Ones to watch: Could a switch in position for one UDFA aid chances of making Eagles roster?

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The Eagles may have stole the show in the NFL Draft, with fans turning the event into an experience like no other, but even after an exciting class was selected by the team, the Eagles had one more process to get through…selecting undrafted free agents. Surprisingly, UDFA’s have been integral to the success of the franchise in recent years.

Of the sixteen undrafted free agents signed last offseason, four would go on to feature prominently on the 53-man roster. Destiny Vaeao, Byron Marshall, Bryce Treggs would all play significant snaps during their rookie season, be that through simple rotation or due to injuries. But they weren’t the only ones in that class to stick to the roster.

The initial ten man practice squad was made up entirely of undrafted free agents from that year. Not all were signed in the initial battle royale following the draft, but the likes of Byron Marshall, David Watford, Aziz Shittu and former NDSU teammates of Carson Wentz, Andrew Bonnet and C.J Smith found themselves sticking onto Doug Pederson’s first roster.

This year, the Eagles undrafted free agent class has sparked interest across the NFL. From former Wisconsin RB, Corey Clement, to the likes of Center, Tyler Orlosky, many have praised the Birds for finding such great potential value after the Draft. But one of the names that has slipped through the cracks so far, has been UCLA’s Randall Goforth.

While the 5’10, 190 lbs, defensive back was recruited as a corner, Goforth made his first splash as a Safety. With 39 tackles, one pick, and three pass defenses, in his first season, Goforth found his niche as a Safety. Amidst depth chart shuffles, the coaching staff realized that while Goforth lacks the top-end speed of some DB’s, secure tackling of Safeties, and overall length of outside corners, what he does have is an eye for the ball.

With a career high 4 interceptions coming in his final season, Goforth batted down 20 passes throughout his career (leading the Bruins in 2016 with 13), earning second-team-All-Pac-12 honors in 2015. Having started every game, splitting his time between cornerback and Safety, Goforth was really beginning to refine his craft. What held him back through a progressively impressive career however, were injuries.

But as he entered a career year in 2016, Goforth began to show some inconsistencies in the worst possible areas, tackling. His eye for the ball cannot be doubted, but as his angles began to stiffen and much more naturally gifted wideouts ran past with ease when playing cornerback, it would be UCLA’s underclassmen depth that benefitted most from some extra playing time.

However one extremely underrated aspect of Goforth’s game is something that could see him follow in the footsteps of one current Eagles Safety, Jaylen Watkins. Not only was Goforth used to playing outside, in the nickel, or over the top, but he contributed heavily on special teams in the return game when called upon. Versatility is something craved by Jim Schwartz…and it’s something that saved the career of Jaylen Watkins one year ago.

As a depth cornerback on the Eagles roster in 2015, Watkins was able to flash in the limited opportunities given, both on special teams and as a corner. Against the Cardinals, Watkins allowed just one pass on Malcolm Floyd in six targets, a stunning 29 yard catch. So at the end of an unsettled 2015 campaign where Watkins was being asked to play as a Safety and corner, where his run Defense which was less than stellar was called upon more than it should have been, his job remained uncertain.

With eleven defensive backs on the roster, the Eagles cornerback corps was filled to the brim with a mix of talented young corners, all possessing different skillsets, trying to break onto the roster.

Watkins was quiet. Below the radar. Jalen Mills was the man stealing the show as Watkins’ grip on a roster spot started to slip..that was until that is, they moved him to Safety. The position was still heavily contested, Jenkins and McLeod had secured the starting roles long before Camp and Chris Maragos has a presence on special teams unheard of elsewhere..so that left Watkins, Ed Reynolds and sixth round pick Blake Countess.

But then, something clicked. Without having to be so prominent in run Defense or switch playing styles depending on situation, Watkins found his balance and began to walk the roster cut tightrope. Interceptions, pass deflections and big hits filled the final practices of Training camp as for the first time since being drafted, the name Jaylen Watkins was beginning to receive a lot of attention.

After cementing his roster spot, Watkins went on to play a crucial role for the Eagles in 2016. The Safety trounced his previous career high in tackles, amassing 32 in total to go with 3 pass breakups. Even though once again his contributions were largely overlooked, Watkins played in 38% of defensive snaps and over 50% of special teams snaps. His reliability at the position as a solid backup allowed Jenkins to put the weight of the toughest spot in the secondary on his shoulders and perform as only Malcolm Jenkins can.

One year later, the Eagles have another cornerback competition. There may be one less cornerback competing than there was last year, but every roster spot is up for grabs, including all three starting positions. With the intensity set to be at an all-time high, it may make sense for Goforth to play where he will shine most under Jim Schwartz, over the top.

His lack of size may relegate him to a slot role if Goforth was to compete at cornerback, leaving him to battle with two proven veterans in the ever-crisp Patrick Robinson, and slightly sporadic Ron Brooks. If Goforth was to switch to Safety however, he would be competing directly with the following:

Jaylen Watkins: Bought back on a tender after impressive 2016
Terrence Brooks: In his contract year, entering first full season with Eagles

Jenkins and McLeod may have already cemented the starting roles, with Chris Maragos being the team’s special teams ace…but the backup role is widely up for grabs…and even though Goforth would enter the battle as an underdog, his chances of flashing would be far higher as his flaws would be masked through what the position and system demand.

Goforth wouldn’t have to rely on speed, match up against receivers such as Jordan Matthews, Paul Turner, or Mack Hollins, out of the slot…where a mismatch would be on the cards in the eyes of a quarterback. With a strong presence in zonal looks and the eyes of a ballhawk who can jump routes in a heartbeat…learning under arguably one of the league’s most dominant tandems may provide Goforth a path to if not a roster spot, then at least a bigger chance of shining to make the practice squad.

Whether or not this happens will remain to be seen, but it’s happened before…and it’s worked. The question is, will the Eagles or Goforth decide to take the plunge at the last moment ahead of such a crucial training camp?

You can read our previous “Ones to watch” articles here as part of our extensive Training Camp preview coverage:

Ones to watch: Could TE Anthony Denham force his way onto Eagles 53-man roster?

Ones to watch: Training Camp will be crucial for Eagles C Tyler Orlosky

 

Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

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