Projecting Rookie Roles: Who Will Play the Most?
By giving away picks to trade up and acquire a quarterback who probably won’t play much this season, the Eagles diminished the impact their rookie class will have this year. But several players will likely add value as backups who could earn some playing time, so here’s a look at the role each drafted rookie could have, ranked in order of how much we think they’ll play.
RB Wendell Smallwood, Round 5 — I’m putting Smallwood at the top mostly because he’ll likely have the best opportunity to get on the field. Ryan Mathews acknowledged during OTAs that his running style “has a lot to do with” his injury prone history, while Doug Pederson said during minicamp he could envision using a running back by committee approach. If Mathews gets hurt at some point, it seems highly unlikely another running back — whether that’s Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner or anyone else — would operate as the featured guy, opening up a window for Smallwood to contribute. Even if Mathews doesn’t battle a serious injury this season, Smallwood could see some playing time because of his pass-catching ability, which Pederson repeatedly says has impressed him.
DB Jalen Mills, Round 7 — I was tempted to rank Mills as the rookie who could get the most snaps this season, and Jordan Matthews even said he believes the defensive back is “definitely going to play a lot.” But the obstacle Mills must overcome, particularly more so than Smallwood, is the sheer number of guys in front of him. Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Eric Rowe and Nolan Carroll are all capable corners, and someone like JaCorey Shepherd or Denzel Rice could provide even more competition. It’s unclear what the Eagles will do with Mills in training camp, but to start OTAs, they had him work exclusively at corner. Still, even as a seventh-round pick who may not play much this season, he could end up being one of the most talented guys they drafted.
QB Carson Wentz, Round 1 — I won’t spend many words rehashing what you already know: Wentz’s playing time depends on if the Eagles are in the hunt for the division title, as well as Sam Bradford’s health. While it’s plausible to say the Birds will be within shooting distance of a playoff berth for most of the season, it’s impossible to know how many games Bradford will be healthy enough to play in.
OL Isaac Seumalo, Round 3 — I’m very curious to see how Seumalo’s situation plays out, because although it seems unlikely he’ll win the starting left guard job, his position versatility — and the Eagles’ lack of offensive line depth — could earn him some snaps in a reserve role. The graduation rule hurt Seumalo by not allowing him to attend OTAs or minicamp, and Pederson says the Oregon State product will play left guard when he shows up at training camp.
LB Joe Walker, Round 7 — If Bradford’s play keeps Wentz on the bench and the offensive line stays relatively healthy, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Walker have one of the biggest roles among the rookies, simply because the Eagles have little depth at linebacker. Walker appears to be the backup to Jordan Hicks in the middle, and although Jim Schwartz will want to keep Hicks on the field as much as possible, the starter will have to come off of the field at some point.
DB Blake Countess, Round 6 — The Eagles drafted Countess because of his position versatility, which will be the biggest reason he makes the team if he is selected to the 53-man squad. At safety, Countess avoids the logjam of guys who could get on the field that Mills faces at cornerback, but he is sitting behind two of the best starters on the team: Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Barring an injury, the primary backup safety will have a very small role in this defense.
OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Round 5 — Vaitai appears to be more of a longterm project at tackle than anything else. Even if he makes the 53-man roster and isn’t it assigned to the practice squad, it’s hard to imagine him being the first or second backup tackle in case of an injury.
DE Alex McCalister, Round 7 — Coaches say McCalister has potential as a pass rusher, but Schwartz’s message to the rookie has been clear: put on some weight. McCalister seems like a good candidate for the practice squad.