Unless you’ve been living under a rock, the biggest weakness on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster is obvious: cornerback. For what feels like the billionth year in a row, the Eagles will have a new pair of starting corners this season after cutting 2016 starter Leodis McKelvin and letting Nolan Carroll sign with the Cowboys in free agency.
The Eagles made some cornerback changes this offseason, of course. The team signed former first round pick Patrick Robinson to a veteran’s minimum deal. Philadelphia then drafted the injured Sidney Jones in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft before selecting Rasul Douglas in the third.
So, then, did the Eagles do enough to address the position? Let’s check in with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
“Well, we'll find out during the season, for sure. [The season is] the final determination in every move that we make and everything that we do – from preparation, to drafting, to signing free agents, to new coaching schemes. That's the great thing about this sport. It all comes to light during the season. I think it's probably a little too early to evaluate right now. We're still working through a lot of different stuff. It's certainly a position of importance for us. We understand where we were last year and how it affected our defense, and we need to be better at our corner position, for sure.”
Saying the Eagles’ corners need to be better is an understatement, but this is an overall fair point from Schwartz. However, it’s hard to believe he’d be tempering expectations like this if the Eagles had went out and acquired, just for example, Richard Sherman and Aqib Talib.
When further asked if the Eagles improved their corner depth chart, Schwartz declined to say the team did.
“Well, I think that we'll see where that goes. I think we go in, just about any position, we don't expect anything. We don't expect our D-line to be better this year. And I say that, I mean, that would probably make a bad quote: ‘Schwartz doesn’t expect D-line to be better.’ (laughter) What I'm trying to get to, and I don't know the best way to put it, but to say anytime that you … Maybe take for granted, you know … Just say, ‘Hey, we added a couple players, so we take for granted that we're going to be better.’ This is a tough business. Things change an awful lot and you can't take anything for granted. You have to come to work and constantly work to improve.”
“I like the young players we've added. I think not only some of our draft picks, but we've signed some pretty good undrafted free agents that have done some nice things in the rookie camp and also in the OTAs so far. [We] added some veteran players like [CB] Patrick Robinson [and] have some returning players that are now a year more under their belt. So, I think all those things can point in the right direction, but none of that means anything. This game isn't played on paper. It's played between the lines. Our job is to be ready when those games count.”
If the season began today, the outside starters at corner would likely be the aforementioned Robinson and Jalen Mills. Both of those players have taken the first team reps during OTA practices. Ron Brooks could potentially be the team’s nickel corner when he’s healthy, as Doug Pederson suggested, but for now it’s Mills in the slot with Douglas coming in to play on the outside. It’s early, but Douglas has been very active around the ball. He could potentially push for a starting job on the outside if he continues to shine.
Having Jones this year would obviously be ideal, but there’s a decent chance he might not even play at all this season. The Washington rookie is still recovering from an Achilles injury. Even if reaches 100% at some point in the season, he will already have missed a lot of valuable offseason reps and instruction time. Throwing an unprepared Jones into the fire might not be the best idea. The realistic hope is he can be a good full-time starter starting next year.
In the meantime, it’s very possible (and very probable) the Eagles will struggle at corner again in 2017. The good news is that they’ll have some factors helping them. Philadelphia’s pass rush is poised to improve after the departures of non-pass rushers Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan plus the additions of Derek Barnett, Chris Long, and Timmy Jernigan. A better pass rush should make life easier on the corners to some extent. The presence of two good safeties on the back end of Philadelphia’s defense — Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod — should also help out.
While cornerback troubles might be a hindrance, they won’t necessarily derail the Eagles’ entire system. Philadelphia’s defense ranked 13th in yards per game, 12th in points per game, 10th in takeaways, and fourth in defensive DVOA despite their 2016 corner situation. Things could be worse.
Hopefully they won’t, though. Maybe Mills takes a step forward after going through some rookie struggles. Maybe Robinson can have a decent year as a stop-gap player. Maybe Douglas exceeds expectations and steals a starting job. Maybe Aaron Grymes and/or C.J. Smith can surprise some people after looking good in training camp last summer.
The Eagles have lots of questions marks at the corner position. “Is this year’s group better than last year’s?” is just one of them.
Watch Jim Schwartz’s entire press conference via the Bleeding Green Nation Facebook Page. (Click here or watch below.)
Eagles DC Jim Schwartz talking now for the first time in a long time!Posted by Bleeding Green Nation: For Philadelphia Eagles Fans on Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Read on for a complete transcript.
Q. What did you make of the decision to draft CB Sidney Jones, someone who most likely won't contribute this year? (Jeff McLane)
JIM SCHWARTZ: You always have to hedge short-term and long-term in this business. That's a difficult balance, not only for coaches, but for the organization. He's a really good player, and the opportunity to get a really good player is really important to us. So, I'm happy to have him. Whenever he gets back, we'll be happy to get him on the field.
Q. How involved were you with the selection of Sidney and CB Rasul Douglas, and what do you see in each player? (Jimmy Kempski)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Coaches certainly have a role. It's not as detailed as the scouts. The scouts have seen these guys for years. Our West Coast scout had seen Sidney Jones since he was a freshman, starting as a true freshman. Same thing with our scouts from West Virginia and everything else. But coaches have a unique role. We get to go to Senior Bowl. We saw Rasul Douglas at the Senior Bowl. We go to the combine [and] we get to have individual meetings with those guys. I think it's a little bit easier for coaches than scouts because we get to evaluate the guy when the whole book of information is in. We already know what he ran in his 40; we've already done an interview; all the games are in. It's difficult when you're a scout and on the road. You have to make a decision and evaluate a player. You don't know what he's going to run in his 40. All the information is. He hasn't played whatever that conference championship game or that bowl game that ends up being really good or really bad. But every NFL team coaches have some varying role. We certainly had a role in here. We liked both of those guys. We're happy to have both of those guys.
Q. Is DT Fletcher Cox here today, and what did you make of him missing last week's practice? (Matt Lombardo)
JIM SCHWARTZ: I think I'm going to stay away from the attendance questions. We all realize this is a voluntary part of the offseason program. When we get to mandatory mini-camp, it becomes a little bit different. I think anything that a coach says – whether it's praising a guy for being here or being critical of a guy for not being here, or even, sort of excusing a guy that's not here – it all sort of takes away from the voluntary nature of it. We've worked through things like that before. There are players that have been here, players that haven't. Players miss for a lot of different reasons. Our job is to coach the guys that are here. We're excited about coaching the guys that are here, and quite honestly, it's my favorite time of year. It's all about improvement. It's all about individual improvement without the pressure of having a game come up. You guys all know I'm a big baseball fan. I remember hearing Jim Palmer talk about – pitcher for the Orioles – talk about … I'm sorry, some people need to know that. … (laughter) Talk about Spring Training, and he would have like a 10.00 ERA in Spring Training. And I heard him speak at a banquet after that, and he was like, ‘Well, I threw nothing but curveballs that whole time, or I threw nothing but change-ups. I was working on that pitch.’ And it didn't matter to him. He had enough confidence that it didn't matter that he gave up six runs in an inning. He was working on [those] individual things. Our guys are going through the same thing now. They're working on their individual skills. We're working as a defense to try to improve, to add some new wrinkles, trying to get all that stuff together, and it's an exciting time. Like I said, it's our favorite time of year to work with the players that are here, and that's our focus. Our focus is on guys that are here, not guys that miss for any reason.
Q. What sort of role do you see for DE Derek Barnett? What have your impressions been so far, or even leading up to the draft? (Ed Kracz)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Well, anytime you turn around and look at that number 92 [Reggie White mural in NovaCare Complex auditorium] back there, anytime they can break any record that that guy has, that's going to get your attention pretty quick. [He] played right away as a true freshman at the University of Tennessee, was productive game-in and game-out. He's really tough. He's got a great center of balance. He's not on the ground very much. He's got some things to work on, like any rookie. But he was an effective player. I think that against all competition he was consistent from game to game. He's tough as can be. He's good against the run and good against pass – played right and played left. All those things led us to draft him. How much he can contribute [and] how quickly he can be ready is up to him and coaches. It's our job to get him ready to be out there. But we're really excited about him. He can turn a corner and be like this high off the ground. You guys will notice that when you see him out there. He's also been giving great effort in practice. We've pointed out his effort a couple times – chasing the ball and those kinds of things. For a rookie to do that kind of stuff has been pretty impressive so far.
Q. In previous years and what you’ve seen so far, what is the impact that a guy like DT Tim Jernigan could have? (Dave Spadaro)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Yeah, watched him when he came out of Florida State and then a little bit with the Ravens. You always cross over film and you watch him. He's playing a different scheme now. It's a lot less reading; it’s a lot more attacking. I think it fits him. He can win individual pass rushes, meaning when the center is sliding away, he's a tough matchup for a guard. He's not physically the biggest guy, but he's very strong and he's very active. It's been a great addition for us. I really look forward to coaching him, and I really look forward to him being on the field for us. I also like his temperament. He's got a football player's temperament.
Q. What are your thoughts on the pass rush last year? (Paul Domowitch)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Well, I think our pass rush reflected our defense, and it also reflected our team. We started off hot and then we went into a slump. We went a bunch of games without being able to get any pressure on the quarterback. We started getting it back a little bit toward the end. I've always told our defense that the engine that runs our defense is our defensive line and our pass rush, and we need to be consistent from week to week. We need to find ways to have guys be consistent. That being said, pass-rush doesn't stand alone. A lot of that has to do with – and we talked a little bit before about our corner position – a lot of it has to do with our corner position. If you can cover for a long time, you can buy time to get the sackers there. If they're rushing well, it helps the corners out. But I think that both of those can go hand in hand. If we can improve our corner position, that will help improve our pass rush. It's well-known that we rely on four-man pass rush, but if you're going to blitz, you need to be able to cover outside man-to-man. So, we need to be able to make those improvements. There are things that we can help with. But pass rush doesn't stand on its own, and I say that even though, obviously, we were in a slump in the middle of the season.
Q. What do you like about Patrick Robinson? Last year, you had two veteran cornerbacks in Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll. Do you see Patrick as a similar-type player? Is he different? (Martin Frank)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Two years ago, we evaluated him when he was with San Diego. I thought he had a really good year. He had some inside-outside flexibility. Played nickel, played outside. And we liked what we saw. He obviously signed with Indianapolis. Then last year was a bit of a lost season for him with injuries. He looks like he's back healthy now. He's a guy that brings some experience in there. He's really quick, he's really fast. He's been around the NFL. So those are all good attributes to have. Just like any other veteran player, a lot of guys on our defense were able to start with the base of knowledge, what's expected technique-wise, what's expected scheme-wise. When a veteran from another team, [Eagles Insider] Dave [Spadaro] mentioned [Tim] Jernigan, could be Patrick Robinson, the biggest challenge for those guys a lot of times is trying to switch everything to their own terminology. There are some things that maybe you do a little bit different than the team that was there that they were with before. But usually that's their adjustment. So those guys, for lack of a better way to put it, they're a little bit behind the other guys because they don't have the base of knowledge of 16 games and training camp and all those things. But in my experience, those guys catch up quick because they have so much experience.
Q. CB Jalen Mills obviously played a lot as a rookie. Do you expect a big leap forward this year? He was playing inside-outside last week. Does he have some of that same versatility? (John McMullen)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Yeah, he's working at our nickel and outside. And I think go back to the first thing I said with what you expect. Yeah, we expect everybody to be improved. It's a second year in the league, and he's been through a training camp before. He's been through OTAs before, all those things. But we can't take anything for granted. He can't take anything for granted. The thing I like about Jalen is he's very competitive, even though he's young, he's a good pro, and he does make improvements. And if he can continue in that regard, I'll sum his rookie season up, it was a rookie season. There were some things that he did well, and he flashed. There were times he didn't play as well as we needed him to. His challenge is creating that consistency. You do that, and it's hard to be consistent when you're brand-new at something, but that experience that comes from a year, getting out there and being thrown into the fire, he should be able to benefit from that as we go further down the road. I like where he's going, but he's never lacked for competitiveness. He's never lacked for work ethic. Those are things that he comes every day with.
Q. What were DE Vinny Curry’s issues last year? Does he need to rush more from the inside? (Jeff McLane)
JIM SCHWARTZ: He rushed an awful lot inside last year. It's hard to be in there when it's run situations and not first and second down. You know, when we watched film a lot of times with Vinny, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing, his pressure numbers were high, but his sack numbers were low. I've had this conversation with Vinny, so I don't feel like I'm talking out of school with this. He didn't do as good a job finishing the rush as he did starting the rush. A lot of times he would create pressure, and somebody else would come in, [DE] Brandon [Graham], or Fletch [Cox] or somebody else, and they'd sort of get the sack or the quarterback would throw the ball away. [Curry] was on the ground a little bit too much around the quarterback. He needed to be able to take that one extra step and be able to finish. How much that knee injury, particularly early in the season, I'm sure that knee injury affected him. But as the year went on, it's really hard to say. But we need to take his sack numbers and make them a little more in line with his pressure numbers, because he was very disruptive last year. He did some good things, but it didn't show. In 2001, I was with the Titans and I had [DE] Kevin Carter. I think Kevin Carter had two sacks and it was a lot of the same things. He had missed opportunities for sacks and he had times where he slipped and fell or the quarterback ducked underneath him. When the season was over, we were sitting there saying, ‘Geez, he had eight or 10 sacks that he had a good opportunity to make that he didn't make them.’ Good players can make that transition, Kevin Carter did, had a good career. It was sort of a one-year blip and that is the challenge for Vinny – proving last year was a one-year blip. He's been working really good. He's been working on some of the things that we identified over the offseason. And again, I say this, I could probably say it for just about everybody, but just like Jalen Mills, Vinny comes to work, and Vinny is very, very prideful, and he's very competitive. You know, I said before, our defensive line is the engine that runs our defense, and Vinny is a big part of that.
Q. Aside from Vinny, it seems like Brandon Graham fell in that category, too. Getting a lot of pressure, but not getting the sack numbers. Is there anything as a coaching staff you can do to help them finish? (Dave Zangaro)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Well, we did a lot of studies in the offseason. We did studies of different teams and things like that. Sacks go hand-in-hand with so many other things. I mentioned corners. They also go hand-in-hand with score. I don't think there is any surprise that a lot of games we were sacking the quarterback, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota and things like that, we were playing with the lead. That means an awful lot, too. So we were really, I was really impressed with the season that Brandon had last year. Again, the sack numbers were five and a half, is that what it was, five and a half? That's not going to create a whole lot of headlines. But he was a better pass-rusher than five and a half sacks. With him, I think it was more circumstance with him. He didn't miss very many opportunities. He’d have great pressure and the ball would be gone a little bit quicker. If we do a better job with our coverage, I think we can see some improved numbers from Brandon, also.
Q. Sticking with the pass rush. What, if anything, can you expect from DE Marcus Smith at this point? (Mike Sielski)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Well, he's like a lot of these other guys. He's trying to work to improve, and trying to find ways to get better. He flashed last year, also. He had a sack against [Cowboys T] Tyron Smith, one of the best left tackles in the NFL early in that Dallas game that we were on the road. So he's obviously proven that he can do some things just like any of our other players. We came up with sort of an offseason checklist for him. Try to get him to use his athletic ability a little bit more. He is a really good athlete. Trying to get him to be able to speed rush the edge a little bit more. I think there is great competition at our defensive end, not only drafting Derek [Barnett], adding a guy like Chris Long. Competition's going to bring out the best in those guys, and for Marcus, competition's going to have to bring out the best in him.