PHILADELPHIA – Defense was the name of the Eagles’ game on Saturday, the final day of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Five of their six picks were defensive players. They were supposed to make eight picks, but they sent sixth- and seventh-round selections to Washington for a fifth-rounder in 2022, the second time in this draft they made a deal with an NFC East archrival, following up their first-round trade with the Dallas Cowboys.
The name of the game was also staying true to their draft board.
Now, we have never seen the Eagles’ draft board, so we have to take GM Howie Roseman’s word for it, and when you look at their picks, it certainly seems to be true.
“I think that when we start talking about this draft, I know you guys are going to talk about the things that maybe you look at our depth chart and see that we didn't address,” said Roseman. “But we wanted to stay true to our board. We wanted to make sure we weren't drafting for need; that we were drafting for what we felt was the long-term interests of our football team.”
The Eagles came away with only one cornerback in a draft where the expectation was that they’d take at least two and maybe three.
They drafted four defensive linemen in a draft where the defensive line group was supposed to be weak, especially the defensive tackles, where the Eagles took two in Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams in the third round and USC’s Marlon Tuipulotu in the sixth.
Seventh-round pick Patrick Johnson of Tulane is listed as a defensive end but he can play linebacker while the other end taken was Tarron Jackson of Coastal Carolina in the sixth.
“We weren't going to get into a situation where we were going to force a position,” said Roseman. “We promised ourselves that.”
Roseman said the only reason they took a cornerback, which they did in the fourth round when they selected Texas Tech’s Zech McPhearson, wasn’t because he was a cornerback, but because he was the best player on the board.
“We saw another player sticking on our board and that was Zech McPhearson,” said Roseman. “…We thought about going back up (late in the third round on Friday night), because we had Zech McPhearson right there. We wanted to get him because of the player he was, not because he was a corner and we needed a corner.”
So, it was a draft heavy on defense. The last draft the Eagles had more defensive players picked than offensive ones was 2017 when five of their eight selections were on that side of the ball.
In addition to the four defensive linemen, the Eagles also took an offensive lineman in Landon Dickerson in the second round, making it five trench players of the nine they picked, which is more than 50 percent of their draft was spent on one side of the line or the other.
“I'm sure there are some people sick and tired of seeing the Philadelphia Eagles take linemen but that's how we won a championship and that's how we're going to win another championship,” said Roseman.
There was believed to be a big dip in the talent level available after the fifth round due to how the global pandemic impacted college football, but the Eagles seemed to do a strong job of finding value late, especially players that had solid college production.
Running back Kenny Gainwell, the only offensive player picked on Saturday, looks like a Brian Westbrook clone on tape and produced 1,459 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns and another 51 catches for 610 yards and three scores.
Johnson produced 24.5 sacks, a school record, 11 passes defended, and six forced fumbles in 49 games.
“I feel like I'm a technician,” said Johnson shortly after he was picked. “I bring a lot to the table, especially as a rusher. I have a lot of different counters, a lot of different speed to power moves. I just all around have a lot of moves up my sleeve, and I think Philadelphia fans are really going to love watching me play because of all the stuff I can bring to the table for the team.”
Jackson had 26.5 sacks and 44.5 tackles for loss in 48 games for the Chanticleers.
“I would say (I am) relentless,” said Jackson. “I'm the guy that's trying to come off the ball as hard as he can, trying to be violent with my hands. Every year I've tried to improve on my bend, trying to bend around the corner, instead of rounding it. I definitely would describe my pass rush game as relentless.”
Versatility is something to watch with the sixth-round pick, LSU’s JaCoby Stevens. He could play a role similar to what Nate Gerry did. Gerry was a safety at Nebraska when he came in the fifth-round of the 2017 draft and moved to linebacker.
Stevens, who is 6-1, 212, may be able to float between both spots.
“Football is kind of like basketball in a sense where it's all about matchups and all about getting this guy on another guy,” said Stevens. “And so now defenses are getting guys that can do just about a little bit of everything and it's getting to the point now where all these guys are playing different positions and you don't know what to call them."
Now, it’s time to see if these guys can be developed by the new coaching regime.
“When we look at this draft class, it's hard to make judgments (Saturday night),” said Roseman. “It's hard to know anything other than we went into it with a process and a plan, to bring the right people into this organization, the right people into the building.”
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s EagleMaven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.