With the Eagles returning to the NovaCare Complex tomorrow and the first full team practice on Thursday, Football is officially back…and that means it’s time for those who haven’t yet secured a spot on the roster, to step up to the plate and prove themselves worthy. Last year, the names who stole the show included the likes of Paul Turner, Trey Burton, Jalen Mills, and Aaron Grymes…but it’s the last two who will be under the microscope yet again one year later.
While the Eagles added the veteran presence of Patrick Robinson, and drafted for the future in picking Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, the short-term picture is a little less stable and a lot more subject to change. With EVERY spot on the Eagles cornerback depth chart up for grabs, from starter, to backup, Training Camp and preseason is going to very much going to decide the fate of the Eagles cornerback corps for this year at least. So with that in mind, here’s everything you need to know before camp begins.
The current lead contenders:
After being dropped into a trial by fire last season, the former LSU standout soon found his feet in Philadelphia, earning some tough love from Jim Schwartz. The Eagles Defensive Coordinator took fondly to Mills, driving him to improve each and every week.
Mills would go on to play a crucial role for the Birds, lining up against wideouts such as Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr in the process. Mills started off the season with some nervous play that now current teammate Alshon Jeffery took advantage of, and ended it as a corner who found his style. Driven by confidence and aggressively gaining the upper-hand, Mills uses his instincts and mental toughness to look number one wideouts in the eye and make sure they don’t take him for granted.
It was only one year ago that the seventh round pick dominated training camp, before wobbling a little in preseason. This year, it’s all about letting a bad play go and moving onto the next one. If Mills can continue to grow and learn to take a deep breath after making a mistake as opposed to letting it rule his emotions, then the ceiling is very high. It’s something I’ll personally be watching out for in what is set to be a tough training camp, because if Mills can mature his play heading into year two, there’s nothing stopping him locking out a spot as a starting cornerback.
The Eagles finally drafted a prototypical cornerback. Douglas has plenty of length at his disposal, standing at 6’2”, 209 lbs, and brings the ballhawk tendencies that the team lacked. The former WVU standout is a true dinner cornerback, something that Schwartz covets. 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.
One of the few concerns surrounding Douglas has been that he didn’t play in a lot of press coverage during his collegiate career. WVU lost a lot of talent to the NFL, forcing them to play conservatively. However, it doesn’t mean that the corner isn’t capable of holding his own.
While he doesn’t jam at the line as much, giving receivers room to breathe and instead mirroring their every move to stay on their tale and make a play at the end of the route, Douglas has already tapped into that aggressive mindset Schwartz instills in his DB’s.
Lining up against Alshon Jeffery during OTA’s, the young defensive back showed plenty of tenacity, with the two building up quite the competitive rivalry. Iron sharpens iron…and learning to survive on an island against the Eagles number one wideout is certainly valuable.
As we enter camp, it’s likely that Douglas is competing for the CB2 spot, but could very easily be looking to be the corner facing opposing number one wideouts. These next few weeks will paint a much clearer picture, but Douglas has already displaced Patrick Robinson as the CB2 working with the “one’s”, so can he do it again?
The Eagles lone free agency cornerback addition wasn’t who many expected it would be. No A.J Bouye, no risk of seeing another Byron Maxwell type contract, the Eagles played their cards close to their chest. But they did bring in a veyr intriguing cornerback in Patrick Robinson.
In 81 games played (49 started), Robinson has 255 tackles, 1 sack, 59 passes defensed, 10 interceptions, and 3 forced fumbles. At times, he’s shown shutdown potential, while at others, injuries have chained him down, and inconsistencies have plagued his play, forcing him to bounce around the NFL.
After last season, it was clear the Eagles needed slot re-enforcements. When Ron Brooks went down with injury, it was Malcolm Jenkins who was forced to come down and help out, instead of the Eagles rotating back to a three-linebacker set with Mychal Kendricks. The need for coverage competence over the middle was dire.
It was with the Chargers, that Robinson had arguably played his best season of his career, with 49 combined tackles, an interception, a FF, and 8 passes defensed. His numbers weren’t amazing, but a 55.9% completion rate allowed absolutely was. In his lone year there, Robinson showed the potential he had flashed at times playing for the Saints.
As he enters his stint with the Eagles, it’s unclear what his role is going to be. Robinson opened up as a starter outside, before moving into the slot, allowing Douglas to show his prowess alongside Jalen Mills.
What is clear is that the Eagles could really benefit from the skillset Robinson brings to the table…and if he’s healthy, he could have a huge role to play. But it will be Training Camp that deciphers where exactly that role is. Will the Eagles keep him over the middle, relegating Brooks to a backup role, or play him outside as a veteran to mentor Jalen Mills and Rasul Douglas?
In the hunt:
One of last year’s biggest surprises was former Edmonton Eskimo Aaron Grymes. Entering Training Camp with a prowess in press-coverage, Grymes made play-after-play, soaring from an unknown to a legitimate contender for a depth role on the roster. A big interception against the Steelers in Preseason all but cemented his role on the roster…or it would have if not for an AC Joint injury.
Grymes has certainly picked up from where he left off one year ago and now joined by former CFL rival, Mitchell White, the duo look set to cause another Training Camp whirlwind. With every spot at the position there for the taking, it would not be surprising to see Grymes even emerge as a starter either in the nickel (where he earned first team reps during OTA’s), or on the outside during preseason and beyond.
Having earned those nickel reps with the first team at the end of Minicamp, it will be interesting to see just where Grymes lines up. His skillset and frame may see him compete for the inside job…this would imply Robinson would play a role outside of some kind, leaving Grymes and Brooks to battle it out for the starting slot position.
The former Grey Cup winner has plenty of experience of lining up against, bigger, faster wideouts, and usually they’re charging at him from behind the line of scrimmage. Now, as he re-adjusts to the american game, it’s time to see just what the ceiling is on this former CFL star.
A former pupil of Jim Schwartz in Buffalo, Brooks followed Schwartz to Philadelphia in the hopes of proving himself as a valuable nickel option. After a sporadic season that saw him beaten yet saved early and often, was cut short by injury, Brooks would take a pay cut.
The cornerback originally signed a three-year deal..the final 12 months of which are now a team option. If Brooks fails to impress the Eagles in 2016, the team can part ways without any kind of salary cap implication. Ron Brooks has been reduced to a prove-it deal..joining every Eagles offseason addition so far as a veteran with his future on the line.
The 28-year old now finds himself in a position where he simply has to show the form displayed as a Buffalo Bill, when Jim Schwartz was his Head Coach. With Patrick Robinson bringing some impressive stats and lightning footwork to the position, Brooks now has his work cut out for him. The battle for slot cornerback will be a thrilling one, but a war that if Brooks is to win, he will have to outshine both Patrick Robinson and the likes of Aaron Grymes who earned first team reps toward the end of minicamp.
The former NDSU cornerback was able to cling on to the Eagles practice squad last year, eventually earning some special teams reps. Smith flashed throughout Training Camp and in times where talent was thin, many hoped he’d receive his shot. While his opportunity on Defense never really arrived, he has one more shot to make the final roster…and it’s a shot that has a much better chance of finding the target.
Smith’s work ethic and shiftiness have been great tools in his arsenal, and with every spot up for grabs, there’s a great chance that his previous experience becomes invaluable. Smith, while a little undersized at 5’11”, is extremely physical and thrives in situations where he’s able to get very hands on with his man. Zonal looks may see bigger wideouts try to take advantage of a mismatch, but in press, Smith is more than capable of holding strong. Having first signed with the team in October, Smith is now in the competition for a depth role at either of the outside spot, with the potential to throw a complete surprise and earn an even greater role if he can shine in the heart of camp and preseason.
On the outside looking in:
Goforth is one of the more intriguing undrafted free agents signed by the Eagles this year…but as we head into camp, I’m still of the opinion that a switch to Safety MAY benefit his skillset more and increase his chances of showing the Eagles what he can bring to the table.
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 the last line of defense. 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.
Goforth wouldn’t have to rely on speed, lining 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.
What the Eagles decide to do with Goforth will be certainly worth keeping an eye on, especially as it pertains to how many corners are competing over the slot and outside roles.
With 60 tackles in 24 career games as a Cyclone, Wiltz showed just how dangerous he can be..and his speed was a large part of that. Add to that 17 pass deflections and 271 kick return yards..and what you see is a player who can help the Eagles in more than one facet of the game.
Although he’s slightly undersized at 5’10’, Wiltz is another one of those guys who love hitting, which is rare to find in cornerbacks. An aggressive defensive back who shows that he fears nothing on every single play, Wiltz will have a lot of traffic ahead of him, but it’s something the former Iowa State corner was more than aware of when he chose to sign, as he alluded too speaking with us exclusively after being drafted.
“As far as why I chose Philadelphia, well I looked at their roster, and saw that they play with guys my height (5’10), but they also love aggressive players, guys who are willing to hit, willing to make a play and that fits me perfectly. I had other chances for other teams, during the pre-draft process there were a few teams interested in me, but when it was all said and done, I felt like this is the best spot for me. I wanted to go somewhere I could really compete, and be who I am as a player, I think the coaches like my style of play, so it was really a no-brainer.”
WIltz may be one of the bigger underdogs in this cornerback battle, but it’s something that fuelled his decision to join to begin with, building off of the chip on his shoulder after going undrafted. Wiltz could be a prime practice squad candidate if he can prove his worth in camp.
Formerly of Michigan State, White served primarily as a special teams ace during that period, before eventually landing in the NFL for a brief stint with the Oakland Raiders. After failing to make the roster, he found himself winning the Grey Cup with the Ottawa Redblacks. His DB coach from that season, Ike Charlton, spoke glowingly of White in an interview we conducted several months ago.
“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.”
“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 5’11 corner will look to find his niche in the Jim Schwartz Defense, just as Aaron Grymes did one year ago. But after a relatively quiet minicamp, White is going to have to make some noise if he is to stick around.
The Eagles signed Gratz to a two-year deal back in December, and even though he’s not been making much in the way of headlines so far, he has a very physical skillset and thrives on disrupting routes and redirecting traffic.
Gratz was a third round pick back in 2013 and started 25 times for the Jaguars. The Rams most recently claimed him off waivers during October, but he only played in three games as a predominant special-teamer.
Prior to being waived by the Jags, Gratz was used heavily in nickel formations, which coincidentally is the role that the Birds have been focusing on improving.
The 26-year old fell down the depth chart rapidly in Jacksonville and at the time of being released by the Jags, was simply a backup corner. During his time there, he racked up 119 tackles, 13 passes Defensed and two forced fumbles.
Gratz didn’t get a single snap last season after joining the Eagles, so if he has any chance of changing that, a successful camp is a MUST.
Let the games….BEGIN
Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports