Welcome to Philly: Getting to Know the Defensive 2021 Picks

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By Connor Donald, Sports Talk Philly Contributing Writer

Part one of the Welcome to Philly series took a dive into the offensive draft picks of the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles made a commitment to Jalen Hurts in the 2021 draft giving him his alpha wide receiver, a true weapon of a RB2 and, should he prove his franchise QB worth in 2021, his future center.

In part two, I will dive into the defensive portion of the Eagles draft, which was unique and characterized by a few specific words. Character. Athletic. Undersized. Versatile. All draft picks possess at least three of these traits and some are already on the Eagles depth chart at different positions than they were listed as pre-draft. The Eagles spent the majority of their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball for new defensive coordinator Jon Gannon. 

Jim Schwartz’s 2020 defense struggled mightily, ranking 23rd in takeaways, including 29th in interceptions. They gave up the 18th most passing yards and the 10th most rushing yards. The defense also ranked number one in the whole league for penalty yards that they committed. Overall, a middling defense that was partially addressed through free agency with the signings of Ryan Kerrigan, Eric Wilson and Anthony Harris. Now for the draft class.

3(73): DT Milton Williams

Milton Williams came as a bit of a surprise pick and infamously gave us the video of Tom Donahoe rejecting a fist bump from Howie Roseman. Per Relative Athletic score, he is the sixth most athletic Eagle drafted based on testing and he ranked 10th among the entire 2021 draft class. Simply put, this man is an athletic specimen. Although he is a little undersized to play inside, he is a little oversized to play the edge. Throughout his college career he played both inside and outside on the defensive line, which delivers some versatility. He was praised for his football IQ and his ability to use leverage and his hands to win. Despite his athletic measurements, he is not always known to win with overpowering speed or strength.

He ascended each year in college as a football player and statistically and has some intriguing upside to become a starter in the middle of the Eagles front four. At the NFL level, given his measurements and metrics, I would say he is more likely a tackle then an edge. When looking at the current defensive line, there is a lack of depth at the tackle position and a whole lot of question marks and limited depth on the edge with Graham and Barnett set to become free agents after this season. This makes him a perfect fit. He won’t need to start right away and can provide depth and develop in his first couple seasons behind Cox and Hargrave.

4(123): CB Zech McPhearson

If you thought Williams was a surprise pick, never doubt Howie. With fans and media begging and pleading for outside cornerback help across from Darius Slay, Howie goes off the board again with an undersized but athletic cornerback that is being pegged as a sleeper by the likes of Daniel Jeremiah. McPhearson doesn’t possess ideal outside size, but he pairs that with elite explosion and great agility and speed. Per Relative Athletic Score, he is the third most athletic cornerback via testing ever drafted by the Eagles, so despite prior choices with size and athletic limitations, Howie at least covers the potential size deficiency with athleticism. He has also been praised for his overall IQ at the position with his ball skills, instincts and positioning, which will help him on the outside.

Howie made this pick with every intent to put him outside across from Darius Slay so we have to assume this is where he will start week one unless Howie makes a move post-June 1 on a free agent cornerback. Despite the concerns with McPhearson’s height and many scouts saying he would be better suited inside at the nickel, Howie is limited on options. Avonte Maddox should be moved inside or to safety as the offseason progresses and we all know what happened to Michael Jacquet on the outside.

6(189): DT Marlon Tuipulotu

Howie continues to build the trenches with another undersized T who has great ability with his hands. He also possesses an early and sudden quickness in his game to help gain early leverage. If he can continue to develop and win early in his NFL career with these traits versus the bigger, more experienced NFL offensive lines, Howie may have struck gold with the pair of Williams and Tuipulotu in the middle of the defensive line.

Scouts and draft analysts praise the guy for being a great teammate, who shows up to work everyday and puts in work. Based on the culture shift taking place at Novacare, these character picks are unsurprising. He also seems to have a more NFL-ready skillset than his draft capital may lead on. He should fit nicely into the 4-3 scheme in Philadelphia. His true ceiling may be decided and capped by what happens with his size at the NFL level. As stated above, the DT room was really slim with only three locked on the roster prior to the picks of Williams and Tuipulotu, so there very well could be room for both to make the final roster and add depth with future upside.

6(191): DE Tarron Jackson

The defensive line was likely the strongest point of the Eagles defense in 2020, but age, health and expiring contracts had Howie addressing the tackle and edge positions en masse in the 2021 draft. Tarron Jackson was a feel good story for Coastal Carolina with his journey to the college level and now to the NFL. He earned All-American honors and was the Sun-Belt Defensive Player of the Year. As with most of Howie’s 2021 picks, he is an in-betweener. His size is closer to that of a linebacker with poor athletic metrics, but cycled between tackle and edge in the Coastal Carolina defense.

He finished with some eye popping numbers in his four year career, including 42 tackles for loss, 24.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. He is a disruptor and if the Eagles can find the right place and time to use him, it could continue at the NFL level. He is a serviceable rotational edge thanks to his relentless motor, even if the size isn’t there. I could see him ending up on the practice squad in 2021 for further development and only seeing the main roster in 2022 when major decisions are made in the edge room on impending free agents Graham, Barnett, Kerrigan and Sweat.

6(225): LB JaCoby Stevens

Tell me if you have ever heard this story before: Eagles draft oversized safety to move to linebacker. Que the flashback to the nightmare that was Nate Gerry. I have a little more confidence in Stevens over Gerry. The former top-25 national recruit out of high school was a wide receiver turned safety at LSU. The Eagles continue to hunt down a guy to fill the void of Malcolm Jenkins who can play the hybrid, roaming safety/linebacker role. Stevens was listed as a safety at LSU but moved around the formation. The initial Eagles depth chart has him as a linebacker.

LSU listed him at 230 pounds, but at the Senior Bowl he weighed in at 216. The Eagles will have to work to find an ideal weight to maintain the explosiveness in his game that created some of his highlight tackles. His athletic profile is otherwise subpar, but his ability to close quick and make some big tackles is his strength and it can be spotty at times with misses. Despite his history as a WR, his coverage is lacking and would be a key developmental area in the early stages of his NFL career. I think he will ultimately end up a perennial special team and subpackage, hybrid player – if he can make the 53-man roster.

7(234): LB Patrick Johnson

Patrick Johnson has been comped by a couple analysts to current Eagles DE Derek Barnett, but it’s significant to note Barnett disappointed in regards to first-round draft capital. Johnson comes in as a low-risk, high-reward seventh-round pick. The Eagles have plugged Johnson into the troubled LB corps on early depth charts. Per Relative Athletic Score, he measures well across the board in size and athleticism for the role.

He is a disruptor and this work ethic doesn’t always show statistically. He set a school record at Tulane for 24.5 career sacks and added 34 tackles for loss, 11 pass break-ups and six forced fumbles playing at differing positions across the front seven. There is praise from analysts for his high upside and tools that could allow him to develop into a starter in the Eagles LB room. He is less raw then the LBs of the last couple drafts. Despite playing nearly all seven spots along the front seven, he has success as a standup LB and most scouting reports peg him as a LB and situational pass rusher in the NFL. He likely makes the tail end of the Eagles roster and should have an immediate impact in a lackluster LB room thanks to his disruptive tools.

Howie didn’t disappoint in giving us an intriguing class that will have Eagles fans watching OTAs, mini-camps and the pre-season with interest. He got a lot of character guys to help shift the culture, but their skills need to translate to the field. Character is great and all, but ask the Las Vegas Raiders about that; character doesn’t precipitate wins and Super Bowls.

We got some athletes, some guys with flashy highlight reels and a whole lot of guys with interesting ceilings and skillsets. We have yet to really see much of Gannon’s defense at work, but the development of this class and future classes will be key as pending free agents and aging veterans litter the defense. After years of Schwartz’s attempts at forcing a square peg into a round hole, we need to trust Gannon takes a different approach.

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