The offseason upon us and while excitement surrounding the newest Eagles to the nest is at an all-time high, the rookies who debuted during the Super Bowl winning campaign will be looking to improve on last season’s success. Who of the group is best positioned to do that? Let’s take a look.
DE Derek Barnett
Rookie stats: 18 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
The team’s first-round pick from 2017 wasted little time in staking his claim to a future starting role. Barnett’s burst and exceptional flexion was a focal point in his game all season as he terrorized offenses, making highlight plays everywhere he went. His 2 sack game against the Redskins stands out as a regular season highlight, while his iconic play in Super Bowl 52 very much presents a foreshadowing.
With Vinny Curry out of the equation, it leaves Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham as likely starters, while Chris Long and Barnett both return to their former roles as rotational missiles. Eagles DL coach Chris Wilson keeps Barnett in high regard however and if Bennett is unable to take vital training camp reps due to his legal difficulties, the door could open for the pride of Tennessee.
“You’d like to see him compete as a starter,” he said. “And that’s what it is. You want to see him compete as an every-down player and that’s the expectation. And I think that’s the expectation for any second-year guys, especially guys that are drafted at his status. I believe he has the ability to be a three-down guy and that’s what we’re looking for.”
The ceiling for Barnett in year two is to establish a starting role, but if that isn’t possible, it’s competing like one. providing that same level of disruption as a rotational defensive end and becoming even more efficient during his time on the field. Barnett came on leaps and bounds during his rookie year, but his sophomore season could be one of explosive proportions.
Second round: CB Sidney Jones
Perhaps the highest ceiling of all lies with former Washington cornerback, Sidney Jones. After missing his rookie year due to an injury suffered before the NFL Draft that saw him slip into Philly’s lap to begin with, Jones looks ready to bounce back with a vengeance. We were able to Catcha. first glimpse of Jones at the NFL in week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys and it’s safe to say he didn’t disappoint.
As he heads into his first full season in the NFL, a starting role beckons. The question is, where will it be? During OTA’s, the second-round pick took snaps in the nickel as well as shining on the outside. There are plenty of question marks over this cornerback group and very few of them are negative. With such an abundance of talent, the concern is just how Cory Undlin and Jim Schwartz will ensure they get the best combination on the field.
There is a chance that Jones sees a rotational role this season while Darby plays out his contract year, opening the door to a CB1 starting role next year. On the other hand, there could be a trade that throws Jones into the deep end at a moments notice. Whichever way you look at it, there’s plenty to be excited about.
Third round: CB Rasul Douglas
Rookie stats: 23 tackles, 11 passes defensed, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble.
When Ronald Darby went down with a worrying injury in week one of the regular season, it would be West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas who would step into the fray. The third round pick did more than just hold his own and despite some errors in man-coverage (which can be largely be placed on the fact he didn’t play in man at West Virginia), he showed some very promising signs.
Douglas was a complete ballhawk and showed shades of the monster he turned into at WVU, breaking on balls and using his rangy wingspan to swat them away, Douglas was a force to be reckoned with at the top of the route. The ceiling, would likely be very high…but it isn’t as sky-high as many think.
The problem he now faces is that there is a complete logjam at cornerback. I made a video recently proposing a solution…
A lot of this is dependent on whether or not the Eagles bring back Corey Graham like they’re slated to, but as of right now, a ‘Jaylen Watkins’ like move would surely only increase his chances of seeing more defensive action in 2018.
If he doesn’t transition over the top, Douglas will likely be a special teams contributor in year two and see some rotational snaps as the year progresses. He adds a lot of value in this defense and his ability to locate the ball and make highlight-reel plays is second to none. A big offseason will be needed if he is to throw his hat into the mix at cornerback, but we should be preparing to see plenty more of Douglas in the year’s to come, especially after next season.
Fourth round: RB Donnel Pumphrey
Pumphrey’s rookie year that never was left many fans disappointed. Struggling from rookie minicamp right up until the preseason where he he often looked overwhelmed and was often completely blanketed unless lined up in the slot, this is a big offseason for the SDSU standout. Darren Sproles mentoring Pumphrey is huge and with the ‘little engine that could’ also returning for one last shot at a ring, the versatility and danger that both bring to the table could be a major weapon for the Eagles backfield.
This doesn’t mean that Pumphrey’s role is safe however. The backfield is one of the most congested areas on the Eagles roster this season and there is stiff competition at every turn. Another poor offseason would leave the Eagles with very little in the way of leverage and optionality. The pressure is on for Donnel to ‘Pump’ up the jam when Training Camp this offseason and showcase the impact that mental reps had on his game.
Fourth round: WR Mack Hollins
Rookie stats: 16 rec, 226 yards, 14.6 yards per reception, 1 TD
“Backpack Mack” stole the hearts of fans rapidly in his rookie season. The UNC product infused his presence more and more as the season went on, bursting out of the gate for a stunning 64-yard touchdown under the primetime lights, before flossing in front of the fans.
With size, speed and a huge catch radius on his side, Hollins will continue to be a matchup nightmare for smaller corners in the slot while also competing for a potential spot as a 2/4 option outside. Expect Hollins to carry that ‘hidden weapon’ reputation which could see Pederson pull the trigger at any time or if the offense begins stagnating, unleashing the deep threat and picking up significant yardage as a result.
Hollins has a rare skillset and with a year under his former college WR Coach, Gunter Brewer, on the horizon, we could expect big things with Philly still searching for long-term solutions beyond Jeffery and Agholor.
Fifth round: Shelton Gibson
Rookie stats: 2 receptions, 11 yards, 5.5 yards per reception
By this point, the story of Nelson Agholor has become somewhat of a fairytale. Fans and the media had all but given up on the young wideout prior to his stunning breakout in 2017. Agholor proved everybody wrong with his work ethic and crisp route-running that elevated him to ‘first round’ status to begin with. The hopes are now similar for WVU’s Shelton Gibson.
A tough first offseason in the NFL left Gibson out of favor. Drops and inconsistencies saw him spend the majority of his rookie year on the sidelines until a brief appearance against the Cowboys in week 17. Having spent a year under Mike Grow and now looking to work through an offseason with Gunter Brewer, the bounce back could well be on and the Eagles still have no long-term option at their coveted ‘deep threat’ spot which they are still yet to fill.
Gibson was a complete monster at West Virginia, ending his collegiate career with 1,898 yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging a stunning 22.6 yards per reception. Alshon Jeffery is set to miss a huge chunk of the offseason, meaning that the reps Gibson will receive could see a major boost and therefore opening up a huge window of opportunity to showcase his progression. If Gibson can turn heads and eliminate the issues that plagued him last year, he could have a rotational role to play in year two.
Fifth round: LB Nate Gerry
Rookie stats: 3 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
The former Nebraska Safety took a while to start thumping in Philadelphia. A move to linebacker left him fighting for scraps in a position inundated with depth. Instead, Gerry carved his niche on special teams before eventually earning some key snaps late in the season. As the Eagles look to move forward having lost two starting caliber linebackers this offseason, the door could be wide open for Gerry to blast through.
The second-year linebacker has enjoyed a strong offseason and is one of the favorites to replace Mychal Kendricks or see plenty of an action as a Safety who plays inside the box, much like Malcolm Jenkins. Gerry could be primed to be one of the surprise breakout candidates, depending on how successful and impressive the remaining of the offseason really is. If Gerry can continue to push his way up the depth chart, he’s built to become a force to be reckoned with in this defense.
Sixth round: DT Elijah Qualls
Rookie stats: 4 tackles
Qualls also finds himself in a unique spot. The injury to Timmy Jernigan and emotional goodbye to Beau Allen has left a significant hole at DT. Ngata will fill in for Jernigan, but the former teammate of Sidney Jones carries a bruising frame that draws double teams away from the likes of Fletcher Cox and the DE’s, allowing them to run rampant while he eats up space in the middle and clogs the rushing lanes.
Qualls moves exceptionally quick for someone of his size and it would be hard to imagine Schwartz not integrating his intimidating frame into the gameplan moving forward, especially considering how much he likes to move his linemen around and keep the rotations fresh. Qualls, like Gerry, could be another candidate for a surprise breakout.
UDFA: RB Corey Clement
Rookie stats: 74 carries, 321 yards, 4.3 yards per carry, 4 touchdowns, 10 receptions, 123 yards, 2 touchdowns
An underdog in every sense of the word, Clement stormed his way to a phenomenal rookie campaign that ended in the most fairytale-like fashion imaginable, catching a huge touchdown in Super Bowl 52. The backfield will now be focused around Jay Ajayi and Clement for the time being, with the former Wisconsin Badger possessing the opportunity to clutch the starting reins should Ajayi depart after his contract season comes to a close.
This is a huge year for Clement, who started out running down the clock and showing ball-security, and ended it as one of the most important playmakers in the entire offense. His progression was simply outstanding and it’s clear Pederson and Duce Staley are only just scratching the surface of this raging bull’s potential. Expect to see a lot of Corey Clement in 2018…and expect to see a lot of success to follow him.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports