What to expect from Eagles fourth-round pick, CB Zech McPhearson
In a draft that addressed many future needs for the Eagles rebuild, one key position remains a mystery: the outside cornerback spot across from Darius Slay. The team brought in Zech McPhearson out of Texas Tech in the fourth round as their lone secondary player selected over the entire weekend.
Many experts project that McPhearson could be more productive as a nickel in the NFL, but he only played 10% of his snaps in college aligned in the slot. However, over his two seasons for the Red Raiders, McPhearson established himself as a reliable outside cornerback in the air-raid Big 12 that relentlessly tests defensive backs’ coverage skills.
Those might not seem like gaudy numbers from an NFL-caliber player in college, but McPhearson held his own for over two seasons in one of the most pass-heavy conferences in college football. The transfer from Penn State never truly got burnt and performed admirably in run support, totaling 98 tackles with an 11% missed tackle rate.
McPhearson’s calling card that might get him playing time outside of a special team’s role is his versatility and competitive attitude. The Baltimore native is physical with his coverage on the outside, and, despite being 5-foot-11, he has the length Jonathan Gannon likes to utilize with his secondary.
The Texas Tech product brings quality ball skills and the ability to play several positions in a very thin secondary unit. However if he’s asked to be the full-time starter in Week One as the outside cornerback or at the nickel, he could hit a massive rookie wall. Coming out of college, McPhearson lacks that explosive burst at the top of receivers’ routes and overall smoothness in his man coverage technique.
Luckily, Jonathan Gannon’s new Cover 2 scheme won’t expose the rookie on an island in man coverage downfield. Last season, the Eagles ran man coverage concepts at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL under Jim Schwartz. That’s a difficult task for a secondary that is not particularly deep or filled with shutdown players. Gannon’s zone-heavy scheme should take a lot of pressure off many of these young guys as he places a focus on elite ball-skills over cover specialists.
Another player who could also benefit from Gannon’s new system is Eagles’ 2018 fourth-round pick, Avonte Maddox. He failed to secure a starting outside role last season and finished with the lowest coverage grade on the team last season (37.1 via PFF). At 5-foot-9 with 29.5-inch arms, Maddox lacked the physical qualities to be disruptive against most NFL receivers in one-on-one press situations on the outside. This switch to Gannon’s new system should allow Maddox to grow as that hybrid coverage linebacker in a 4-2-5 base defense but still leaves the other starting cornerback role unoccupied.
After Avonte Maddox, the Eagles depth chart is a barrage of mediocrity and unproven players. Because Howie and company did not target a secondary player on the first two days of the NFL Draft, I trust they have a plan in mind to sign a veteran free agent or finally trade Zach Ertz and some future picks for a proven player on a contract year.
I do not believe the Eagles drafted Zech McPhearson in the fourth-round to be a Week One starter. The 23-year-old rookie doesn’t profile as a lockdown cornerback, but his versatility to play both outside and slot without missing a beat is invaluable. It gives Jonathan Gannon the freedom to try out several options opposite of Darius Slay and the flexibility to move different playmakers all over his secondary.
In the short term, Zech McPhearson will have an immediate impact on special teams and could find himself in a rotational role throughout the season. His development will be critical as he has the physical tools and competitive nature to eventually be in the conversation for a starting role, or at the very least, an essential role player in the secondary.
Mandatory Credit: Texas Tech