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JaCorey Shepherd injury hurts, but Eagles aren't totally screwed at nickel cornerback

Philadelphia still has options.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Make no mistake about it: the ACL injury suffered by rookie cornerback JaCorey Shepherd is an inconvenient incident for the Philadelphia Eagles. Though the team didn't officially commit to Shepherd as the nickel cornerback in the wake of the Brandon Boykin trade, it was clear he was the frontrunner for the job. At the very least, losing Shepherd hurts the team's depth at cornerback.

At the same time, Shepherd's injury isn't the end of the world for the team. First, realize that the Eagles use the nickel corneback on half (or less) of their defensive snaps. For example, Boykin played 42.7% of the snaps in 2014 and 51% in 2013. I'm not trying to say the slot cornerback position isn't important, because it can be in today's pass happy NFL, but just remember it's not a full time role.

The Eagles have some options to replace Shepherd. Let's take a look:

Jaylen Watkins - The second year defensive back spent spring practices working out at both safety and cornerback. Watkins competed for the backup nickel spot last offseason before lining up there in practice during the regular season. Watkins was the first man up at nickel cornerback after Shepherd left practice early on Sunday. The 2014 fourth round pick has an opportunity to step up here.

E.J. Biggers - The 28-year-old Biggers lined up as a slot cornerback on 57% of his defensive snaps with Washington in 2014. Biggers struggled in coverage so the talent is a concern but he has experience, for whatever that's worth.

Randall Evans - The sixth round rookie from the 2015 NFL Draft hasn't looked great in camp, though it seems most of his struggles have come when playing on the outside. Evans has experience playing nickel from his college days.

Denzel Rice - The undrafted rookie has seemingly come out of nowhere to generate some nice buzz early on in training camp. He's stood out by always being around the ball and breaking up passes.

Nolan Carroll - Prior to Shepherd's injury, Bill Davis said Carroll won't move to the nickel but he'll get some work as the dime cornerback.

Byron Maxwell - Philadelphia gave Maxwell a huge contract to play on the outside for them. He does have experience on the inside, however, as seen when he covered Jordan Matthews during the Eagles-Seahawks game last season. Perhaps the Eagles would consider using Maxwell in the slot for matchups with specific players.

Eric Rowe - The Eagles seem intent on keeping Rowe as an outside cornerback.

Walter Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins - I'm grouping these players together because they're projected to be Philadelphia's starting safeties this season. They won't be able to exclusively play nickel, but they can still contribute there. Both players are converted cornerbacks and have experience lining up in the slot.


OUTLOOK: As you can see, the Eagles don't have a shortage of options to work with. Right now I'd say Watkins is the frontrunner for the job, but that's hardly set in stone. The Eagles should be able to make some combination of these options work. The replacements might not be great as Boykin and/or Shepherd, but the team should be able to get by.

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