Eagles: Realistic expectations for players entering their second year

On paper, the Eagles had a pretty solid 2021 NFL Draft. Their first-round pick, wideout DeVonta Smith, broke the team’s rookie receiving yards record. Landon Dickerson solidified his spot as the starting left guard. Running back Kenny Gainwell also had his moments.

For the first time since the Super Bowl, the Eagles have legitimately talented young players. Gone are the days of aging veterans populating the depth chart on both sides of the ball.

The majority of the Eagles’ second year players have breakout potential entering their sophomore campaigns. For the ones that don’t, they still present enough upside to have optimism for them moving forward.

Let’s take a look at each of the notable Eagles players from their 2021 draft class and assess how their games may develop entering 2022.

WR DeVonta Smith

I’ve gushed over DeVonta Smith a lot this offseason, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. Smith is a true No. 1 wideout and will likely face No. 2 corners this year now that A.J. Brown is in the fold.

Smith routinely torched corners during his rookie season, en route to a record breaking campaign. With the development of Jalen Hurts as a thrower, Smith’s numbers should be even better in 2022. He has 1,000-yard potential and could easily meet that threshold this season.

By season’s end, we may refer to Smith as the best player on the Eagles roster. He’s that talented.

G Landon Dickerson

After Isaac Seumalo went down with a season ending injury, Landon Dickerson was called upon to fill the veteran’s vacancy, and he didn’t disappoint. He finished the season with a PFF grade of 69.6, ranking him 22nd among 82 qualifying guards.

Dickerson really thrived in the running game. Although he was originally drafted to be a center, his 6-foot-6, 333-pound frame is better suited at the guard position, where he can use his strength to push interior lineman around. His 71.2 run blocking grade per PFF ranked 21st among all guards in 2021.

Entering year two, Dickerson needs to improve in his pass blocking. He wasn’t terrible at it in 2021, but it was the clear weakness of his game when compared to his run blocking. On 485 pass blocking reps, Dickerson gave up a total of 31 pressures. That means Dickerson was allowing pressure on just about 6% of his pass blocking reps. That may not seem like a lot, but it was way more than any other lineman along the Eagles front last season.

Regardless, Dickerson still has Pro Bowl potential entering his second year. If he can clean up his pass sets, he’ll be a Pro Bowl player for years to come.

DT Milton Williams

It’ll be interesting to see where Milton Williams fits into the Eagles defensive line rotation this year. With the addition of Jordan Davis, Jonathan Gannon now has four interior lineman that can contribute in a meaningful way.

In year one, Williams played 41% of the team’s defensive snaps, recording 30 combined tackles and 2 sacks on the season. Throughout the 2021 season, Gannon lined Williams up all over the defensive front. He spent the majority of his playing time in the typical defensive tackle alignment, logging 269 snaps there. But, he also saw a good bit of playing time along the edge, playing a combined 186 snaps over the tackle and outside the tackle.

At his best, Williams could be a pass rushing force along the interior. His 60.5 PFF pass rushing grade was by far his highest mark in any category last season. Coming in at just 290 pounds, Williams may never be a dominant three-down defensive tackle. Which is fine for now. The Eagles have three other interior lineman who can play on early downs in Davis, Fletcher Cox, and Javon Hargrave.

I imagine Williams’ pass rushing ability will be utilized even more in 2022. Cox and Davis will likely see the majority of early down snaps, with Hargrave and Williams rotating in on third downs to get after the passer. A fresh Williams and Hargrave could wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.

Williams may not be a starter in his second year, but he should still see solid playing time in passing situations.

CB Zech McPhearson

Zech McPhearson didn’t get a lot of playing time during his rookie season. Due in large part to the health of the cornerback room. Injuries have absolutely dismantled the Eagles secondary in the past, but they were able to avoid any major injuries at corner in 2021.

If any of the top-three corners missed significant time last season, McPhearson would have been the first one off the bench. He filled in occasionally, like in Week 9 against the Chargers when Darius Slay went down for a few possessions. McPhearson held his own whenever he saw the field, but his sample size was too small for anyone to draw any real conclusions on his play.

Entering the 2022 season, McPhearson will once again be the primary backup to both Slay and James Bradberry. He could also fill in for Avonte Maddox in the slot if need be. He did spend some time in the nickel during his college days.

Unless there’s a major injury to the cornerback group this year, we probably won’t see a whole lot of McPhearson again. He has potential, but we may need to wait another year or so before we get to see it manifest on the field.

RB Kenny Gainwell

For a fifth-round pick, Kenny Gainwell was pretty damn solid during his rookie campaign. He tallied 544 yards from scrimmage, while finding the end zone 6 times.

Where Gainwell really excelled was in the passing game. He posted a PFF receiving grade of 75.9 in 2021, which ranked seventh among 58 qualifying running backs. Gainwell hauled in 33 receptions for 253 yards. Along with his solid receiving ability, Gainwell was the best pass protector of any Eagles running back last season. His 75.8 PFF pass blocking grade ranked eighth among all backs.

Gainwell should be the unquestioned third down back entering his second season. He has the best hands of any back on the roster and is far and away the best pass protector. With Miles Sanders entering the final year of his rookie contract, Gainwell’s performance this year could play a role in how the Eagles approach negotiations with Sanders. If Gainwell proves that he’s more than just a third down back in 2022, the team may be comfortable moving forward with him as their primary back in 2023 and beyond.

LB Patrick Johnson

I liked Patrick Johnson a lot as a prospect last season. He probably should have seen more playing time as the SAM backer. There was no logical reason to keep Genard Avery as the starter there all season.

Johnson only saw 111 defensive snaps last season and he had some promising moments. he showcased his versatility every time he saw the field, which was encouraging. He posted a PFF coverage grade of 74.6, the highest coverage grade of any Eagles linebacker last season.

At the very least, Johnson should provide solid depth at the SAM spot. Allowing him to develop his game behind Haason Reddick will pay off in the long run. Johnson has all the athletic ability to be a starter in this league, he just needs to refine the small aspects of his game before he’s starting quality.

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