Evaluating the Eagles' rookie class

Casey Matthews showed potential in coverage toward the end of the season, but struggled against the run. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Earlier this week, I saw a note from DraftMetrics.com about playing time for rookies in 2011, in light of the shortened offseason.

According to their numbers, rookies started a total of 870 games this season. That's the highest number in the past 10 years.

And the Eagles had 46 rookie starts, third-most in the league, behind only the Browns (66) and the Broncos (52). Keep in mind that number does not count special teams (Alex Henery and Chas Henry).

So, overall, the Eagles counted on their rookies quite a bit, compared to the other 31 teams. But how did the first-year players perform?

That's what we take a look at today.

Danny Watkins (1st round, 23rd overall)

Playing time: In the first month of the season, Watkins had three inactives and a DNP to his name. But in the Eagles' Week 4 loss to the 49ers, right guard Kyle DeVan had all kinds of trouble. That provided an opening for Watkins to start the following week against the Bills. Overall, he started 12 games in his rookie season.

Performance: It was an up-and-down first season for Watkins, who turned 27 in November. It's fair to say he had more issues than any other starting offensive lineman in pass protection, even though he showed flashes of potential, specifically as a run blocker. For those who assumed Watkins would be able to come in and play at a high level right away, his first season was a disappointment.

Looking ahead: It's fair to expect Watkins to improve with a full offseason of work with Howard Mudd. Remember, he missed part of training camp too during contract negotiations. The Eagles will need Watkins badly in 2012. Assuming free agent Evan Mathis is re-signed, the Eagles have a chance to start training camp with the exact same offensive line that finished the 2011 season.

Jaiquawn Jarrett (2nd round, 54th overall)

Playing time: He was active for 12 games and started two. Jarrett saw significant action on defense in four games: against Chicago, Arizona, Dallas (the second game) and Washington (in Week 17). According to Pro Football Focus, he played a total of 254 snaps.

Performance: Jarrett is an enigma after his first season. Safety was an issue for the Eagles for much of the year. They signed veteran Jarrad Page, who started the first five games before eventually being released. Nate Allen wasn't healthy enough to start the season and was up-and-down once he got on the field (although he finished strong). And Kurt Coleman began the season as a starter, was benched after the first Giants game, and then re-claimed his spot. In other words, the Eagles were very much in need of a rookie who could provide an instant upgrade at safety, but it didn't happen. We heard Jarrett was a big hitter in college, but didn't see that in games. And Jarrett had just two special-teams tackles. He started against the Cardinals and struggled in coverage (although, to be fair, safety is a difficult position to evaluate off TV tape). Jarrett played one snap against the Seahawks and took a bad angle on a long Marshawn Lynch run. According to PFF, he blitzed 14 times.

Looking ahead: The bad news is this: At no point this season did the Eagles think Jarrett would be better than Page or an injured Allen. The good news is Jarrett didn't play enough for anyone to make a fair evaluation of what he's capable of. The offseason will be crucial for him. And in 2012, Jarrett will likely get a chance to compete for a starting safety spot with Kurt Coleman.

Curtis Marsh (3rd round, 90th overall)

Playing time: Marsh was inactive for the first nine games, before dressing for the final seven. However, he played almost exclusively on special teams, accumulating just 13 total snaps on defense, per PFF.

Performance: He did not stand out on special teams. In fact, the only reason that casual Eagles fans probably recognize Marsh's name is because he had two special-teams turnovers late in the season.

Looking ahead: The Eagles have some decisions to make at cornerback, and part of that depends on who the coordinator is and what system they're running. If they trade Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be the starters, with Joselio Hanson likely manning the slot. That would leave Marsh to compete for the fourth cornerback spot with Brandon Hughes and perhaps some players who are not currently on the roster. If Asomugha or Rodgers-Cromartie suffer an injury, Marsh could be called on to play significant snaps in 2012.

Casey Matthews (4th round, 116th overall)

Playing time: He started the first two games at middle linebacker and then moved over to WILL. From Weeks 4 to 13, Matthews barely saw the field. But in the final month, he was used in nickel and dime packages. Overall, Matthews played 332 snaps, per PFF. Only Jamar Chaney and Brian Rolle played more among Eagles linebackers.

Performance: The Eagles' decision to start him right away is still a puzzling one. They felt Watkins wasn't ready, so they signed DeVan. They felt Jarrett wasn't ready and Allen wasn't healthy, so they signed Page. Marsh was never going to see significant action. Yet, the Eagles felt Matthews could get the job done at middle linebacker, playing behind the wide-nine. They were wrong. He looked much more comfortable towards the end of the season, playing primarily in coverage. He also had 11 special-teams tackles, third on the team.

Looking ahead: Maybe Matthews will improve, but based on what I saw from 2011, it's difficult to see him being an effective linebacker against the run. That means a more specialized role in coverage. We have to wait and see what the Eagles do in free agency and the draft, but Matthews could enter camp as a first-team nickel linebacker.

Alex Henery (4th round, 120th overall)

Playing time: Not really relevant. Henery was the team's kicker all season.

Performance: He hit 24 of 27 field-goal attempts, including five of six from 40+. The Eagles' field goal unit ranked ninth, according to Football Outsiders. Henery notched kickoffs 37.6 percent of the time, which ranked 22nd among the 32 kickers who had at least 40 kickoffs last season. The Birds' kickoff coverage unit was a bright spot on special teams, ranking fifth, according to Football Outsiders. The one blemish to Henery's rookie campaign was the 49ers game, where he missed two fourth-quarter field goals from 39 and 33 yards away.

Looking ahead: Kickers' performance can fluctuate from year to year, but Henery had a good rookie campaign to build on.

Dion Lewis (5th round, 149th overall)

Playing time: He was active for 15 of 16 games, but played mostly special teams. Until Week 17, when LeSean McCoy was injured, Lewis played a total of 19 offensive snaps, per PFF. Other than Week 17, he never played more than four offensive snaps in a given game.

Performance: It'd be foolish to read too much into his abilities as a runner. Lewis carried just 23 times for 102 yards (4.4 YPC). As a kickoff returner, he was unimpressive. Of the 27 players who returned at least 20 kicks, Lewis had the second-lowest average at 21.6. Football Outsiders ranked the Eagles' kickoff return game 24th in the league. In terms of blocking, I thought Lewis held up fine when asked to pick up blitzers or chip defensive linemen. Again, not a large sample size though.

Looking ahead: The Eagles have whiffed in their attempts (Mike Bell, Ronnie Brown) to find a good complement to McCoy. Jerome Harrison was good, but his time here was brief. It's a difficult role to fill because you need someone who is good enough to start if McCoy gets injured, but also someone who's not so good that he wants a lot of playing time. Maybe Lewis will impress the coaches in the offseason and win that spot. If not, they'll need to add a veteran. The Eagles need to get a better kickoff returner as well.

Julian Vandervelde (5th round, 161st overall)

Playing time: Vandervelde was inactive for 15 of 16 games.

Performance: Nothing to go on here.

Looking ahead: The starting guards next season will likely be Mathis and Watkins. But there will be backup spots available for an interior lineman like Vandevelde. He'll likely have to compete for a spot with whoever the team drafts and picks up in free agency.

Jason Kelce (6th round, 191st overall)

Playing time: He started all 16 games, and no Eagle played more snaps than Kelce.

Performance: He was clearly one of the Eagles' best picks last season. Considering he was a rookie, and the Eagles were implementing a new blocking scheme with Howard Mudd, I'd say Kelce exceeded expectations in his first year. He was far from perfect, and I'm not quite on board with those who say he played at a Pro Bowl level (although I did not study the league's 31 other centers), but Kelce improved as the season went on and always looked like he knew what he was doing. When he struggled, it was generally because an opposing defensive player beat him fair and square, not because Kelce was confused. He showed impressive athleticism and was one of the reasons the Eagles rated so favorably in second-level (2nd) and open-field (4th) blocking by Football Outsiders.

Looking ahead: The Eagles are expected to part ways with Jamaal Jackson, and Kelce figures to be the center for years to come. He has room to improve, particularly in pass protection, but the coaching staff is obviously impressed with Kelce's development.

Brian Rolle (6th round, 193rd overall)

Playing time: He played in all 16 games and started 13. Rolle played the most snaps of any of the five defensive players the Eagles drafted in 2011.

Performance: He was the smallest of the Eagles linebackers, but probably played the best of the group. Rolle had six tackles for loss (tops among Birds LBs), a sack, four QB hurries and a forced fumble. His size (measured under 5-10 at the combine) can be an issue, but Rolle showed good instincts and is one of the team's more physical players on defense. Towards the end of the year, he split time with Keenan Clayton in the nickel. At times, Rolle has trouble with opposing offensive linemen in the run game, but that makes him no different than the rest of the team's linebackers.

Looking ahead: Of the Eagles' current linebacking group, Rolle probably has the best chance to return as a starter in 2012, although nothing's certain. The team needs to upgrade at middle linebacker and SAM, but Rolle could be the man to beat on the weak side.

The Rest

And finally, four players I didn't mention above: Chas Henry (undrafted), Greg Lloyd (7th round, 237th overall), Stanley Havili (7th round, 240th overall), and Cedric Thornton (undrafted).

The Eagles' punting game ranked 16th, per Football Outsiders, in Henry's first season.

Havili spent the season on the practice squad. Lloyd and Thornton split time between the practice squad and active roster, but neither dressed for any games.

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