When scrolling through the Philadelphia Eagles roster, you would be hard pressed to find a position group that is not vastly improved than the group from just a year ago. The Eagles dedicated the free agency period to putting offensive weapons around Carson Wentz and focused their attention in the draft on setting up the defense for success now and in the future.
Despite all of the improvements made to the team, there is still a glaring weakness at cornerback. If the season started today, the Eagles would likely have Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas starting on the outside with Patrick Robinson in the slot. Perhaps Robinson and Mills would switch positions but those are likely the three you’re looking at.
So, do the Eagles have enough talent in the rest of the defense to hide their deficiency at cornerback?
Let’s start with the rest of the defensive backfield.
Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod make up one of the league’s most talented safety tandems. The duo combined for six interceptions and sixteen passes defended in 2017, their first year manning the back end of the No Phly Zone together.
In 2017, Jenkins had to leave his safety position unmanned after an injury to Ron Brooks forced number 27 to cover as the slot cornerback. The signing of Patrick Robinson along with Brooks returning from injury and Mills entering year two has made the nickel corner a position of depth and a battle to watch leading into the regular season. This will put Jenkins back to the position he has thrived in since joining the Eagles three years ago.
McLeod, entering year two with Philadelphia, will have a better repertoire with Jenkins and a better knowledge and level of comfortability with Jim Schwartz’s defense. McLeod and Jenkins will be able to help their fellow defensive backs on the outsides to an extent.
Another level of help in coverage will come from the Eagles linebackers, a group manned by Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks. Bradham is another Eagles defender entering his second year with the team while Hicks is entering his third season in the league and has quickly transformed from a third rounder with injury concerns to arguably the best under-25 linebacker in the NFL.
Bradham was one of the NFL’s most improved linebackers after reuniting with Schwartz, who coached him in Buffalo in 2014. Bradham was a very average to below average linebacker in every year but 2014 and 2016, the years Schwartz has been his defensive coordinator. In 2016, the outside linebacker was a model for consistency as he was effective in coverage and in stopping the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradham allowed just 0.80 yards per snap in coverage, good for third in the league among 4-3 outside linebackers. The 27-year-old just thrives with Schwartz leading the way.
Hicks led the Eagles in interceptions in 2016 and has been a magnet for the loose football since entering the league. In just 24 career games, the 25-year-old has intercepted seven passes while recovering four fumbles. Similar to Bradham, Hicks has been stellar in coverage. Hicks’ 0.62 yards per snap in coverage is tops in the league among linebackers from 2012-2016. The former Longhorn will be the best friend of some of the Eagles defensive backs whether he is dropping into coverage or getting in the face of the quarterback to force an errant pass. Hicks has shown no signs of slowing down and there is no reason to believe 2017 will be any different.
Should the Eagles have a third linebacker on the field, rookie Nate Gerry and veterans Najee Goode and Mychal Kendricks could be options. Gerry is a hybrid safety/linebacker. Often, that means that he isn’t very good at either position. Seventeenth-year linebackers coach Ken Flajole, in his first year with the Eagles, will be put to the test to help Gerry transition to a new position and help the Eagles find an answer at the third linebacker position. Goode has played well in his limited action and Kendricks will be fighting for a roster position just two years after signing a four-year contract extension with the team that drafted him.
Finally, and perhaps the biggest way the Eagles will hide their cornerback deficiencies will be with the defensive line. There is no bigger friend to cornerbacks than defensive linemen forcing pressure on the quarterback. Luckily for Mills and Co., the Eagles defensive line was one of the best in the league in forcing pressure on the quarterback in 2016.
In 2017, Jim Schwartz will find creative ways to bring more pressure with a defensive line made up of Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett. The Eagles second-team defensive line (Chris Long, Beau Allen, Elijah Qualls, Vinny Curry) would be a solid starting group on any other team. With the depth that the Eagles have along the defensive line, Schwartz will have his choosing of personnel groupings and be able to keep fresh legs in throughout the game.
In 2016, Brandon Graham (40), Fletcher Cox (21) and Tim Jernigan (8) combined for 4.3 quarterback pressures per game. In his first season as defensive coordinator for the Eagles, Schwartz’s defensive line tallied up 27 sacks. However, players responsible for 7.5 of those sacks will be playing elsewhere in 2017. The Eagles are hoping the additions of Barnett and Jernigan will replace the likes of Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan. At the very least, they got younger at two key positions to make Schwartz’s defense successful.
The Eagles spent two valuable draft picks in the 2017 NFL draft addressing their weakest position on defense. However, only one of those players will be ready to suit up on opening day of 2017. As it stands now, the group of cornerbacks is not one of household names. However, there will be plenty of talent in the rest of the defense for Schwartz to scheme and disguise the deficiency the Eagles currently have at cornerback.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports