If there’s one positional battle that demands attention when Eagles Training Camp kicks off in 10 days, it’s the war raging at cornerback. Both Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin were cast out from the City of Brotherly Love after a year in which the Eagles gave up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more, the most in the NFL. The Jim Schwartz scheme requires a lot of man-coverage and aggressive play…something last year’s starting tandem was able to find consistently.
This led the Birds to an offseason of intense interest. The team would bite their tongue and avoid the lure of free agency’s biggest home-run hits, instead waiting for the Draft to re-enforce the position. Patrick Robinson was signed to a prove-it deal to add some depth at the nickel spot, but it was a quiet period in comparison to the work committed on the offensive side of the ball.
It was Washington’s Sidney Jones selected by the team in the second round of the Draft, giving the Eagles a true star on the outside…but also one who would likely redshirt the 2017 season. To combat this, the Eagles drafted a lengthy corner out of West Virginia by the name of Rasul Douglas. It was clear that man-coverage specialists who can play the ball and disrupt routes was the vision…but with so much uncertainty over who’s going to start next season, let alone make up the rest of the depth…there are two names worth noting. Aaron Grymes, and Mitchell White.
The Canadian duo bring an extremely unique skillset to the Eagles DB room, but for Grymes, it’s a shot at redemption.
The former Edmonton Eskimo infamously stole the hearts of fans during last season’s Training Camp, going on to make a crucial preseason interception before injuring his AC Joint, ultimately cutting his season off before it even started. However, the Eagles liked him enough to bring him back just weeks later on their practice squad.
Grymes enters his second offseason with the team, and his opportunity could now bring an even greater reward. Picking up exactly where he left off in that fateful game against the Steelers, Grymes entered Mandatory Minicamp with a bang…impressing so much so, that he went on to earn some starting nickel reps on the final day. So what is it that Grymes has that turns heads so consistently?
Several months ago, I spoke with DB Coach of the Ottawa Redblacks, Ike Charlton. The former NFL corner coached both Grymes and White during their CFL career, and had strong praise for the 26-year old.
“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.”
Mentality is a HUGE part of being a successful cornerback, and it was an area where the Eagles struggled as the season went on. Seventh round pick, Jalen Mills, was undergoing his own personal journey and learning how to deal with being beaten on plays and come back from them, while Nolan Carroll would often appear intimidated by more physical wideouts. That mental progression is also something Charlton referenced when talking about former Grey Cup Champion, Mitchell White.
“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.”
The sky being the limit may be true. Charlton coached White during his stellar 2016 campaign, that saw him named to the All-Star team for the first time. With 4 career interceptions in the CFL and 3 coming under the guidance of Charlton, it’s safe to say that the DB coach knows exactly what White brings to the table. Factor in 38 tackles in this process despite missing the opening 5 games, and it becomes clear how White soared to the top of many scout’s wishlist’s. It wasn’t the production that would land him an opportunity in Philadelphia however, but his attitude and approach to the position.
“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.”
The Eagles really struggled in press coverage last year. Whether it was struggling to mirror the first steps of the route, or simply giving up too much space at the line of scrimmage, opposing offenses realized that gaining separation early was just to effective to pass up on. Green Bay, Cincinnati, and Seattle all took advantage of the Eagles struggles in containing explosive wide receivers, electing to run intermediate routes and take shots down the sideline more often than usual, taking the relentless linebackers of Hicks and Bradham out of the game and making life difficult for the Safeties.
In Canadian Football however, playing in Press is an absolute must if you’re going to survive as a cornerback. With receivers able to run up to the line of scrimmage, defensive backs often start from the off-position as a means to somewhat contain them and have a shot of fighting back down the field after opening with a disadvantage. Take into account the 13.5-yard expansion in field size, and what you have is a need for corners who are comfortable on an Island and have the speed and aggression to fend for themselves.
“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.”
The Eagles are entering an incredibly exciting new era. One that seeks to replicate the tenacious defenses we’ve been so accustomed to associating with the team in year’s past. But not since the days of Asante Samuel have the Eagles had a legitimate shutdown cornerback. Nobody is saying that Grymes and White will waltz into camp and snatch starting roles away from Jalen Mills or Rasul Douglas, but with a professional background and one that forces them into the style of play Schwartz covets, they are two names worth keeping an eye on…especially after the duo balled out during Spring workouts.
For Ike Charlton, a breakout for both players and the chances of them landing on the Eagles roster isn’t a hot take…it’s extremely plausible.
“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 Eagles cornerback competition is set to be the most intense on the roster…and the two Canadian underdogs may do way more than just throw the Cat among the Pigeons once the pads go on and the chains are unlocked in the Jim Schwartz Defense.
With so much up for grabs and eleven players vying for those roster spots, every snap counts. An impressively deep and explosive WR corps may prove too hot to handle for some of the younger corners at times, but with a background of rapid receivers charging toward them, the composure to handle that pressure will be invaluable.
Of all the players to watch when Camp kicks off on July 27th, Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White may be two of the most exciting…and two with the potential to steal the show when preseason rolls around, just as Grymes did one year ago.
Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports