The reason behind Eagles recent foray into signing CFL cornerbacks

104th Grey Cup Championship Game
TORONTO, ON – NOVEMBER 27: Forrest Hightower #23 of the Ottawa Redblacks is congratulated by Mitchell White #21 after intercepting a pass during the first half of the 104th Grey Cup Championship Game against the Calgary Stampeders at BMO Field on November 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Eleven months ago, the Philadelphia Eagles made a minor roster move that was overlooked by many at the time. Aaron Grymes signed with the team after an impressive three year stint in the CFL before going on to raise plenty of eyebrows in training camp and preseason. An injury against the Steelers led to Grymes losing was looking like a certain spot on the final roster, but that wasn’t to be the end of his Eagles journey. The Birds resigned him later in the season and he now has a second chance of securing his future. This time, he will be joined by another CFL product trying to do exactly the same thing, Mitchell White.

The Eagles desperately need help at cornerback, but there’s more to the Eagles recent focus on the CFL than just a coincidence. If anything, it represents a shift in talent evaluation and a method of adding talent and upside to the position.

Grymes and White aren’t the first CFL cornerbacks to break into the NFL. Brandon Browner and Josh Johnson are two names who will be more than familiar to fans of the NFL and two who refined their craft in Canada. So why is the CFL such a prominent proving ground for young cornerbacks?

To start with, there are some huge differences in the rules between the two games. The CFL field is 13.5-yards wider than that played on in the NFL. There’s an extra ten yards between the goal-lines and the goal-lines themselves are an extra 10 yards deep. Not only that, but wide receivers are allowed to run at corners prior to the snap. As long as they don’t overlap the line of scrimmage, they can be at full speed by the time that the quarterback has the ball in his hands.

With a bigger field to defend and a waggle from behind the line of scrimmage, CFL cornerbacks have to have lightning quick feet, supreme confidence and excel in man-coverage. An area where the Eagles have been lacking sorely for the last few years.

Athletic ability plays a huge part in the Canadian game..and it’s certainly visible in the games of both Grymes and White. In fact, if we take four combine results of White and Grymes and compare them to the Eagles cornerbacks, adapting a points-based grading system, the results are beyond eyebrow raising.

Given that Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin have combined for 16 seasons in the NFL and all three of the Eagles cornerbacks listed were drafted, it’s startling just how close physically that these two undrafted rookies really are. But it’s not just the physical attributes that makes Grymes and White such interesting talents.

The Eagles gave up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more this season, the most in the NFL. The Jim Schwartz scheme requires a lot of man-coverage and aggressive play..something fundamental in the Canadian game.

If there’s one man who knows what Grymes and White bring to the table better than anyone, it’s Ottawa Redblacks DB Coach, Ike Charlton. As someone that’s played in the NFL after being drafted by the Seahawks in 2002, he understands the differences and what it takes to play in both leagues.

Charlton coached White during his stellar 2016 campaign, that saw him named to the All-Star team for the first time. The 26-year old has 4 career interceptions in the CFL, with 3 coming under the guidance of Charlton, making 38 tackles in the process. All of this, despite missing the opening five games.

“He was a guy that when he came in, he just needed some fine tuning in being an all-round DB.” Said Charlton of Mitchell White. “He’s aggressive and more of a man-to-man cover guy. He likes to get down in press coverage and get hands on wide receivers, disrupting the timing of offenses.”

Aggression is something you simply need to thrive in the CFL..and something that White had in an abundance when he arrived in Ottawa.

“To play in the CFL, if you can’t play man-to-man, you won’t survive. In Montreal, he played in zone coverage the majority of the time and when he came over with me, we play almost 90% man-coverage there.” Charlton explained. “We ask our guys to be a little bit more aggressive. Have good hips, get your hands on guys and be able to disrupt and throw off the timing.”

“When he came in from the first practice, I saw exactly that. That’s what he preferred to do. Most guys like to play from off so they can get an understanding of what guys can do to pertain wide receivers. He went right up in press coverage and right then I knew that’s where he’s most comfortable at.”

White used these strengths extensively in the 2016 season, becoming more and more confident with each snap. Some breakout performances included a seven tackle game against the BC Lions and holding Derel Walker to 3 catches for 26 yards. Walker went on to receive for 1,589 yards and 10 touchdowns for Edmonton. How can White’s skill set transition into the NFL? Ike Charlton, talking exclusively to Philly Sports Network, believed that it should be an easier jump to make.

“With guys being stationary, he can play more to his strength, which is using his size and his strength to get hands on guys and run with them as opposed to in the CFL where you have to have all the attributes.”

That doesn’t mean that White’s game isn’t without room for improvement and for the Eagles, White falls into the same category as another underdog cornerback, Jalen Mills.

“What he has to get better at is if a guy makes a play, leave it alone and move on from it. Go and make another play. When he can get to a point where he can do that, the sky is the limit.”

In a very similar fashion to White, seventh round pick Jalen Mills struggled in coming to terms with giving up a big play at times. Whether it was screaming to his self or losing the confidence that later invoked his trademark finger-wag, the signs of a young, talented cornerback growing and adapting to life in the NFL.

Charlton then shed some light on why it could be that the Eagles are turning to a professional league for cornerback depth as opposed to the draft or through a trade.

“If you don’t have the discipline to play there, it will get exposed. Most of the guys coming out of college are cover-2 corners, they don’t play a lot of man coverage and I can see why a lot of the NFL teams are looking at these kids. These guys are still young and they’re more fine tuned to come in and play right away. They may look good putting on their shorts & T-shirt and doing the 40 and the benches, but when you get a guy that’s played some pro football that has the mentality you’re looking for, they come right in and fit the bill.

There also happens to be an even more interesting connection between the two CFL standouts. Despite both flourishing in their final CFL season, the pair actually worked out for several NFL teams together, building a bond before arriving in the City Of Brotherly Love. So just how similar are the two?

Charlton worked with Grymes when guest coaching over in Edmonton..and it’s safe to say that the preseason breakout, including a stunning interception against the Steelers came as no surprise to the former second round pick.

“They’re both good players. I think Grymes is a different animal. Grymes has the mentality that he is the best. He works hard. He competes in everything he does and has the mentality that you’re looking for in a DB. He has a short memory but doesn’t give up a whole lot. I liked Grymes from the time I first saw and worked with him. His mentality is what you’re looking for.”

White’s road to the NFL was a little bumpier. After being released by Montreal, he found his feet in Ottawa after previously spending a short period of time with the Oakland Raiders.

“Grymes played a lot of football when he was in College, Mitchell didn’t play a whole lot. He backed up two really good DB’s. Mitchell was more of a special teams guy and that was probably the reason he had to come to Canada in the first place.”

Jul 28, 2013; Napa, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders cornerback Mitchell White (39) at training camp at the Napa Valley Marriott. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no coincidence then, that the Eagles special teams unit is regarded as one of the best in the league. That fact isn’t lost on the coaching staff, who take upgrading Fipp’s unit seriously. White isn’t alone in bringing a prowess on special teams. Aaron Grymes made just as much of an impact in that aspect of the game too.

Jeff Reinebold, special teams coordinator of the Hamilton Tiger Cats spoke with me during the Outside Insider Podcast about his first experience of seeing the former Edmonton Eskimo on the field.

“When he came into the CFL, he made an immediate impact. I remember when Brandon Banks, our kick returner broke a tackle on a kickoff one game and Grymes came storming from the backside to make a touchdown saving tackle”.

When it comes to making an impact, even if it’s just in a special teams capacity, it looks as though the Eagles cornerback position is going to see an open battle for supremacy once agin when training camp rolls around. A battle in which Charlton believes both guys have serious chances of winning.

“Both guys are incredibly capable, they both have really good size and if you watch Grymes in the preseason last year, he went out and earned it. Most guys when they come down, they get injured, they get released and that’s their shot. He got injured and still had a chance to stick on which is a testament to his hard work he put in. Obviously he showed enough to warrant being kept around”. “It’s about making plays. Grymes was a playmaker.

“Mitchell’s a football player. He’s going to lead by example. He’s not a big rah-rah guy. Every guy leads in a different way. For some its vocal and for some they lead with their play. He’s going to do whatever he has to do to put himself in a position to win. If you’re looking for a player that’s going to come in and compete on a day to day basis, you’re gonna get that from him.”

The ceiling for White appears to be high and his experience in trying out for teams with Aaron Grymes is going to pay dividends when chemistry is put to the test during training camp.

From interceptions to some hard hits, it was clear that the experience in a professional Football League paid dividends for Aaron Grymes last year as he soared up the depth chart. Once labelled as a “Camp body”, Grymes forced his way into contention and made his presence felt on the field during preseason as well, making several big plays and attracting attention.

If Mitchell White is able to have that same impact as Grymes did a year ago, leading by example and relying on his prowess in man-coverage, then there is no reason why the Eagles cannot begin to build a reliable young corps, with Mills, Grymes and White at the helm. It’s a tall order..but if there’s one thing we’ve seen from CFL corners, it’s that they never give up and they play every down as if it’s their last..and that’s exactly what the Eagles are looking for.


Mandatory Photo credit: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images