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Eagles’ cornerback outlook is more promising than it’s been in some time

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Eagles training camp position preview: Cornerback.

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles training camp is right around the corner ... maybe? Players are currently scheduled to report to the NovaCare Complex later this month. As we count down the days together, Bleeding Green Nation will be previewing every position on the Eagles’ roster. We continue today by taking a look at the cornerbacks. Previously: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive line | Defensive end | Defensive tackle | Linebacker.

THE PLAYERS

DARIUS SLAY

When the Eagles traded for Slay earlier year, they acquired the best cornerback they’ve rostered since ... Asante Samuel? It’s been too long since Philly has had a true No. 1 CB. Slay could finally be that lockdown defender the Eagles have been searching for. The contract extension the Eagles awarded to Slay makes him the NFL’s highest paid corner on an annual basis ($16.7 million per year). A recent polling of NFL executives has Slay ranked as the league’s fourth best player at his position only behind Stephon Gilmore, Jalen Ramsey, and Tre’Davious White.

Slay’s standout coverage skills have earned him a Pro Bowl reputation in each of the past three years. He’s also just a few seasons removed from a first-team All-Pro effort in 2017 when he had eight interceptions paired with 26 passes defensed. Slay probably isn’t going to duplicate those strong results but he still figures to be very critical playmaker in the Eagles’ secondary.

It’s no secret that Jim Schwartz’s defense has been shredded by No. 1 wide receivers in recent years. Just look back at these numbers from 2019:

Week 1 — Terry McLaurin — 5 receptions, 125 yards, 1 TD

Week 2 — Julio Jones — 5 receptions, 106 yards, 2 TD (Calvin Ridley also had 8/105/1)

Week 3 — Marvin Jones — 6 receptions, 101 yards, 1 TD

Week 4 — Davante Adams — 10 receptions, 180 yards, 0 TD (left game early due to injury)

Week 6 — Stefon Diggs — 7 receptions, 167 yards, 3 TD

Week 7 — Amari Cooper — 5 receptions, 106 yards, 0 TD

Week 13 — DeVante Parker — 7 receptions, 159 yards, 2 TD

Week 14 — Darius Slayton — 5 receptions, 154 yards, 2 TD

Week 15 — Terry McLaurin — 5 receptions, 130 yards, 1 TD

Week 16 — Michael Gallup — 5 receptions, 98 yards, 0 TD

Wild Card — D.K. Metcalf — 7 receptions, 160 yards, 1 TD

It remains to be seen if Schwartz will always have Slay shadow the opponent’s top guy but that’s now at least an option for the Eagles. His presence should improve the Eagles’ pass defense.

Of course, there are concerns about Slay declining. He turns 30 before the end of the season and he’s coming off what was considered to be a down year for him. Slay has never missed more than three games in a single season but he has been hampered by some nagging issues. My Detroit Lions fan friend has compared it to how Jason Peters will sometimes be in and out of the lineup for the Eagles in a given game. Slay’s playing time percentages over the past three years:

2017 — 97.7%
2018 — 88.9%
2019 — 75.1%

The expectation here is that Slay will be a good cornerback for the Eagles. It’s just a matter of how impactful he’ll be. Will the Eagles get the elite production they’re paying for or will he merely be an above average starter? It’ll be interesting to see how much he jumps off the page in training camp.

AVONTE MADDOX

I’m going to plant my flag and say that Maddox is the breakout corner many are mistakenly expecting Sidney Jones to be this year.

The idea that there’s a wide open competition for the No. 2 corner job across from Slay isn’t accurate. The Eagles have spent the offseason talking up Maddox and reports indicate the third-year corner is the favorite at that spot. It’s also important to remember the Eagles trusted Maddox — and not Jones, who was basically a healthy scratch — to start for them in the playoffs earlier this year.

There are certainly reasons to be skeptical about Maddox succeeding on the outside. He’s only 5’9” with very short arms (29.5 inches — 2nd percentile). Some of Maddox’s worst outings (see: 2019 Chicago Bears playoff game, 2019 Green Bay Packers game) have come playing on the outside. But so have some of his best performances (see: 2018 Los Angeles Rams and Houston Texans games). What Maddox lacks in ideal length he makes up for to some extent with ball skills, athletic ability, and good technique. He’s also pretty tough, which Schwartz highly values. Just think back to how he wanted to keep playing in the aforementioned Packers game after taking a hit to the head that forced him to be hospitalized.

Maddox showed encouraging promise as a rookie; he allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap in 2018. He then looked good in offseason practices before experiencing an up and down sophomore campaign while mostly playing the slot. The expectation here is that he could be a high variance starter on the outside but there will ultimately be more good than bad. Slay covering opponent’s No. 1 receivers will theoretically leave Maddox with an easier responsibility.

NICKELL ROBEY-COLEMAN

The Eagles reportedly view NRC as a top five slot cornerback in the NFL.

It’s not such a crazy thought considering Pro Football Focus had him ranked fourth best last year in terms of coverage snaps per reception. Los Angeles Rams fans were surprised to see the team decline to pick up his option for 2020.

NRC could end up being a savvy signing for the Eagles. In addition to having a reptuation for playing well, the 28-year-old boasts a track record of durability with only one missed game in his career. Perhaps he’s the new Patrick Robinson? NRC should at least be a solid starter at nickel corner.

SIDNEY JONES

There are certainly reasons to talk yourself into Jones as a breakout player. But there are also just as many, if not more, to dampen such optimism.

Jones undoubtedly made some big plays for the Eagles down the stretch in 2019. But the 2017 second-round pick also essentially finished the season as a healthy scratch (0 defensive snaps, 4 special teams snaps) in the playoff game. That’s hardly irrelevant. The Eagles trusted Maddox way more back then and I don’t think that’s going to change ahead of 2020, especially with a limited offseason.

Now, maybe Maddox falters and/or gets hurt and that outcome opens the door for the Jones to step up. That’s very possible. But Jones still has everything to prove when it comes to showing he can hold up as a long-term starter. And he might not even get that opportunity in 2020.

CRE’VON LEBLANC

It’s interesting that the Eagles made an effort to sign NRC to play the slot when LeBlanc has done noting but make plays whenever he’s been given the chance to do so. Maybe Strap can force his way into rotational playing time but it seems like he’s poised to be the backup nickel guy instead.

RASUL DOUGLAS

The Eagles were reportedly looking to trade Douglas before he agreed to take a pay cut. Some have called for the Eagles to move Sul to safety but the team has shown no real interest in doing that. He seems bound to make the team as a depth cornerback on the outside. He obviously has experience with 18 starts over 46 games played the last three years. The Eagles just don’t seem to trust his lack of long speed.

CRAIG JAMES

James was quietly a nice pickup for the Eagles last year. He had a huge deflection against the Packers to set up Nigel Bradham’s game-sealing interception. James more often contributed on special teams, though, where he led the Eagles in tackles. PFF has James graded as their 25th best special teams player from 2019. Maybe he can earn a spot on the 2020 roster with a good summer.

TREVOR WILLIAMS

Williams is an interesting under-the-radar player on the roster. The 26-year-old has 27 career starts in 39 games played. Injury issues have hampered him over the past two years but maybe he’s finally healthy and ready to push for a backup spot. Could be a quality depth piece to have on the team.

TREMON SMITH

Smith doesn’t have much defensive playing experience but the 2018 sixth-round pick does offer kick return ability. Smith has logged 46 attempts for a respectable 25.8 average. The Eagles have an opening at kick returner but Smith is a long shot to make the team.

MICHAEL JACQUET

Jacquet earned the fourth highest guarantee out of the Eagles’ 13 undrafted rookie free agent signings. He’s raw given a recent transition from wide receiver to cornerback but he could be a practice squad candidate.

PRINCE SMITH

Smith earned the ninth highest guarantee out of the Eagles’ 13 undrafted rookie free agent signings. Likely a camp body who tops out at making the practice squad.

HOW WILL IT PLAY OUT?

On paper, at least, the Eagles are poised to have their best cornerback outlook in some time. Slay should be a legitimate No. 1. Maddox could make a leap. NRC has earned his reputation as one of the league’s best slot guys. The Eagles’ pass defense shouldn’t be so easily hemorrhaging yards to receivers as they have over the past two seasons.

The depth behind the starters is definitely important to note considering the amount of secondary injuries the Eagles have dealt with. Jones and Douglas are young but still offer experience and some level of promise. Williams could be trusted to play if he’s healthy.

Overall, there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic about this group. We’ve certainly seen Eagles corners underachieve before so the proof will be in the pudding.

WHO COULD BE A SURPRISE CUT?

Douglas could still be moved if the Eagles can find the right value for him, whether that’s a pick or a player that provides more depth at another position.

Maybe Strap gets caught up in a number crunch? That wouldn’t be fun to see.

Williams is a candidate for being a surprise make.

Poll

On a scale of 1-5, what’s your confidence level in the Eagles’ cornerback position? (5 being the most.)

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    5
    (45 votes)
  • 46%
    4
    (550 votes)
  • 45%
    3
    (543 votes)
  • 3%
    2
    (43 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (10 votes)
1191 votes total Vote Now