Wake-Up Call: Eagles’ 2016 NFL Draft Class Is Showing Early Signs Of Promise

There's hope for these Eagles rookies.
Carson Wentz and Wendell Smallwood. (Jeff Fusco)

Carson Wentz and Wendell Smallwood. (Jeff Fusco)

To say the Eagles haven’t gotten great production from their last two NFL Draft classes prior to this year would be an understatement.

The 2014 class produced one starter: Jordan Matthews. The 2015 class produced two starters: Nelson Agholor and Jordan Hicks. Matthews is a nice starting slot receiver and Hicks is a legitimate stud, but Agholor has been downright awful. The USC alumnus certainly doesn’t project as an ideal starter in the future.

Six of the total 13 players drafted in 2014 and 2015 are no longer on Philadelphia’s active roster. Two more players were cut before eventually being re-added. There are only two undrafted free agent signings from those two years that are still on the roster, and one of those players has never played a single offensive snap.

In other words, the Eagles didn’t draft very well for most of the Chip Kelly era.

But there might hope Philadelphia’s bad drafting has come to an end.

Though it’s still too early to make a definitive judgement, the Eagles’ class of 2016 is already off to a nice start. Here’s a quick review.

Carson Wentz

The Eagles don’t have any regrets making a bold trade to move up for Wentz. The 23-year-old got off to a strong start this season and has the makings of a legitimate franchise quarterback. The Wentz pick is the selection that obviously defines this class. He’s the most important player on Philadelphia’s roster. While Wentz has shown promising potential, it’s clear he needs more help in the form of offensive weapons. But the fact that the Eagles have a player like him to build around is very encouraging for the team’s future success.

Isaac Seumalo

Seumalo was projected to be the team’s starting left guard this season when it was thought Lane Johnson was going to be suspended at the very beginning of the 2016 schedule. That changed when it was realized Johnson would be available early on. Seumalo’s pectoral injury also set him back on the depth chart behind veteran Stefen Wisniewski. Seumalo has been inactive for most of the season but the Eagles have been working him in as a fullback or a blocking tight end. He’s looked decent in that role in limited playing time. The Eagles seem to hope Seumalo can be a future starter at guard or center.

Wendell Smallwood

Smallwood hasn’t been featured in a big role but he’s been productive when called upon. The rookie running back has one rushing touchdown and 205 yards on 44 attempts, which is an average of 4.7 yards per carry. Smallwood is averaging 31.6 yards on kickoff returns due to a 86-yard return for a touchdown against Washington. Smallwood hasn’t been perfect; he had a costly fumble against the Cowboys. He’s also struggled in pass protection which explains why he hasn’t seen more playing time. It remains to be seen if Smallwood will ever be a feature back but at the very least he looks like a nice rotational rusher.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai

The Eagles ideally would have hoped Vaitai didn’t have to play as a rookie. They’d obviously much rather have Johnson starting at right tackle. But Johnson’s suspension opened the door for Vaitai. The rookie from TCU has rebounded well after getting off to a poor start. Vaitai hasn’t been great by any means, but he hasn’t been a disaster on the right side. The Eagles might not be able to rely on Vaitai as a full-time starter once Jason Peters retires and Johnson switches over to left tackle, but “Big V” could give them a decent swing tackle off the bench.

Blake Countess

No longer on the roster. Countess was waived in final cuts. He’s currently on the Rams’ practice squad.

Jalen Mills

The Eagles’ confidence in Mills is what made them feel comfortable with trading Eric Rowe to the Patriots. Some draft analysts pegged Mills as a “steal” for the Eagles in the seventh round and it’s easy to see where that thinking came from. Mills has become a key rotational player at cornerback since the Eagles are thin at that position. He’s been beaten at times but overall he’s held up well. Mills was matched up one-on-one against Julio Jones at times and he didn’t let the Falcons’ star receiver abuse him.

Alex McCalister

McCalister needs to add weight and strength. He’ll have the chance to work on his body as he spends the entire season on injured reserve.

Joe Walker

Like McCalister, Walker is on injured reserve. The rookie from Oregon showed good potential as a second string middle linebacker before suffering a season-ending injury in the preseason.

Overall, the early returns indicate this could be a strong draft class. The fact that so many young players have gotten on the field early and have been productive is a positive sign. Doug Pederson talked about the importance of getting reps for his young players so early in their careers.

“Obviously, we know with Big V, and the Lane situation, that in his case, it’s tremendous to get Big V those types of reps, probably wasn’t going to happen if Lane were still here,” started Pederson. “And, listen, it’s so valuable that these guys are playing this early in their careers, especially with Carson, and having a guy like Wendell in the game with Carson. And, you know, now we’re putting Isaac in there, so, it’s just — it’s valuable experience for these guys. It’s game experience, something we can continue to build, you know, build each week.”

It’s worth remembering the 2016 draft picks aren’t the only rookies on Philadelphia’s roster. The Eagles also have five undrafted rookie free agents on the 53-man: Destiny Vaeao, Dillon Gordon, C.J. Smith, Bryce Treggs, and Kamu Grugier-Hill.

Vaeao has two sacks and a forced fumble in limited playing time as a rotational defensive tackle. Gordon is a developmental offensive lineman/blocking tight end/fullback. Smith had a good summer and earned a promotion from the practice squad. Treggs had deep speed and surpassed Agholor’s single-game high of receiving yards in his NFL debut. Grugier-Hill has made some plays on special teams.

In addition to these players, 70% of Philadelphia’s 10-man practice squad consists of undrafted rookie free agents. Some of those players will have a chance to fight for a roster spot next summer.

The fact that the Eagles have a lot of promising youth is important. Philadelphia’s roster currently ranks as the fifth-oldest in the league. Key veterans such as Peters and Darren Sproles will eventually need to be replaced.

Once again, it’s too early to say the Eagles completely nailed the 2016 class. But the initial signs are promising, and that’s a stark contrast from the draft classes of 2014 and 2015.

WHAT YOU MISSED

All-22: How the Eagles’ defense disrupted Atlanta’s offense for the majority of the game on Sunday.

“The one thing Tony [Romo] has is that he has the experience of being a backup before.” NFC East Roundup.

Where do the Eagles stand in this week’s Power Rankings?

“You got to think about how many rookies who have come into the NFL and haven’t matched up to what these guys have done in their first year.” What They’re Saying.

“I’m not leaving until I try to get that ring.” At 34, Jason Peters wants to continue his quest to win a Super Bowl however long it takes.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbos made his return to Ellen DeGeneres‘ talk show for some more magic tricks.

With the return of Allen Barbre from injury, Stefen Wisniewski is heading back to the bench after a solid three weeks, pens Dave Zangaro of CSNPhilly.com.

“I think I’ve played well,” Wisniewski said just before rolling his bag out of the Eagles’ locker room at the Linc on Sunday night. “Yeah, two starts and played a lot against Dallas. I think I played well in all of those.”

Wisniewski’s time as the Eagles’ starter at left guard is about to come to an end as Allen Barbre (hamstring) is expected to return to practice this week and could play for the first time since the beginning of the Cowboys game. Wisniewski played left guard for most of the last three games.

It’s not going to be easy for Wisniewski to go back to the bench, but he doesn’t have any other option.

“Yeah, it’ll be tough,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. I’m taking it week by week. I thought I played well in there and showed them what I can do.”

Safety Rodney McLeod is making his impact in a different battle off the field, writes Sam Wood of Philly.com.

The Eagles standout has been named an official ambassador for the Philadelphia-based American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the largest scientific organization in the world dedicated to battling the disease.

“I’m hoping to draw more awareness, donations, anything that can help provide researchers with more money,” McLeod said. “I naturally gravitated toward them.”

McLeod’s grandmother, Katherine D. Graham, succumbed to pancreatic cancer while still in her 50s. Her passing, during his senior year at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., left the powerhouse defensive back devastated.

“She was like my second mother,” McLeod said. “She did everything for me.”

COMING UP

Doug Pederson will speak to the media at around 10:45.

Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.