'21 Training Camp Pre: Rookies On D-Line Poised To Make Big Impact
[Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series from Andrew DiCecco and Geoff Mosher previewing the Philadelphia Eagles as they head into training camp July 27. This story answers the question: Which defensive rookie will have the biggest impact?]
After a look at which offensive rookie will have the biggest impact in 2021, Mosher and DiCecco answer the same question about the defensive rookies. Here's how we see it:
Andrew DiCecco: Milton Williams
If the Eagles expect to contend for a division title in 2021, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon will need to work wonders.
Gannon, who will preside over an aging unit absent of a blue-chip building block, must mask perpetual deficiencies at the second and third level while also filling out a razor-thin defensive depth chart with unestablished talent.
Take the safety position, for instance. While Rodney McLeod and free-agent addition Anthony Harris could potentially form a strong tandem, their immediate replacements would be K’Von Wallace and Marcus Epps, respectively.
While Wallace should be a contributing depth player, it remains to be seen if he has the intangibles to inherit a significant uptick in snaps for an extended period. Epps, one of the previous coaching staff's darlings, has underwhelmed at seemingly every turn and appears to have reached his ceiling. Between the lackluster safety depth and dismal cornerback outlook, it wouldn’t take much for a full-blown collapse to transpire.
Much like safety, and several other positions, the defensive tackle outlook presents more questions than answers as we approach the final days leading up to training camp. Beyond Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, the depth behind them represents the great unknown.
Sixth-year pro Hassan Ridgeway will be entering his third season with the Eagles. When healthy, Ridgeway has cut his teeth as a disruptive role player – accumulating three sacks and six tackles for loss – but he’s played in seven games in each of his two seasons. Though the depth chart is scribed in pencil at this stage, the team’s current No. 3 defensive tackle logged just 386 defensive snaps in two seasons. Ridgeway should hardly be considered a lock to make the team.
When assessing the defense, the most logical rookie to have the biggest impact is third-round pick Milton Williams.
When Williams was selected, the pick was mostly met with groans and confusion, as the Louisiana Tech product was considered a virtual unknown to many of the Eagles' faithful. The fact that plug-and-play cornerbacks, such as Minnesota’s Benjamin St-Juste and Washington’s Elijah Molden, along with speedy North Carolina wide receiver Dyami Brown, were still on the board didn’t help.
Nevertheless, Williams provides the power at the point of attack, instincts, lateral agility, and positional versatility to make an impact out of the gate. At 6-foot-3, 284 pounds, Williams doesn’t possess the ideal body type to be a three-down defender initially, but his explosive traits and versatility set him apart from his challengers.
Ideally, you’d like to see Williams brought along gradually as he develops his play strength, pass-rush approach and adjust to the speed at the pro level, but he will likely be called on to play a critical role early in his career.
Aside from DeVonta Smith, Williams was my favorite pick for Philadelphia based on fit, upside, and value. His game needs refining, but I expect him to eventually settle into a prominent role before ultimately seizing a starting job in 2022.
Geoff Mosher: Marlon Tuipulotu
Two rookies on defense were drafted higher – third-rounder Milton Williams and fourth-rounder Zach McPhearson – but sixth-round pick Marlon Tuipulotu should have a bigger role for the team in 2021 given his pro readiness.
Williams, from Louisiana Tech, should get on the field early as backup pass rusher, but is likely to encounter growing pains in his transition from a dominant small-school lineman matched up against NFL offensive guards. McPhearson, from Texas Tech, needs a lot of work. Even if he sees the field early, his ability to impact the defense positively will be tested. Tuipulotu lacks Williams' burst and probably has a lower overall ceiling than McPhearson, but he should be more ready to carve out a role in 2021 than the aforementioned two. Having played at USC, Tuipoluto should have less of a gap to bridge than Williams in matching up against NFL-level offensive linemen. He's a strong, versatile lineman who has played several different interior positions along the defensive line, as a run-stuffer and pass rusher. Tuipuloto fits the bill for new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who we've been told is seeking an interior defender who can play the 1 and 3 techniques, contributing as a run defender and pass rusher.
The Eagles felt Tuipulotu was a better prospect than a sixth-round pick and were ecstatic to be able to pick him there. Given the team's depth issues behind starters Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, the Eagles should have no problem finding room on the 53-man roster for Tuipolotu, who impressed the team during the spring camps.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com and Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherNFL) is is co-host of the "Inside the Birds" podcast and Senior staff writer/editor for InsideTheBirds.com. Listen to the latest "Inside The Birds" podcast from Geoff Mosher and Adam Caplan here:
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