How will Eagles 2017 draft picks contribute this season?
Eagles first round pick Derek Barnett will no doubt see the field plenty in 2017, but what about the seven other drafted rookies in his class?
Derek Barnett, DE (14 overall)
Let’s start with the first pick, Derek Barnett. The days of first round picks at any position being given time to learn the NFL before having an immediate impact is drawing to a close, but that was hardly ever true of defensive ends. Previous first round picks Brandon Graham and Marcus Smith can attest to that. Barnett may at first appear to be entering a crowded position: He’ll have to fight Graham, Vinny Curry, new signee Chris Long and even Smith for playing time.
But if the Eagles were satisfied with what they had on the roster, they wouldn’t have taken Barnett.
Curry had a tremendously disappointing 2016, recording just 2.5 sacks after the team invested in him significantly for a part-time player. Barnett, with 33 college sacks of his own (to pass Reggie White’s record at Tennessee) will be given an opportunity to win playing time opposite Graham immediately. And as a player who wins battles with technique and polished moves more often than brute athleticism, he should be ready to go.
Rookie impact: possible starter
Sidney Jones, CB (43 overall), Rasul Douglas, CB (99 overall)
Their second-round pick, who came at a position where there is great opportunity, won’t be seeing the field quite as early. Sidney Jones will be recovering from his torn Achilles when the season begins, and while the injury itself should keep him out until approximately October, catching up to the team may delay his playing even longer. Jones is the most talented corner on the Eagles roster, but they didn’t invest in him for the 2017 season. Have patience.
The Eagles also spent their next pick on a cornerback, and Rasul Douglas should be competing for a starting role with Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson from day one. Douglas is the biggest corner on the team at 6-foot-2, and while the knock on him is his speed and athleticism (he ran a 4.59 40-yard dash and recorded a 33.5 inch vertical at the combine) that should make him less of a project and more of a player who is ready to play out of the gate — exactly what the Eagles need at cornerback. He had eight interceptions in 2016, and the Birds would welcome any portion of that in 2017.
Rookie impact: Jones, almost none, Douglas possible starter
Nate Gerry, LB (184 overall)
A late pick who should have a big opportunity to make an impact is Nebraska safety-turned-linebacker Nate Gerry. Taken in the fifth round, Gerry would have had a hard time breaking onto the field at safety behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod but the same isn’t true at linebacker. The team’s third linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, played just 27 percent of snaps last season and had trade rumors swirl around him through the draft. It’s unclear if playing most snaps with two linebackers was Jim Schwartz’ preference in 2016 or something they felt was a necessity to maximize the talent on hand, but if they use more three linebacker sets in 2017, the door should be open for Gerry to compete.
That said, he will be learning a new position and while every scouting report talking about Gerry’s ferocity as a run defender and limitations playing a deep center-field role certainly lends evidence the Eagles are doing a smart thing by moving him to linebacker, that will take time. While he learns, Gerry sounds like a prime candidate to be an early contributor on special teams — running downhill at a ball carrier fits the profile of the player who was Pro Football Focus’ second highest graded safety in 2016.
Rookie impact: possible starter
Mack Hollins, WR (118 overall), Shelton Gibson, WR (166 overall), Donnell Pumphrey, RB (132 overall)
But what about offense, where the team is theoretically more in need of playmakers? They didn't invest any high selections on this side of the ball, and so it's hard to see a rookie immediately taking playing time from the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Jordan Matthews or Darren Sproles. But the projection of Torrey Smith recapturing his days stretching the field is just that — a projection — and if he can't return to the form he had in Baltimore, the Eagles drafted two receivers, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson, who built college careers around providing the deep threat. Each averaged over 20 yards per reception in college.
One of the biggest question marks remains at running back. Sandwiched between Hollins and Gibson the Eagles drafted Donnel Pumphrey, the all-time leading rusher in college football history. Despite his prolific history, Pumphrey’s future in the NFL is unclear, as questions abound about whether his 176 pound frame will hold up in the pro game. Opportunity exists however, with Darren Sproles best used in a part-time role and only Wendell Smallwood on the roster to compete for touches.
Rookie impact: depth, special teams