Schwartz craves CB consistency, but can Eagles find the answer before season begins?

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The Eagles left the 2016 season with plenty to be excited about. One position that remained a cause for concern as it has for several years now however, was cornerback. The Eagles gave up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more last season, the most in the NFL. Understandably, the team decided to part ways with both of last year’s starters. Nolan Carroll made his way to Dallas, while Leodis McKelvin is yet to find a new home. But even after filling the holes during the offseason with a new vision in mind, the Eagles are still left with questions looming over the position.

So many questions in fact, that the entire shape of the unit will be decided through training camp and pre-season. From starters to backups, everything is on the line in the Eagles secondary. While competition has been ripe and there have been flashes of what could be during Training Camp, there are also legitimate concerns over the current starters heading into 2017.

Patrick Robinson has been underwhelming since his arrival in Philadelphia and has found himself at the mercy of a drastically reshaped Eagles receiving corps. Beyond Robinson, there is a severe lack of NFL experience.

Then, there are the receivers that the Eagles will likely be facing twice this year.

Mills has had experience covering some of the aforementioned before. But while Sterling Shepard’s injury status is now called into question, as is Cole Beasley’s spot in the slot with Ryan Switzer just behind him, it’s not as if either team is low on young options that could threaten a weak secondary. If it’s consistency the Eagles crave…it’s not something they’re going to find by plugging in a veteran free agent just weeks ahead of the regular season.

“We’re four days in, three days in. We said it before. I’d love to have some continuity there.”  Jim Schwartz told the media after Wednesday’s practice. “But, we also have to let it play. We have to be able to see who can survive the slings and arrows of training camp. There are going to be some situations that are bad.”

“The one thing, that I don’t know that you guys always understand, is sometimes there are periods in practice where you’re sort of handcuffing guys. The offense knows what the call is. The period is nothing but one coverage or something, and it might not look like a guy is particularly doing well, but it’s hard.

We not only need play-makers, but we need consistency.”

There’s no doubting that the Eagles cornerback corps is filled with the potential to achieve that. To begin with, there’s the fate of West Virginia product, 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.

Way, way off in the distance, lies the corner who could change it all; Sidney Jones. Drafted in the second round by the Eagles, Jones was simply one of the best cornerback talents in his class who suffered a heartbreaking injury at the worst possible time. Howie Roseman decided to take the plunge…and for good reason.

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. Those numbers certainly jump off the screen…and when you partner those ball-skills with the length of Rasul Douglas, the outline of a potential future tandem is easy to see. The problem is, that won’t come for quite some time. So what do the Eagles do between now and then?

Quite frankly, it’s open season. Very much like Reuben Randle one year ago, Patrick Robinson’s contract means that the Birds’ can cut ties at any moment if they feel the need. With the likes of C.J Smith, Aaron Grymes, Mitchell White, and a slew of hungry undrafted free agents breathing down his neck, the pressure is very much on. It would be easy for the Eagles to initiate trade talks with the Bears for Kyle Fuller, or sign a veteran free agent…but that won’t create continuity. All that would do, is play into the path of what happened previously with this roster.
Panic signings on the outside left the Eagles with big contracts and minimal production. The focus on free agents is changing, with the new vision looking toward building through the Draft and developing talent. Development takes time…just ask Jalen Mills.
The seventh round pick out of LSU was thrust onto center stage last season in week one and just one week later was forced to hold his own against future teammate Alshon Jeffery. The “Green Goblin” was not incredible by any means, but as documented in this film analysis…his progress could be seen weekly.

The Eagles have an incredibly young group of guys, many of whom have next to no NFL experience. The only way to build continuity is to play the long game. Sure, the Eagles cornerbacks may be the weakest spot on the roster…but the strongest area may be its lifeline; the pass rush.

The algorithm is simple. If the Birds can force quarterbacks to get the ball out quick and be a force in the backfield, the incompletions will soon follow. As the season went on last year and the pass-rush began to breathe a little, QB’s began to sling short passes against the corners knowing that their receivers will gain separation. Even if that happens again this year…there are three big differences.

  1. The Pass rush has the added talents of Derek Barnett and Timmy Jernigan. The rotation is now more intimidating than ever.
  2. Jalen Mills has grown into this ruthless prototype molded by Jim Schwartz over the course of last year. A mentality being built from the ground up with such a young group, and therefore one that will only grow in time.
  3. Iron sharpens Iron. Rasul Douglas has already acquainted himself with Alshon Jeffery on several occasions, and if the Eagles corners are constantly fighting against the likes of Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith, two pristine route-runners, then they’re only going to learn.

Until the arrival of Sidney Jones, the Eagles are at a cornerback crossroads. Unwilling to pursue overpriced free agent help and with a core so young that the inexperience could well haunt them, they’re very much forced into watching it all pan out. Putting the best three guys on the field at any given time, knowing that every single player in that room has a chance to win a starting role.

If it’s continuity the Eagles crave, it’s simply just a case of watching, waiting, and hoping. By this time next year, the position will undoubtedly look different once again. It’s a case of understanding that and developing the guys currently fighting to be a part of that picture. If it’s reliability they crave…well, that’s a different discussion for a different article.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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