NFL Draft 2021: Facts about Eagles’ 9 picks

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Fascinating facts about all 9 Eagles draft picks originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

By now you’ve probably learned a little bit about the Eagles’ nine draft choices from 2021.

But there’s even more to this very important draft class.

Here’s one interesting thing you might not have known about all nine picks:

1-10: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

Smith’s first love was basketball and he nearly walked away from football after his sophomore season in high school. Smith broke his clavicle in practice that year and began to wonder about abandoning football to continue his career in basketball, a sport he thought less likely to result in injury. Eventually, he decided to return to football.

But Smith was good in basketball. In fact, his high school football coach, Zephaniah Powell told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Alabama showed interest in Smith as a basketball player. And those from Amite, Louisiana, think Smith would’ve played at the next level if he stuck with that sport instead of football. According to AL.com, Smith averaged 18 points per game as a senior and was a second-team all-state selection.

There are even some basketball highlights floating around YouTube:

2-37: Landon Dickerson, iOL, Alabama

Most of the things you’ve heard about Dickerson since the Eagles drafted him are either about his incredible ability on the football field or his lengthy injury history. But Dickerson is a very well-rounded and disciplined.

Maybe you’ve seen the video of him doing cartwheels behind Mac Jones at the Alabama pro day, recovering ACL and all. Dickerson said he has a gymnastics background. But he also has plenty of other interests too.

Dickerson grew up doing martial arts and had earned a black belt by the age of 11, making him the youngest black belt in the history of his dojo, according to this 2017 story in the Orlando Sentinel. In addition to the martial arts background, Dickerson is also an Eagle Scout. Not bad ways to learn discipline at a young age.

3-73: Milton Williams, DT, Louisiana Tech

You have probably heard about how athletic Williams is but you probably don’t understand the full extent of it. Because he’s crazy athletic and tested better than any human at 6-3, 284 pounds ever should. Williams knew he’d test well and he did even better than he expected. It was a big reason why he decided to leave college in a weaker DT class.

According to PFF, his 40-yard dash and 3-cone drill would rank first among defensive linemen in the last 20 years at the combine and his vertical would rank 2nd.

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While it would be insane to really compare Williams to three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, that’s his closest DT comp athletically, according to Mockdraftable. Even if you take Williams’ numbers with a grain of salt because they didn’t come at the combine, the results are eye-popping:

When we think back to the Eagles’ pre-draft availability, maybe Andy Weidl hinted that the Eagles were interested in some DTs in this class even though many thought it was weak.

“With regard to the defensive line class, time will tell,” Weidl said. “Time will tell with this class how good it is, how good it was.”

4-123: Zech McPhearson, CB, Texas Tech

The Eagles’ fourth-round pick grew up in a competitive household. After all, he was the youngest of seven boys. Seven! And just about everyone in the family is an athlete:

Gerrick (father): Played DB at Boston College and later for the Patriots

Kimberly (mom): Played for Baltimore Burn of National Women’s Football League

Gerrick Jr. (brother): Played DB at University of Maryland, drafted by Giants in 7th round of 2006 draft

Josh (brother): Was a running back at Penn State from 2015-17

Derrick (brother): Played football at Illinois and minor league baseball in the Brewers organization

Emmanuel (brother): Played football at New Mexico

Jeremiah (brother): Played DB at Indiana (Pa.)

Matthew (brother): Drafted in 4th round of 2013 MLB draft, now playing football at Texas Tech

Kimberly (sister): Plays soccer at Wisconsin-Green Bay

“Growing up with all the older siblings and being in a house full of athletes, it can get real competitive in everything, so I really enjoyed it,” McPhearson said.

5-150: Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis

Gainwell is from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and if you’ve heard of Yazoo City before, there’s a reason. It’s the same hometown of Fletcher Cox, who also happens to be Gainwell’s older cousin. Gainwell and Cox are believed to be the first cousin teammates on the Eagles since Jamar Chaney and Brian Rolle in the early 2010s.

Cox is eight years older than Gainwell so it’s not exactly like they grew up together. Cox arrived at Mississippi State in 2010, when Gainwell would have just been 11 years old. Still, the two have remained in contact and Gainwell talked with Cox on the phone as he went through high school.

Believe it or not, Gainwell said he was actually an Eagles fan before Cox was drafted in 2012. Gainwell said he was a fan of Donovan McNabb and later Michael Vick, who ended up being teammates with his cousin.

6-189: Marlon Tuipulotu, DT, USC

How about another family story? Tuipulotu was drafted by the Eagles with the 189th pick; his cousin and fellow USC star Talanoa Hufanga was drafted with the 180th pick. Hufanga went late in the fifth round and Tuipulotu went early in the sixth.

They’re cousins who played for USC and were taken in the draft just nine picks apart but they’re very different players. Hufanga is a 6-0, 199-pound safety and Tuipulotu is a 6-2, 307-pound defensive tackle.

And Marlon’s younger brother Tuli Tuipulotu is also a defensive lineman at USC. So it was a real family affair.

“The athlete is one thing, and all three of them are super talented guys,” USC DC Todd Orlando said to the Associated Press in December. “But to me, the internal … I mean, these guys are five-star, seven-star guys internally in terms of their want to, their work ethic, their character. And it doesn’t surprise me that all three guys are playing well.”

6-191: Tarron Jackson, DE, Coastal Carolina

At Coastal Carolina, Jackson became an incredibly productive player with 26 1/2 sacks. And he did it all in a No. 9 jersey, which meant a lot to him.

Jackson’s older brother, Daron, died of leukemia at the age of 12. Jackson was 9 years old at the time of his death, which is the reason he wore the number.

“It means a lot to me,” Jackson said last season, via The Post and Courier Myrtle Beach. “Football has always been, I feel like, kind of an outlet for me. Playing football and representing him and wearing that No. 9 is just an opportunity for me to kind of connect with him, in a sense. Because he loved football, that was kind of his first love.

“I loved basketball, but we always used to play football together, so when I started playing football again, that just kind of brought that connection back.”

6-224: JaCoby Stevens, LB, LSU

Stevens was a talented safety at LSU but the Eagles drafted him as a linebacker. The Eagles aren’t the first team to do this and there are plenty of success stories in the modern NFL of hybrid linebacker-safeties.

But this isn’t the first time Stevens has changed positions.

Stevens explained that he played pretty much everything — safety, receiver, running back — in high school. So as a freshman at LSU in 2017, he was willing to do anything to get on the field. When the Tigers had a depth issue at receiver, head coach Ed Oregon and GM Austin Thomas asked him to move to receiver.

“It was a short conversation,” Stevens said. “I want to say maybe a five, ten-minute conversation because Coach O, I guess he wanted to make sure I was OK with it. After he asked me, I was like, ‘Sure, anything to do to get on the field.’ We had some depth issues later in the season at safety that year, my freshman year. He came and asked me again and I did it again.”

During that freshman season, Stevens split his time between receiver and safety. He even made a start at receiver and had two catches for 32 yards.

7-234: Patrick Johnson, LB, Tulane

After being a three-year starter for the Green Wave, Johnson did not play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl after the sudden death of his father Kevin. The two were extremely close and according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Kevin died on Dec. 11 while in New Orleans on a trip to surprise his son at school.

Johnson said he and his father were “very, very close” and he was thinking about him as he heard his named called late in Day 3 of the draft.

Kevin Johnson played football at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which is where he met his wife Leah. They had three children and raised them in Chattanooga.

“Me and his relationship, it was a lot of football, but he taught me how to be a great man on and off the field,” Johnson said. “So with all this going on it's been pretty hard, but at the same time, it's like going to keep moving forward because I know that's what he would want me to do.”

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