The state of the secondary: How the Eagles face a clash of mentalities at cornerback

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The Eagles Secondary has quite literally gone from overlooked to overbooked. A total of 11 cornerbacks will be competing for roster spots while Jalen Mills is adamant he is also in the mix despite being drafted as a Safety. The question is, how many of these corners are going to make the roster?

It’s safe to assume that both Ron Brooks and Leodis McKelvin will make the roster. The two former Bills will bring systematic experience as well as a veteran presence to what is otherwise a very young group of corners.

The two others in the same boat are Eric Rowe and Nolan Carroll. When injury plagued the unit in 2015, Eric Rowe was given a trial by fire..a trial that he ultimately passed with flying colors after a few bumps along the way. Carroll was resigned by the Eagles after an impressive 2015 campaign that was cut short by injury. If the two can perform as well as they did last season and remain healthy, the future is definitely bright.

Beyond those four corners however is a complete mystery. A mix of players entering their second season combined with both drafted and undrafted rookies hoping that they can make the roster. This is where things get a little complicated.

The Eagles drafted Blake Countess in the sixth round and Jalen Mills in the seventh. As stated earlier, Mills sees himself competing at corner with his versatility being a key strength. The problem is that if Mills lives up to the potential many believe him to have, it’s going to create quite the logjam. The remaining cornerbacks previously unmentioned are:

JaCorey Shepherd:
Shepherd was regarded as one of the steals of the Draft a year ago before he tore his ACL in a pre-season practice, sidelining him for his rookie year. Shepherd returns to action in a situation where he now has to battle for a roster spot that 12 months ago would have been his. Shepherd is going to have to attack OTA’s and Training Camp with the same mentality that saw him rack up 75 tackles in his last two years at Kansas.

 

Denzel Rice:
An undrafted rookie last year who made the Eagles practice squad before being called up to the main roster when the birds encountered an injury crisis. Rice continued to turn heads in 2015 and has continued to follow that trend into his second year. Rice intercepted a Carson Wentz pass and forced two fumbles on the day where practice was open the media. He may be from the small school of Coastal Carolina, but that doesn’t mean he should be overlooked. Rice has been clawing at a roster spot and is one of my favorite underdogs to make the final roster.

 

Blake Countess:

Drafted in the sixth round this year by the Eagles, Countess is one of the tougher corners in his draft class. He ticks the boxes for what the Eagles are looking for in a future slot-corner starter or potentially a safety.

Countess is beyond efficient in man-coverage and having played both corner and safety, brings a level of versatility that other corners on the roster lack. It seems unlikely that the Eagles would draft Countess to cut him before the season starts, so the question becomes..who becomes the odd man out?

 

Jaylen Watkins:
Set to be come a free agent after this season, Jaylen Watkins brings a level of aggression to his play that some of the other names here simply don’t. Watkins was a solid backup when the Eagles began to encounter injury problems at the position and he showed plenty of promise during his time on the field. The question is, will Schwartz want to keep him around for one more season or instead focus on developing guys like Countess?

 

Randall Evans:
A sixth round pick by the Eagles in 2015 who spent most of last season on the Eagles practice squad, Evans is also entering his final contracted year. The difference between him and Watkins however is that Evans struggled to get on the field after being called up as a depth option in January. However, Evans is a physical player having made 200 tackles in three seasons with Kansas State prior to being drafted. It’s that kind of play style that could see him retained by the Eagles.

 

 

C.J. Smith
At 5’11 and 183 pounds, Smith is more of a ballhawk than he is a hard hitting corner. Whilst it may not be a perfect fit, he displayed a similar  glue-like coverage style to Blake Countess in 2015. When matched up against four of the top five ranked receivers in the conference, Smith let up an average of just 2.75 catches and 40 yards per game.

Smith appeared in 58 games during his career at NDSU and finished with the fourth most passes defensed (57) since 2000. His eight interceptions earned him a reputation as one of the FCS’s most notorious shutdown corners. But can he transition to the NFL where the level of competition is much higher?

 

Aaron Grymes:
A CFL standout formerly of Idaho College, Grymes worked out with the Cardinals and the Titans back in January, eventually landing in Philadelphia.
He had 8 interceptions during his three year career in the CFL, with 4 of them coming in 2015. According to Bleacher Report he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash time in 2013. The Edmonton Eskimos defensive back recorded 101 tackles during his time with the Eskimos with 43 coming in his career year in 2015.

 

The chances of the Eagles carrying more than 5 corners is minimal. The team kept 5 in 2015 but for comparison, here’s how many cornerbacks each of Jim Schwartz’s teams have carried in the last few years:

2014 Buffalo Bills: 6 cornerbacks & 4 safeties
2013 Detroit Lions: 5 cornerbacks & 4 safeties
2012 Detroit Lions: 5 cornerbacks & 5 safeties
2011 Detroit Lions: 5 cornerbacks & 4 safeties
2010 Detroit Lions: 5 cornerbacks & 4 safeties

Interestingly, the teams all tend to follow a pattern and the room for fluctuation often ends up with players who can play both safety and cornerback. This means that behind Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, there may be some room for depth. This is where the versatility of Jalen Mills and Blake Countess could come in very..very handy.

Catch-22 however is that the Eagles will undoubtedly want to retain the services of special-teams ace Chris Maragos and while Ed Reynolds was inconsistent, he came up big when it mattered and performed well enough to at least have his name on that fourth spot going into 2016.

It’s not that the Eagles are simply overwhelmed with “guys”. It’s that they’ve built such a young corps that’s bursting with talent and potential. To me at least, it’s difficult to look at a player in this group and see them as a “camp body”. Every single one of these players has a realistic shot of making the final roster which is great for new Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz..until the team could be forced to choose between a sixth round pick from 2015 and a player regarded as a steal 12 months ago. Or until they’re forced to choose between an undrafted rookie from a year ago or a proven special teams performer.

Without really knowing it, the Eagles have been stockpiling cornerbacks for the last 12 months with different incentives. Chip Kelly wanted to build a young core that could develop and eventually shine. From Eric Rowe and JaCorey Shepherd to Denzel Rice and Randall Evans, Chip placed a lot of faith in young corners after his roster purge prior to the start of the 2015 season.

Jim Schwartz on the other hand wants to build a system that fuses youth with experience. A system that allows younger corners that fit a prototype to learn under veterans of the system and one day take the reigns themselves.

Somewhere along the line however, the two vastly different groups of players have merged into one cluster of talent. For every addition there has not been a subtraction because there simply hasn’t needed to be. Some are now primed for success under Schwartz, others seen as project players who could one day develop into NFL starters. It’s this mix of developmental talent, schematic fit and potential that has formed a logjam in the secondary.

Some of the names in this article will not make the final 53-man roster and it will be interesting to see which direction the Eagles go. Will they be comfortable in keeping the likes of Shepherd and Rice when they could just as easily give Blake Countess and Jalen Mills a shot?

There are essentially two groups of players trying to make the roster. The remnants of a Chip Kelly ideology and a new breed of cornerback..drafted specifically to dominate and develop. Who makes the roster out of these two groups however..remains a mystery that will not be solved until the official announcement at the end of August.

 

Mandatory Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

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