For the first time in a long time, the Eagles had a several young players produce at a high level in 2021. Almost all of their draft picks from this season saw some sort of playing time, and various players from prior drafts started to flash some of their potential.
Looking ahead to next season, the Eagles have a fair amount of breakout candidates. While we could populate this list with names like DeVonta Smith, Landon Dickerson, or Jalen Hurts, we’re going to take a look at some of the more under-the-radar breakout candidates for next season.
Let’s get into it.
S Marcus Epps
Surprisingly, Marcus Epps was the highest graded safety on the Eagles roster in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus. He posted a 74.6 defensive grade, ranking him 20th out of 94 qualifying safeties. His 88.9 run defense grade was in elite territory among safeties, ranking second in the league for the position, behind only Jimmie Ward of San Francisco.
With Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod both set to hit free agency this offseason, Epps will more than likely be the first man up to fill one of their roles. He had a career year in 2021, playing 505 defensive snaps (the most of his career) and tallying 62 combined tackles, five pass deflections, and one interception.
Howie Roseman will still look to add another safety to the group this offseason, but expect Epps’ playing time to increase. He’ll probably get one of the starting spots in 2022 and fans should be excited to see what the 26-year-old can accomplish with further development.
RB Kenneth Gainwell
There were only two running backs in the entire league this season who scored at least six touchdowns on 101 or fewer touches. Rookie Kenneth Gainwell was one of them (6 touchdowns on 101 touches) — with the other being Boston Scott (7 touchdowns on 100 touches).
With Jordan Howard set to hit the open market and the future of Miles Sanders still a little foggy, Gainwell should continue to see extended playing time throughout next season. His playing time was hard to predict in 2021. Some games he felt like the feature back, while in others, he barely saw the field.
What held him back from being the team’s go-to third down back was his pass blocking. For as great as he was catching the ball out of the backfield (75.9 receiving grade, best among Eagles backs), he was equally as terrible picking up pass rushers in protection (43.2 pass blocking grade, worst among Eagles backs). To be fair, that’s something that a lot of young backs struggle with.
He clearly has the ability to do it, as evidenced here:
If Gainwell can iron out his pass blocking ability, there’s no doubt he’ll see a hefty workload in his sophomore campaign.
LB Patrick Johnson
Last year’s seventh-round pick, Patrick Johnson played sparingly in his rookie season. He was the primary backup to Genard Avery and the SAM linebacker position. With Avery likely to hit free agency this offseason, Johnson will be the the first man up to fill his role.
Johnson is one of the most versatile players on the Eagles defense at the moment. His calling card is rushing the passer, but he’s athletic enough to drop into coverage when need be. He has all the skills to be a productive SAM backer in Jonathan Gannon’s system. It’s a shame the team didn’t give him an opportunity to start in that role as a rookie, especially since Avery was pretty underwhelming.
The Eagles will probably add a few linebackers to their group this offseason, but it’ll be interesting to see if/how they go about addressing the SAM spot. If they don’t add any versatile pass rushing linebackers, it could be a sign that Johnson will be in line to start next season. Only time will tell.
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