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Draft and develop: Eagles rely on youth early in 2021 campaign

RB Kenneth Gainwell and QB Jalen Hurts
RB Kenneth Gainwell and QB Jalen Hurts

Instant Impact. Youthful infusion of talent. Whatever you want to call it, it's happening with the Philadelphia Eagles as they prepare for their Week 3 NFC East game at Dallas. Head Coach Nick Sirianni announced on Thursday that Landon Dickerson would make his starting debut on Monday night, joining wide receiver DeVonta Smith as a rookie starter.

They aren't the only two rooks making their presence felt. Third-round selection Milton Williams played 41 percent of the snaps in the opening two weeks and could see his playing time increase with Brandon Graham out. Fifth-round pick Kenny Gainwell has been a big part of things working with Miles Sanders in the Eagles' backfield. Defensive end Tarron Jackson, a sixth-rounder, has seen his snap count increase and could see more of a workload rushing the quarterback. Fourth-round draft pick Zech McPhearson is the team's fourth cornerback and a key member of the special teams.

Taking it back to the 2020 draft and you see even more youth making a collective name for itself. First-round pick Jalen Reagor is a starting wide receiver off to a good start. Quarterback Jalen Hurts, taken in the second round, is playing good football with a big test on Monday night. Wide receiver Quez Watkins has been a big-time playmaker in the offense in each of the two games, with more ahead. Safety K'Von Wallace has played 73 percent of the defensive snaps. Linebacker Davion Taylor and offensive lineman Jack Driscoll are promising young players currently recovering from injuries.

The point is this: The Eagles are turning over more and more responsibility to their young players and that's just the way it's supposed to be: Draft well, develop the players, and retain them with long-term second contracts (which the Eagles have done recently with 2018 draft picks Jordan Mailata and Josh Sweat).

"My goal is to play to the standard that the coaching staff, everybody, my teammates, have set around here," Dickerson said. "That's the ultimate goal, to play to that standard and to execute at a very high level."

Dickerson played for the first time in Sunday's loss to San Francisco when Brandon Brooks suffered a chest injury. A second-round draft pick, Dickerson had to get healthy first before stepping on the field – he suffered a knee injury in his senior season at Alabama, certainly knocking down his draft status. Once healthy, Dickerson went about learning both guard positions and the center spot. He is now working entirely at right guard and every practice rep will aid him on gamedays. Or, in the case of Monday, game nights.

"It's going to be very beneficial to get reps with the first team, especially getting timing down with the guys, learning how they play, how fast they play, how their footwork is, and getting meshed up," Dickerson said.

Instead of attending classes and balancing academics and football, these young players are all about improving themselves for the challenges of the NFL. That doesn't mean it's easier at this level; instead, the entire concentration is on being better on the field.

"I get to focus now on what I love to do. It's all about football for me, whether I'm here or at home studying my playbook," Gainwell said. "It's 10 to 12 hours every day, and that's what I like. This is the type of learning that I like to do, the visual kind of learning. I try to get a workout in every day.

"On the field, it's been amazing. It feels like it felt for me when I was in college. It feels good. I kept myself moving when I didn't play last year. I was doing things that would be similar to me preparing to play in a game without being tackled. When I got here, I felt good and up to speed right away."

Still, the leap from college to the NFL is eye-opening. This is a man's game for the very best of the best.

"Here, you've got bigger, faster, stronger guys," Gainwell said. "It's the next level. You've got guys doing things that you're doing, only better."

As the Eagles ramp things up for Monday night, they're doing so relying on a young core that is critical to today's team and the Eagles in the future. The page is turning toward youth, just the way it's supposed to work for successful teams.

"When you get on the field, it doesn't matter how long you've been in the league," Watkins said. "You're here for a reason. You're here to do your job. That's what we're all doing together, so I feel like we're all growing together and coming together as a team."

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