In our second installment of relevant position previews we're going to look at arguably the biggest question mark on the team. Corners.
The Eagles will be returning only one of their two starting corners from last season thanks to the trade of Sheldon Brown, who had been a fixture in the Eagles secondary for the past seven seasons. After two years of asking for a new contract or a trade Brown got his wish and was shipped off to Cleveland. Too bad for him and the Eagles... His departure leaves the Eagles with Asante Samuel and a bunch of a guys from which they hope to find a starter.
We'll look at Asante and those other guys after the jump.
Asante Samuel - Let's start with what we know. Asante is going to be your starter at left corner and that's a pretty good thing. He led the NFL in interceptions and was near the top of the league in passes defensed. He's as good as corner in the league at reading a corner and anticipating routes. However, there's also his tackling... He's one of the league leaders in a tackling stat as well, missed tackles. He finished tied for the 3rd most in the league in that category. On a side note, the worst tackler in the NFL is almost without a doubt Sabby Piscitelli of the Tampa Bay Bucs. If there's a sliver of hope it's that Samuel was not among the league leaders in broken tackle rate, which football outsiders calculates by dividing broken tackles by broken tackles plus solo tackles. His poor tackling can be directly related to the fact that he allowed the 4th most yards after catch in the league last season. Hopefully he'll take all the bad press he's gotten about his poor tackling and use that as some motivation to improve... but so far he hasn't appeared to react the way we'd hope.
The best and in some ways worst thing about Asante is that he is who he is. We know his strengths and weaknesses and they aren't likely to change dramatically. That said, he's still one of the things that's "right" with the secondary at the moment.
Ellis Hobbs - The tandem of Hobbs and Samuel started for the Patriots team that went undefeated in 2007. He was acquired for a 5th round pick in a draft day deal a year ago. Last season he never seemed to make an impact early and was soon lost for the season with a herniated disk in his neck. Still, when he was starting for the Patriots he could be described as at least an average NFL corner. While that would still be a downgrade from Sheldon, an average starter opposite Samuel won't sink this team.
Hobbs sat out the Eagles OTAs as a precaution but he's supposed to be ready to go 100% by the start of camp. His health will certainly be something to watch as camp begins.
Joselio Hanson - As we noted earlier this offseason, Hobbs appears to be the leader in the clubhouse for the starting spot opposite Samuel, but it's by no means a done deal. The spot is really there for the taking should anyone truly step up in camp. One candidate to do that is Joselio Hanson. Hanson became a very solid nickel corner in his time with the Eagles and was rewarded with a surprisingly fat 5-year $21 million deal before last season. The Eagles clearly saw him as a potential starter after he'd done a solid job filling in for Lito Sheppard and Asante Samuel at different points over the prior two years. Unfortunately, he took a step back in 09-10 likely to due to a suspension he received for a failed drug test after the previous year's NFC title game. When Hanson returned to the team in early December, he never looked like the same player. For the month he was suspended he wasn't allowed near the team and it showed. It's on Hanson to prove this year that last year was the fluke. For his part, he thinks he's got a shot to win the starting job.
"Hey man, we’ve got a lot of new guys, a lot of athletic guys and a lot of hungry guys. I can’t wait until we get the pads on and we can really see who’s who. For my position, I’m trying to go in and to actually try to start for this team. I feel like I’ve been around long enough. I know the game, know the system inside and out and hopefully I can get a shot, you know? I feel like I can be a great playmaker for this team, as long as I get the reps and I get out there playing with the guys. It actually had been Ellis Hobbs and me at practice in the whole minicamps, so I got a lot of practice with the ones. I felt good out there. I got my hands on a couple of balls and I felt like I did alright."
The Rookie - This year's fourth round pick was CB Trevard Lindley from Kentucky. Lindley was a guy who started to generate some buzz in his junior year, but a foot injury in his senior year hurt his draft stock. He actually holds the record for the most INTs in Kentucky history. The NFL.com scouting report on him was positive.
Lindley was banged up some in his senior season (therefore production is down) but for the most part has been a durable defender for the University of Kentucky over his career. Lindley is a slender built player with great athleticism that was the Wildcats most active coverage defender. Not a physical run support player but is a willing tackler and leverages the ball well. Solid reactor in zone and man schemes to jump patterns and make plays on the ball. Lindley isn’t an elite corner but has the tools to develop into a solid contributor as a corner in sub packages (nickel back) as well as special teams.
Lindley actually turned some heads at the Eagles OTAs this year, drawing praise from Scout.com's Adam Caplan and from the Delco Time's Bob Grotz who named the rookie to his "all OTA" team. He'll be looking to build on that performance in the OTAs and that momentum into training camp. Obviously, we can never we saw we really know about a player until those pads go one and the hitting the begins. If Lindley is still generating a buzz from the local media then, it might time to start getting excited. For now, we'll look at him as a prospect for the future.
Returning from last year - The guys looking to fill out the roster this year will be the same guys doing so last year. Dimitri Patterson and Geoffrey Pope. Patterson has knocked around the NFL for a couple years as is Geoffrey Pope for that matter. Pope actually won himself a Superbowl as a member of the Giants and I thought actually played fairly well in very limited time last year. He actually ran a 4.29 40 in college so he obviously has some speed, but at this point it's unlikely that he's anything but a depth guy. Both guys are best described as fringe NFL players/special teams guys.
Macho Harris was returned to corner this year after his disappointing rookie year at safety. Harris played corner his whole career at Virginia Tech, so it would stand to reason he might have a better shot at making an impact in the NFL at that position. Still, one has to wonder why Harris was moved to safety in the first place? Were the Eagles concerned about his lack of speed, which was the big knock against him coming out of school? Or did they see a logjam at corner last year with Samuel, Brown, Hanson, & Hobbs penciled in at the top 4? Obviously that remains to be seen this year.
Final world - There's no doubt that the position is thin. Like I said, there's one sure fire NFL starter on the roster(Asante Samuel) to go along with two guys that are probably fringe starters in the league(Hobbs & Hanson). If both of the latter guys play as well as they have in previous years, they can form a solid 3 man tandem. Not great, but good enough. If Lindley can surprise in his rookie year, that would obviously be a big help.
It'll also be helpful if a guy like rookie Nate Allen does a decent job at free safety. The spectre of Brian Dawkins lurking in center-field was always a help to the Eagles corners. A free safety that provides help over the top and as the speed to get across the field to break up a pass always make a corner look better.
More than anything though, the success of these corners is going to depend on the success of the Eagles front seven. It's not really a secret that in the NFL a secondary usually goes as it's front seven goes. If the Eagles are able to generate pressure with their front four, guys like Hobbs and Hanson are going to have a much easier time and a guy like Asante Samuel is going to feast. Given the fact that the Eagles loaded up on pass rusher this offseason, it certainly seems that they also see fixing the front is the way to fix the back of the defense.
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