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How the Steven Nelson signing impacts the Eagles’ secondary

Eagles training camp position preview: Cornerback and safety.

Buffalo Bills v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Philadelphia Eagles training camp is right around the corner! Players are scheduled to report to the NovaCare Complex on July 27. 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 secondary. Previously: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive line | Defensive line | Linebacker.

THE PLAYERS

CORNERBACKS

DARIUS SLAY, STEVEN NELSON, AVONTE MADDOX, CRAIG JAMES, ZECH MCPHEARSON, MICHAEL JACQUET III, JOSIAH SCOTT, KEVON SEYMOUR, SHAKIAL TAYLOR, NATE MEADORS, LAVERT HILL

Slay is arguably the most overrated player on the Eagles’ roster. The Eagles are paying him the fourth-highest annual cornerback salary to be a meaningful difference-maker, not just ‘merely good.’ The Eagles need to see more out of Slay in his second season with the team. Perhaps Jonathan Gannon can help maximize his talent. It’d be good to see Slay living up to his nickname and making some big plays in camp.

The Eagles had a gaping hole at CB2 before signing Nelson. Now they have a sure-fire starter. Just how good is Nelson, exactly? Well, he’s coming off a relatively down season but he was a pretty nice starter in 2019 and 2018. He should at least be serviceable and not a total burn victim unlike other starting Eagles cornerbacks in recent years.

With Maddox now seemingly out of the mix to start on the outside, he figures to be the team’s primary nickel cornerback. It’s interesting because Maddox has the prototypical body type for that role but he doesn’t actually have extensive experience in the slot. He mostly played on the boundary at Pitt. Still, it’s easier to envision Maddox being a more viable option on the inside than the outside moving forward. It’s an important year for the 2018 fourth-round pick since he’ll be a free agent after 2021. Is he a long-term piece worth keeping around?

James was plagued by injury last year. If he can stay healthy, he’s a candidate to be a strong special teams contributor. Also a depth option on defense.

McPhearson might’ve been the most likely player to start across from Slay had Nelson not been signed. Now the rookie won’t be forced into the starting lineup before he’s ready to play. The Eagles will hope he flashes in camp and shows potential to be a future contributor. In the meantime, he’s around to provide depth. Ideally, he’ll be able to jump ahead of James on the defensive depth chart.

Jacquet had some real highs and lows last year. On one hand, he did a respectable job covering DeAndre Hopkins. Relative to what could reasonably be expected, at least. On the other hand, he got absolutely destroyed in Dallas. Jacquet is on the bubble; he might be able to convince the Eagles to keep him on the 53. Or at least the practice squad.

In case you forgot, the Eagles traded a 2023 sixth-round pick for Scott. I swear I didn’t rhyme that on purpose. Such a move doesn’t necessarily guarantee his roster spot but the investment could give him an edge. In theory, Scott might be able to contend for the starting slot job. Or he might reprise Cre’Von LeBlanc’s role as the top backup there.

Seymour’s NFL experience could give him a leg up on his younger competition. But that he turns 28 this year raises questions about his upside.

Taylor, the first official acquisition of the Nick Sirianni era, enters training camp with the most recent experience working with Gannon. The odds are stacked against him but maybe he can surprise.

Meadors is probably a camp body. The Eagles’ uncertainty at corner gives him a theoretical chance to stick around.

Hill profiles as a nickel corner. That the Eagles are unsettled there gives him a theoretical chance to stick around. Perhaps a practice squad candidate.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

SAFETY

RODNEY MCLEOD, ANTHONY HARRIS, K’VON WALLACE, MARCUS EPPS, ANDREW ADAMS, GRAYLAND ARNOLD, ELIJAH RILEY

McLeod said he’s on track to play in Week 1 despite suffering a second career ACL tear in mid-December. To be determined if that’s truly the case. If McLeod is able to pick up where he left off last year, the Eagles will have at least one quality starter on the back end. Not to mention McLeod’s importance to the team as a vocal leader both on and off the field.

Harris was arguably the best safety in the NFL in 2019. 2020 was a down year for him, though. Now reunited with Gannon, can he bounce back? It’s a feasible outcome. Harris’s coverage skills could go a long way towards helping the corners prevent big plays. After logging six interceptions a couple of years ago, Harris might be able to force some turnovers as well.

Wallace will be an interesting player to monitor this summer. The 2020 fourth-round pick was expected to make some impact as a rookie but he only played 18% of the defensive snaps. Can Wallace prove he belongs on the field as a role player?

Epps was valued by the previous coaching staff. So much so that he saw the field over Wallace and others. Will he remain the third safety? Is he even a sure bet to be on the roster? A fairly wide range of outcomes feels possible for Epps.

Though not to much fanfare, Adams was the Eagles’ first free agent signing. With 32 starts in 73 games played, Adams brings experience to the table. He’s limited in terms of upside, though, as he turns 29 in October. Adams is on the bubble for a fourth or fifth safety spot.

Arnold had some positive flashes in last year’s training camp. The numbers are stacked against him this summer but he might be able to convince the team to keep him around on the practice squad again.

Riley’s in a similar boat to Arnold.

HOW WILL IT PLAY OUT?

Barring injury, the four primary starters are locked in. Slay and Nelson are the starting cornerbacks. McLeod and Harris are the starting safeties. On paper, that’s not a bad-looking secondary.

Of course, that quartet isn’t without questions. The Eagles need more from Slay. Nelson and Harris need to bounce back. McLeod turned 31 in June and is coming off injury. The potential is here for this group to be good but it’s hardly a guarantee.

It’ll be interesting to see how the nickel corner spot plays out. Again, Maddox is probably the favorite but there’s a non-zero chance that Scott could take that job. The third safety role will also be worth watching.

WHO COULD BE A SURPRISE CUT?

It would be surprising if James isn’t retained considering he was a special teams co-captain last year. Epps would be a noteworthy cut. That’s all I see in terms of realistic surprise departures. There could be some surprise keeps, such as Taylor, Hill, Arnold, or Riley.