Pair Of Birds Rookies Ready To Spread Wings
Before last Thursday’s unraveling to the New England Patriots, Eagles rookie cornerback Zech McPhearson had enjoyed a somewhat seamless transition to the NFL.
McPhearson, the team’s fourth-round pick, burst onto the scene this summer, displaying inherent confidence, football intellect, and ball skills throughout training camp.
The 23-year-old had shown to be a consistent and steady presence, utilizing the ample reps to refine his skill set and reap valuable on-the-job training.
McPhearson’s parlayed his impressive practices into a promising preseason debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as the rookie checked off many boxes in his 49 snaps with four tackles along with holding up relatively well in coverage despite an obvious pass interference penalty in the end zone.
But last week’s 35-0 loss presented inevitable growing pains for the young defensive back.
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton mercilessly picked on McPhearson in the first quarter, catching the rookie out of position and exposing the cornerback as overmatched. McPhearson was also flagged for holding, drawing a penalty for the second time in as many weeks.
On the bright side, McPhearson finished second among Eagles defenders in snaps (51) and logged a team-high nine tackles.
Though it appeared McPhearson missed the mark in his second test, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon offered an alternate perspective when he spoke to reporters Tuesday.
“I don’t think that he’s struggled,” Gannon said. “He got a couple balls caught at him where he’s in tough duty. We put a lot on our corners as far as mentally and physically in this defense.
“I challenged our guys [this week] and said, ‘Hey, we have got four exposures this week. So we have practice versus ourselves, two against the Jets and then we have a game.’”
Given the team’s depth deficiency in certain areas, McPhearson’s progression will be expedited in his first season. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound cornerback will be counted on to assume a prominent backup role on Gannon’s defense, so Gannon hopes some adversity and development now is a lesson learned for later, like when an injury might force him into an actual game.
Until then, McPhearson will have the luxury of learning behind the veteran cornerback tandem of Darius Slay and Steven Nelson, continuing his gradual development while providing perimeter depth and special teams work.
While McPhearson looks to rebound in Friday’s preseason finale and reestablish momentum, fellow rookie Milton Williams – the only Eagles defensive rookie drafted on Day 1 or 2 – finds himself on the opposite end of the spectrum as the regular season nears.
Like McPhearson, Williams, the burly defensive tackle, has been a summer standout, only his performance at the NovaCare Complex has carried into game situations.
With starters Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave playing just seven and eight snaps in the preseason, respectively, the Eagles have taken an extensive look at Williams. The 6-foot-3, 284-pound defensive lineman has logged 61 snaps through two games at both end and tackle, showcasing his raw power, lateral agility, short-area burst, and violent, active hands.
Williams’ rapid development isn’t lost on Cox, who delivered this progress report Tuesday on the third-rounder after the first of two joint practices with the New York Jets:
“I think he looked good,” Cox said. “Of course, you know, he’s still got a lot of learning to do, but right now, he’s a little bit ahead of the curve as far as just playing fast. And that’s his biggest thing, is know what to do and play fast.
“So, I’m pretty excited about him. And basically, gaining that confidence in him to know that he’ll go out there and do his job.”
Williams leap-frogged veteran Hassan Ridgeway and is expected to begin the season as the No. 3 defensive tackle behind Cox and Hargrave.
The Louisiana Tech product should thrive on stunts and twists, while allowing Gannon to deploy different looks due to his ability to moonlight as an edge rusher. Given his positional versatility, explosiveness, and power at the point of attack, Williams could conceivably make an immediate impact in a deep pass-rushing rotation.
So while the exhibition season is largely dismissed and discredited, Williams and McPhearson are prime examples of young players optimizing reps and finding their strides as they prepare to assume significant rotational roles.
If early returns are any indication, Gannon could have two, upside-laden prospects to build around in the foreseeable future.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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