One of the best position battles in 2016 Eagles training camp, if not the best position battle, is the one taking place at cornerback. The Eagles have a lot of bodies at corner and they've experimented with different combinations. On Sunday, for example, the Birds give some first teams to Jalen Mills. The seventh round rookie has stood out during training camp. He's caught the eye of Eagles defensive coordinator from Jim Schwartz.
"You know, he's showed up every day," Schwartz said. "He's had some ups and downs. I'm sure you guys have been documenting those. But, you know, what I like about him is he's very competitive. He comes back and he doesn't shy away from contact. He doesn't shy away from matchups. You need that in a corner."
"If you're on the edge and you don't embrace being on that island, you're in the wrong business. You know, you go around here, I mean, Philly's had a great history of some corners that were on islands that embraced that. I think Jalen has shown signs that he can do those things. He's still young. He's still inconsistent. He's got his ups and his downs. But he comes ready to battle every day."
As Schwartz correctly notes, Mills hasn't been perfect. The rookie has been vulnerable to getting beat by the deep ball. He's also been chewed out by defensive backs Cory Undlin for getting too grabby with the receivers at times.
Schwartz downplayed the idea that Mills' first team reps meant anything other than the Eagles wanting to see him paired up against a different set of receivers.
But there's a report that emerged last week that indicates the Eagles coaching staff is pretty high on Mills. The rookie is reportedly higher on the depth chart than 2015 second round pick Eric Rowe. And while that may be true, Rowe has been doing his best to regain favor by showing off his physicality in practice. He's involved in a competition that's still wide open, according to Schwartz.
"You know, we're wide open everywhere, including defensive coordinator," said Schwartz. "If we can find somebody better, let's do it. If it makes it better."
"It's going to be about the production of the group. Out there, there's nothing set in stone. There's plenty of jobs to be earned."
"Eric has done a good job. Eric has some very good strengths. He's tall. He's hard to throw over the top of. He can be physical. I think we've seen that. In [the offensive] backed up [portion of practice], he came up and made a big hit on the flat route – a tight end to the flat route. It might have been the safety. That's what you want to see corners do. You don't want to see corners back down from tight ends going to the flat. Eric has flashed those things."
"Again, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves about him being too much of a seasoned player: he has got about a half year or less of him starting. There's still a lot of things he's learning."
It's very possible neither Mills nor Rowe will start this season. Veterans Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll have taken the bulk of first team reps this summer, along with Ron Brooks working in as well. But even if the young guys aren't starting, they're pushing for playing time at the position. A healthy competition could be beneficial towards improving the cornerback situation.
Watch Schwartz's Sunday press conference in the video below via the Bleeding Green Nation Facebook page. Transcript below.
Q. There’s a report out there that the Eagles are interested in bringing in Stephen Tulloch. Is that a thing that you're looking to do?
JIM SCHWARTZ: First, I got a lot of background with Steve. I was with Tennessee when we drafted him; [he] ended up being starting middle linebacker for us there. When I was head coach in Detroit, we brought him up there. I have a lot of respect for that guy and his production.
But last week, when you guys asked me similar questions, I said the same thing. [Eagles executive vice president of football operations] Howie [Roseman] and [Eagles vice president of player personnel] Joe [Douglas], those guys, all the scouts are always looking for ways to improve our team. So, whoever is out there that can improve our team, whether it's a guy like ‘Tully’ who is unsigned, or guys that are on other teams, that they’re looking at roster numbers; we're going to watch pre-season games and be looking at the waiver wire, who might be cap casualties. That's what the personnel department does. I trust those guys to explore every option that would help us.
Q. When you were a head coach, did your teams ever hit in practice? If not, what do you learn from watching players hit that maybe you wouldn't get out otherwise?
JIM SCHWARTZ: I'm not falling for that one again – [the] 'When I was a head coach' lead-in. I'm not the head coach. I'm the defensive coordinator. My job is to do what [head] Coach [Doug] Pederson wants.
Q. No, but I’m saying, ‘Did you ever do it?’
JIM SCHWARTZ: What's in the past is in the past.
Here's what I want to see. From a defensive mentality, it's nice to have a head coach that wants to have a physical practice; that wants to defend guys up. A lot of offensive coaches shy away from that.
I think it's going to pay off for us not just defensively, but it will pay off for us offensively.
[Head] Coach [Doug Pederson] wants to build a tough, physical team, and that doesn't happen by accident. That doesn't happen with just hoping that it happens. Hope isn't a very good strategy. You've got to go out and do it, and we embrace it.
Q. When you look at the film afterwards, are there things you can see when guys are hitting?
JIM SCHWARTZ: Oh, no question. No question.
Q. What would be an example?
JIM SCHWARTZ: It's one thing – say you’re in a live period – it's one thing for a guy to say, ‘Yeah, I would have made that.’ You’re thudding the running back, you're thudding a ball carrier [and you say], ‘I would have made it,’ and you're sitting there looking at film [where we can say], ‘I don't like your angle right here.’ When you're in some of those periods, it shows. There's no gray area whether you could make it or not.
Plus, this game is built with tough, physical players. That sort of shows through when you get tough, physical practices. It's a revealer when it comes to the guys who can execute that.
Q. The linebacker corps, most of the depth are rookies or first-year players. Would you like to see better depth there?
JIM SCHWARTZ: We have some good veterans here. Najee Goode is a young veteran, but I think he does a great job in that role. I think we've got a good mix of younger players and older players.
I don't think you go in with preconceived notions that way. I don't think you sit there and say, ‘Yeah, we have ‘X’ number of vets and ‘X’ number of rookies.’ We leave that to [Eagles executive vice president of football operations] Howie [Roseman] and [Eagles vice president of player personnel] Joe [Douglas] and the personnel guys. We’ll coach who’s out there.
Q. Blake Countess is a smaller safety, but he seems to have no problem throwing his body around.
JIM SCHWARTZ: If you watched him at Auburn and Michigan, that was obvious.
Q. What have you seen from him during the physical practices here?
JIM SCHWARTZ: That. (laughs)
That was part of his resume. You're right, he's not the biggest guy in the world. But there's a lot of safeties that aren't big. Rodney McLeod is not that big. Rodney's not eating peanuts off of Blake's head.
Every time he's out here, you guys know, does Rodney look small when he's out here? Uh-uh. It's all about your positioning, your leverage, your toughness; those things. I think Blake has those.
Q. Have any of the young linebackers stepped up during training camp?
JIM SCHWARTZ: All, at times. But like a lot of young players, they're all trying to work through inconsistencies. I think Joe Walker has done a very good job of handling all the stuff that goes along with being a Mike linebacker. I said a couple days ago, I wasn't giving gold stars to Jordan Hicks for doing that, but Jordan's not a rookie and Joe is. When he's out there, he does a nice job with it.
Q. I'll ask you about the upcoming Thursday night preseason game against Tampa Bay. What are some things you're looking for from this defense?
JIM SCHWARTZ: I'm worried about making it through today, to tell you the truth. We can circle back next week on that. We're still in training camp. If we're thinking about preseason games, we're thinking about the wrong thing right now.
Q. DE Steven Means has gone from a stand-up edge rusher to having his hand in the dirt. What are some of the things you've seen from him because he seems to be coming on?
JIM SCHWARTZ: Pun intended, he 'means' business. He comes to work. He's physical. He fits the scheme. He's tall. He's got long arms. He can build some power with speed. You might want to ask the tight ends about him because he’s been giving those guys some tough situations to handle.
Q. How has the coverage been on the running backs and tight ends?
JIM SCHWARTZ: Probably like anything else: I mean, there's good ones, there's bad ones. You know, we have a couple tough matchups there with [TEs Brent] Celek, [Zach] Ertz, [Trey] Burton. Burton has made plays, a lot. He's a tough matchup for us. [RB Darren] Sproles. Those are tough matchups for anybody. You know, I mean, we're going to win some, we're going to lose some.
Q. After seeing all of these practices, are you anxious to see how the guys play against live competition in the game on Thursday night?
JIM SCHWARTZ: I'm going to stay on message there. I'm anxious to see how they respond to the walk-through today. They had a pretty good day this morning, but we don't need to be patting guys on the back for that. I mean, that’s their job. It's training camp. They need to go do that. I've been well-documented saying that we’ve got to put the inconsistencies behind us.
If we start talking about preseason games, we're talking about the wrong thing. We’ve got a training camp practice today, we’ve got walk-through today, we’ve got meetings today, we’ve got another padded practice tomorrow.
You start looking too far ahead and you're going to lose sight of what our real objective is here, and that's to improve every day.