It’s very easy to look at the Eagles draft class and judge it based upon how they met team needs. Did they fill prominent holes? Are the newest players to the nest ready to compete for a starting role straight away? Both are very valid questions..but on the defensive side of the ball, there’s much more to the Eagles draft picks than meets the eye. The selections go far beyond just filling a need..and lean more toward fixing an achilles heel that kept the tenacious Jim Schwartz unit on chains in the latter stages of the 2016 season.
Towards the end of last season, the pass rush was stung painfully by the defensive backs giving up too much leverage in the early stages of the route. Offenses began to realize that they could take out the dominant front four with a string of rapid checkdowns, as cornerbacks couldn’t stop the receivers shrugging them off or breaking over the middle. Screens, curls and comebacks all became staples of any offense facing the Eagles, meaning that the front four had even less time to penetrate through the O-Line.
This hurt the Defense in more ways than one. Beyond Brandon Graham, the Eagles defensive ends were struggling to get consistent pressure to the quarterback..and at defensive tackle, it took a little longer than intended for Fletcher Cox to feast like the Eagles paid him to. With an inconsistent pass rush, the Eagles actually averaged less sacks per game than they did in 2015..with their game-by-game average of 2.1 ranking them 18th in the league.
After opening the year with 14 sacks in their first 4 games, the Eagles defense looked primed for dominance. But as the trend with a lack of consistent cornerback play developing rapidly, the team endured a six-game stretch in the heart of the season in which they amassed six sacks in total. The contrast is startling.
So when it came to the draft, yes, the Eagles had prominent needs to fill..but they also had two under-the-radar jobs. Ensure that the cornerbacks selected will aid the pass rush..and ensure the pass rushers selected can aid the cornerbacks. It sounds simple..but there was a very specific criteria at each spot that the Eagles demanded, and one that can be seen in all of the defensive picks.
We can start with Derek Barnett. Without getting into the “Best player available” debate and focusing purely on what he brings to the table..it certainly fits the mold for the weapon designed to eradicate the Eagles Achilles Heel, as Joe Douglas alluded to in his press conference after the selection:
“What Derek is highly proficient at is at the top of his rush. So when the D-lineman gets to the top, he is excellent, excellent ankle flexion, excellent ability to bend at the top and finish. He can really close. And he uses a variety of moves. He uses speed rush. He uses power, he can go speed to power on people. So you’re getting a guy that knows how to finish when he gets to the top of the rush.”
Speed rush. S P E E D. Barnett tore through SEC O-Lines on a regular basis. 18 tackles for a loss in 2015 sounds impressive..but ranking sixth in FBS with 12 sacks just raises more eyebrows. Not only is he impressive against the run, but he’s a renowned “sack artist”…giving the Eagles some much needed consistency opposite Brandon Graham.
If we move along one spot in the trenches, we come for former Washington DT, Elijah Qualls, who was selected by the Eagles in the sixth round of the draft. At 6’1, 321 lbs, Qualls recorded 78 tackles (43 solo), 12.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks during 39 games at Washington. After registering a career-high 38 tackles in 2016, many were excited to see where he would land in the draft. And with someone of his stature being able to succeed on the outside, or as a defensive tackle, the fit was all too perfect for the Eagles. But once again, there’s a lot more to this than we think..and Qualls himself opened up on that unintentionally when talking about his play at Washington, with former teammate and future Eagles teammate, Sidney Jones.
“Part of the thing scheme-wise at Washington, is that in playing against all those mobile quarterbacks, it wasn’t really to about going to get the quarterback. It was more about containing them so he doesn’t have all day [to throw] and let our DBs make plays. Obviously, we have one of the best secondaries in the country, so we had a lot of faith in those dudes and in them making plays. So, again, me being freed up and able to actually go do what I really can and prove to everybody that I’m a much better pass rusher than most people believe.”
This of course, brings us to the two cornerbacks drafted by the Eagles. After the additions of Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long prior to the Draft, it’s safe to say that the front four is now cemented with aggression. So with one half of the battle won, what about the corners?
Of course, the Eagles bought in arguably the top cornerback talent in the entire draft, in Sidney Jones. The problem is that he may not be able to compete at all during the 2017 season. However..with a long-term vision in mind, the pick still carries the same weight when it comes to fixing the Achilles Heel.
In his sophomore season, Jones led the Pac-12 in pass breakups with 12, intercepting 4 and showing his strength as a tackler, forcing three fumbles. One year later, he would pick off another three passes as well as breaking up a further six..being named first-team All-Pac 12 in the process.Jones has a firm punch at the line of scrimmage when initiating bump-and-run coverage and has incredible spatial awareness. At 6’0, 186 lbs, Jones isn’t intimidated by opposing wideouts and has the vertical reach to challenge every pass. Combine this with some impressive play recognition and what you have is a well rounded corner with shutdown potential.
Last season, the Eagles struggled majorly when it came to press coverage. From an inability to consistently jam, to some overzealous anticipation that led to sporadic tackles and blown coverage..having someone with the instincts and sheer ability to win at the start of the route in Jones is a welcome addition to the Secondary. But the Eagles still needed a playmaker..and they needed one who could contribute right away. Enter the team’s third round pick, Rasul Douglas.
One of the most overlooked corners coming into the Draft, Douglas has great length at 6’2, and size at 209 lbs. The Eagles don’t just crave a long cornerback..but a playmaker. In his senior year, Douglas intercepted 8 passes and broke up 8 more. Douglas contributed heavily to a Mountaineers defense that dominated the Big-12, and has all the makings of a strong press corner.
Douglas is a true dinner corner..and one with rare length. In 2015 he amassed 8 tackles and one pick in 11 games, before his eye popping senior year that along with the aforementioned 8 picks, saw him rack up 70 tackles.
With one breakfast corner and one dinner corner on the roster, it would seem as if the long-term plan of the Eagles cornerback spots are beginning to fall into place, with reliability now being a word we may be able to finally associate with the tandem in years to come.
But Douglas is only half of the puzzle without Jones…or is he?
Enter the two sleepers on the roster, Aaron Grymes, and Mitchell White of the CFL. I broke down why it was the Eagles were taking a foray into the Canadian Football League to find cornerback depth earlier this year..and a lot of that still rings true, perhaps even more so. In the article, I spoke with Ottawa Redblacks DB Coach, Ike Charlton, to discuss what it was both White and Grymes bought to the Eagles.
“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.”
“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.”
With open season being declared at all three cornerback spots, Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas and Patrick Robinson may be the names who stand out..but in a rotation role, both White and Grymes could bring to the Eagles exactly what it is they seek..and Grymes would have last year if not for an AC Joint injury in the team’s third preseason game, having come down with an impressive endzone interception.
The Eagles entered the offseason with a vicious defensive cycle. As cornerbacks hurt the pass rush, the lack of pass rush would hurt the cornerbacks. The Eagles not only bought in the best talent available at each spot, but made sure that the skill sets of each player correlate perfectly with fixing this problem. On the defensive front, it’s all about speed. In the Secondary, it comes down to disrupting routes and instinctive ball skills.
The Eagles checked off these options with ease during the offseason..which leaves them in a very strong position moving forward. Sure, the Birds had a new draft structure, with a focus on character and “BPA”..but it’s easy to overlook that such a meticulous detail that has been paid attention to, could actually have the most impact on the entire team.