PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles veteran defensive tackle Fletcher Cox squashed any debate over whether the NFL rookie wall -- rumored to kick in right about now as the college season winds down -- is a real thing.
"Oh it's real," Cox said. "If they tell you that it's not real, they're lying. ... It can be mentally and physically draining, but as a rookie, that's why you've got older guys that have been through that who know how to talk guys through it."
Rookie DT Milton Williams, as an example, has Cox.
"You see him day-to-day kind of moping around a little bit, and that's why I'm here to pick him up and let him know it's a long season, keep your head up," Cox said. "It's a season of ups and downs. It's not always sunny. There are some rainy days, there are some snowy days, there are some days when the sun don't shine at all. But you've got to be able to push through it and Milton's been doing that."
Overall, there's been more blue skies than gray for the Eagles' rookie class. It's led by a pair of former Alabama standouts in DeVonta Smith and Landon Dickerson, both of whom are starters. Eight of the nine players from the 2021 draft class have received playing time, and the majority have developed into regular contributors. Whether they smack right into the oncoming rookie wall or not, this group has done enough in Year 1 to offer promise.
Here's a closer look:
WR DeVonta Smith (Rd. 1, 10th overall)
2021 stats: 50 catches, 701 yards, 4 TDs
Player breakdown: Smith immediately established himself as the Eagles' primary receiver. He leads the team in targets (82), catches and receiving yards, and is tied for first with TE Dallas Goedert in receiving TDs. He is third among rookies in catches and fourth in receiving yards behind Cincinnati WR Ja'Marr Chase (958), Miami WR Jaylen Waddle (849) and Atlanta TE Kyle Pitts (709). Operating in a run-heavy offense, Smith's production has been a bit inconsistent. But he's shown the smooth route running, elite body control and smarts that helped him win the Heisman Trophy a year ago.
"He sees the game really well and when the coverages change, he knows how to adjust his route and when there's zone coverage, he knows where to sit in the dead spots," offensive coordinator Shane Steichen said. "His first step off the line of scrimmage continues to improve and he can create that separation to win the one-on-ones."
OL Landon Dickerson (Rd. 2, 37th overall)
2021 stats: 11 starts, 2 sacks allowed (per Pro Football Focus)
What he’s done: Dickerson, who was unable to practice all offseason as he recovered from a torn ACL, took over the left guard post after Isaac Seumalo went down with a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 3. He has impressed of late following an up-and-down beginning to his rookie season, solidifying an offensive line that ranks sixth in ESPN's pass-block win rate (66%) and third in run-block win rate (74%). The Eagles are the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL (160 yards per game) and the 6-foot-6, 33o-pound Dickerson is a big part of that. He has the third-best run-block win rate among NFL guards at 75 percent.
"I know this is high praise, but I do see some of the physical movements kind of like [Colts C/G] Quenton Nelson had," said coach Nick Sirianni, who was the Colts offensive coordinator before joining the Eagles. "There are some things that I see and I'm like, ‘That looked like Quenton right there.’
"I just see Landon playing tough and playing physical and playing nasty, right? Which is what you want out of your offensive line."
DL Milton Williams (Rd. 3, 73rd overall)
2021 stats: 21 tackles, 2 TFL, sack, 3 QB hits
Player breakdown: Williams has played roughly 40 percent of the defensive snaps on average as part of Philadelphia's defensive line rotation. His lone start came Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys, but it was Week 8 against the Detroit Lions when he shined the brightest, posting a sack, a quarterback hit and two tackles for loss in a 44-6 Philadelphia win. The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Williams has shown the ability to play both inside and out.
"I would say not making the same mistake over and over and over is what I'm most pleased with Milton about," said defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. "And just his intensity, his football character, the motor that he plays with and the production that you see that he's playing with right now. He's affecting the game for us."
CB Zech McPhearson (Rd. 4, 123rd overall)
2021 stats: 8 tackles in 12 games, 4 special teams tackles
Player breakdown: McPhearson is a core special teams player and serves as the primary backup at corner behind Darius Slay and Steven Nelson. McPhearson played 33 defensive snaps against the Jets this past week -- his most to date -- after Nelson exited with an injury.
"I really thought he made a big-time improvement this week, as far as just his eye discipline, his alignments, made a couple plays," said Gannon. "I'm completely OK with the defensive holding. That was good, tight, sticky coverage -- the call didn't go his way."
RB Kenneth Gainwell (Rd. 5, 150th overall)
2021 stats: 209 yards rushing, 4 TD; 28 catches for 238 yards, TD
Player breakdown: His usage has fluctuated some, but Gainwell has played roughly 30 percent of the offensive snaps on average. He has really good hands and is a proficient route runner, adding another dimension to Sirianni's passing game, and shows quick burst through the hole in the ground game. He had arguably his best day as a pro Sunday against the Jets, totaling 87 yards and a touchdown.
"He's an explosive player," Steichen said. "We're glad we have him on our team."
DT Marlon Tuipulotu (Rd. 6, 189th overall)
2021 stats: 4 games, 3 tackles
Player breakdown: Behind Cox, Javon Hargrave, Williams and Hassan Ridgeway on the depth chart, Tuipulotu has played 29 snaps total this season, the bulk of which came against Detroit (13 snaps, 2 tackles). He hasn't played since Week 9 against the Los Angeles Chargers.
DE Tarron Jackson (Rd. 6, 191st overall)
2021 stats: 10 tackles, sack, TFL, QB hit
Player breakdown: Jackson is part of the defensive end rotation, typically playing alongside Ryan Kerrigan when Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat need a breather. The season-ending injury to Brandon Graham early in the year thrust Jackson into a bigger role than he would have otherwise gotten. He's still raw but should benefit from this playing time.
LB JaCoby Stevens (Rd. 6, 224th overall)
2021 stats: None
Player breakdown: Stevens transitioned to linebacker this offseason after playing safety at LSU. He had some nice moments at training camp before being hampered by a hamstring injury. Stevens was waived as the roster was trimmed to 53 in late August and signed to the practice squad the next day.
LB Patrick Johnson (Rd. 7, 234th overall)
2021 stats: 11 tackles, TFL, 4 special teams tackles
Player breakdown: Johnson is a special teams contributor who has seen his defensive role diminish in recent weeks after being a part of the linebacker rotation early. His lone start came Week 3 against Dallas, when he posted three tackles.