason. Without him, who knows what this Eagles passing attack would look like. Aside from Quez Watkins, no other Eagles wideout went over 300 yards on the season. There’s an argument to be had that Smith was the most valuable piece to this Eagles offense in 2021.
Finding a No. 1 wide receiver has been a priority for Howie Roseman over the past few years. In 2021, he finally accomplished that goal by snagging Smith.
2nd Round Pick: G Landon Dickerson
After a bit of a slow start to his rookie campaign, Landon Dickerson really picked up the pace in the second half of the season and has cemented his status as a building block along the Eagles offensive line.
We already knew the former Bama standout was going to be a mauler in the running game, but his pass blocking improved steadily as the season went on. After Week 10, Dickerson only surrendered one sack and three quarterback hits. On the year, Dickerson played a total of 485 pass blocking snaps and he only gave up two sacks and eight hits on the quaterback.
The one red flag with the second round selection was his injury history. Dickerson only missed two games due to injury this season, with one of them being Week 1 while he was still recovering from his torn ACL from the year prior.
He has all the makings of a Pro Bowl guard in the NFL. He and Jordan Mailata will abuse defenders on that left side of the line for years to come.
3rd Round Pick: DT Milton Williams
After a promising preseason, Milton Williams had a bit of an up and down rookie season. His Pro Football Focus single-game grades fluctuated significantly throughout the season. His lowest mark of the year came against Denver, where Williams posted a 29.3 overall grade. His highest grade came in Week 10 against Washington, where he finished with a 83.2 overall mark.
His overall grade for the season came out to 49.0, which ranks 97th out of 124 qualifying interior defenders. Not a great first year, but there were certainly things to build off of moving forward. Williams showcased solid pass rushing ability throughout the year and proved that he can be effective from any alignment along the defensive line.
In order to cement his spot as a full time starter moving forward, Williams will need to continue to work on his run stopping ability. It’s not surprising that he struggled in that regard given his smaller stature as a defensive tackle, but his 43.9 run defense grade leaves a lot to be desired.
Williams still has all the tools to become a solid starter in this league, it just didn’t come together like some of us hoped in year one.
4th Round Pick: CB Zech McPhearson
Despite getting the start in the final game of the season, it’s still hard to figure out what the team really has in Zech McPhearson. On one hand, he’s shown that he’s a physical presence at corner and that he’s not afraid to make tackles in the open field. His 80.9 run defense grade per PFF speaks to that. On the other hand, he’s seen very little targets in coverage so it’s hard to say whether or not he’s stout there.
Regardless, he has done well on the limited playing time he’s seen. McPhearson was targeted 13 times this year and allowed eight receptions (61.5 completion percentage) and he allowed a pedestrian 77.4 passer rating in coverage.
He’ll be one of the more interesting storylines to follow leading up to training camp next season. With Steven Nelson likely to hit the open market this offseason, McPhearson should get the first crack at the starting spot opposite of Darius Slay. He’s shown enough promise to warrant some optimism moving forward, but it’s impossible to know for sure what he’ll bring to the field when/if he gets the starting gig.
5th Round Pick: RB Kenneth Gainwell
The Eagles got great value with their selection of Kenny Gainwell in the fifth-round. He’s been an integral part of the Eagles offense all season, totaling 544 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.
Gainwell was easily the best receiving back on the roster this season. He recorded 33 receptions for 253 yards and one touchdown through the air this season, along with posting a solid 73.6 receiving grade per PFF. He also showcased great running ability in between the tackles, which was a bit of a surprise coming into the year. Not only does he have solid quickness and speed to hit the home run, Gainwell’s tough enough to put his head down and fight for yards.
He’s really the complete package at running back and he should remain a key piece in the Eagles backfield for years to come.
6th Round Pick: DT Marlon Tuipulotu
On the year, Marlon Tuipulotu only played 55 total defensive snaps this year. He never rose past the fifth defensive tackle on the depth chart, which isn’t too surprising considering he was a sixth round pick and the Eagles had proven players ahead of him.
With Hassan Ridgeway likely to be gone this offseason, Tuipulotu could see more field time next year.
6th Round Pick: LB JaCoby Stevens
JaCoby Stevens was on the Eagles practice squad all season until Week 18 when he got the start against Dallas. After just one game, it’s pretty clear why Stevens remained on the practice squad all season.
Stevens posted an overall grade of 24.1 per PFF, the worst grade of any player on the Eagles defense Saturday night. He has some intriguing tools at linebacker, but he still clearly needs time to develop them.
7th Round Pick: LB Patrick Johnson
The Eagles have actually done pretty well drafting players in the seventh round over the year. They snagged Jalen Mills in the seventh-round back in 2016, then two years later they got their franchise left tackle in Mailata in the same round. This past year, they were able to get Patrick Johnson in the seventh and he’s shown some promise throughout his rookie campaign.
The Tulane product played 111 defensive snaps in 2021 and finished the year with an overall grade of 66.6, along with a stout coverage grade of 74.6. Johnson is really a perfect fit for Gannon’s defense because of his versatility at the SAM backer position. He can get after the passer or play a more traditional linebacking role off the ball.
His future in Philly is bright and he should see extended playing time next year and beyond.
Overall Grade: A-
Aside from the 2018 draft haul, the 2021 class could be Howie’s best draft class to date. He secured a handful of starters on both sides of the ball. Smith, Dickerson, and Gainwell on the offensive side, along with Williams, McPhearson, and Johnson on the defensive side.
The offensive haul was undoubtedly more impressive and it’s clear that those players will be starters in Philly for a long time, but the potential with his defensive picks is unquestionable. Not only did most of these players contribute in some capacity during their rookie seasons, they all have the potential to improve even further down the line.
A lot of fans are pointing to next year’s draft as a franchise defining moment, for obvious reasons. But we may look back on this draft class and realize that this was truly the franchise defining moment for the forseeable future.