The Eagles made a big roster move this week, signing former Jaguars and Rams cornerback Dwayne Gratz to a two-year deal. With Jaylen Watkins injured and the cornerback extremely light on both depth and consistency, the unit needed a boost..but could Gratz provide the injection that the position so desperately needs?
Jim Schwartz alluded to the fact that the recent struggles encountered by the cornerbacks have hampered the success of the pass rush, so even if you take way the injury concerns, an addition to the unit can only bee seen as a sign of willingness to develop. The problem is, the signing doesn’t exactly scream adaptation.
Leodis McKelvin was bought in as a cornerback with experience under Jim Schwartz. The nine year veteran has undergone a rollercoaster season in Philadelphia, showing some tendencies that are also present in the game of Dwayne Gratz. At 5’10, 185 pounds, McKelvin is just an inch smaller than Gratz and 14 pounds lighter. Their games are both prided on physical play and intensity..but that’s not where the similarities lie between Gratz and the current Eagles cornerbacks.
If there’s one area of weakness that’s become ever present in recent weeks, it’s the inability to defend passes over the middle. Both Carroll and McKelvin have given up numerous plays on crossing routes and short plays over the middle. It’s something that has plagued the Eagles Defense in the last few games..and area where Gratz, like his new teammates has often struggled.
In this play against the Colts, Gratz simply takes the bait given to him. A slight twitch from the receiver tricked Gratz into opening his hips ever so slightly as he prepared for a deep route. A swift cut inside left a perfect window for a scrambling Andrew Luck to target and even though Gratz forced an out of bounds fumble after the completion, there was simply way too much room for Luck to complete the easy pass.
Even though Manuel went over the top for an easy completion on the below play, Gratz was once again exposed on a shallow route by some quick footwork. With teams looking to get the ball out quickly against the Eagles in order to compensate for such a dangerous pass rush, the Defense is seeing more and more of these routes..which doesn’t bode well for Gratz.
Just like McKelvin however, Gratz is an incredibly physical player who thrives on asserting his presence against big-name wide receivers. Dez Bryant found that out first hand as he looked to push Gratz away from him, only for the former UCONN corner to stick to him like glue and eventually force the incompletion through plenty of tussling.
Unlike players such as Ron Brooks though, Gratz is far more aware of potential consequences. His aggression is balanced with an all-round skill set that helps him show off his physicality later in the routes. Gratz didn’t make initial contact until five yards or so into the route, completely blanketing his receiver when he did so. Attempting to swat the ball away as well, the balanced nature of Gratz helps limit crucial mistakes in man-coverage.
Breakfast or Dinner?:
As Michael Lombardi once put it, there are two types of NFL cornerback. Those who win early in the route..and those who win late. Like McKelvin, Gratz is a player who struggles to jam at the line of scrimmage and relies on his playmaking ability once the route has revealed itself..which can be a blessing, or a curse.
T.Y Hilton punished Gratz who had planted his feet in the ground too early, allowing the Colts wideout to streak past him for a 73-yard touchdown. Gratz was simply too slow adapting and flipping his hips in a disjointed fashion only allowed for Hilton to burst further down the sidelines before being caught.
An inability to jam at the line of scrimmage has been the achilles heel of the Eagles secondary this season..and it’s a problem that Gratz suffers with also. After being pushed to the point of stumbling, Gratz did well to recover, but the damage was already done. Dez Bryant got revenge for the earlier coverage with a powerful play in which he completely schooled the third round pick.
Sticking with the theme of NFC East opponents, Redskins wide receiver Ryan Grant also had his way with the former Jags cornerback. Completely catching him off guard with a quick cut to the outside for a big completion. Gratz was left burned and trailing in the wake of the then rookie wide receiver after over anticipating a route over the middle. It’s this kind of error that the Eagles have been prone to time and time again this year.
Despite getting a nice push to start the route, Gratz looked to almost propel himself backwards on the below play..which would normally be fine in a flat out foot race. But a slight stutter step from the receiver caught Gratz off guard..and all it took was that subtle movement to open up the perfect bucket for E.J Manuel to drop a pass into. Gratz did well to get physical late in the route and force the wideout to tread on a tightrope, but it wasn’t quite enough.
In a zone coverage look, Gratz allowed his receiver to slip outside him against the Bills at Wembley, keeping his eyes placed firmly on the eyes of the quarterback. But taking a step inside in order to cover the slot route enabled Easley to build up momentum and Gratz slowed over the top. The initial coverage was actually really impressive here, but that step inside along with some poor positioning from the Safety made life all too easy for the Bills. *Fun fact, Gratz has played in London more than any other player on the Eagles roster.
It’s not all bad:
Despite a tendency to get burned and give up deep shots on a regular basis (as this table illustrates):
Dwayne Gratz had a pretty average #CoverageProductivity score. Would like to see better ball awareness in his game pic.twitter.com/a5DMXeGEbd
— Ian (@NFLFilmStudy) May 20, 2015
Gratz has made some impressive plays in his short career, this pass defense against Pierre Garcon being one of them. Despite taking a questionable angle and having to chase down the intimidating wideout, Gratz showed great hustle inc losing him down and leaping over the top to cause the incompletion. It’s that kind of effort that the Eagles need on a play-by-play basis.
Gratz was able to get a great jump on Robinson, opening his hips early enough to go stride-for-stride with the Redskins receiver and eventually covering a pass that was overthrown. Gratz stayed light on his feet and was able to get his arms in the air to minimize the catch radius..which is a very difficult thing to do without risking a loss of coverage.
When tasked with covering DeAndre Hopkins, Gratz still showed signs of confidence, just as Jalen Mills has against big name receivers this year. What’s really impressive about this play is how Hopkins had a better release but Gratz was able to come over the top of Hopkins once he attempted the catch. Even though the ball fell to the ground, if it had been complete, there was no room for any kind of yardage after the reception had he caught it. Sometimes, marginalizing the stars of the NFL is all you can do..and Gratz did a great job here.
Dwayne Gratz is not a lockdown corner by any stretch of the imagination. His character concerns and consistency of being burned on deep routes made him problematic for the Jags and ended up as a special teamer during his time in LA, for just three games. But the skill set is there. Gratz has the ability to get physical, is much faster than the current Eagles cornerbacks, having run a 4.47 40-yard dash at the Combine. This means that any mistake he does make early on, is often at least redeemable due to his closing speed.
The problem is, he’s not a play-maker. During his time as a Jaguar, he racked up 119 tackles, 13 passes Defensed and two forced fumbles. His interceptions were mainly tipped passes that fell into his hands, or wildly overthrown passes. He’s not a cornerback who will catch the spotlight making play after play, in a similar fashion to Leodis McKelvin.
Like McKelvin, his physicality domineers his game. But the struggle to win early in routes which is becoming more and more problematic for the Eagles will not be fixed with the addition of Dwayne Gratz. At worst, Gratz is a hard hitting corner who can make an impact on Dave Fipp’s special teams unit. But at the best, he’s a corner who could fill in for the likes of Jaylen Watkins or act as a safety net, should McKelvin or Carroll fall injured once again.
A two-year deal will give him enough time to at least grow familiar in the system of Jim Schwartz, but sharing the same weaknesses as Leodis McKelvin is a slight concern. It shows a will to improve the unit, but a lack of one to recognize flaws and adapt accordingly. It remains to be seen if Gratz will even see playing time as an Eagle this season, but if he does and the same problems are fluent through every Eagles cornerback..then it’s certainly a sign that the “Jim Schwartz prototype” doesn’t compliment is pass rush as it should.
Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports