The Eagles made a surprise signing just a few days ago, bringing in former Pro-Bowl Safety Corey Graham. The 10-year veteran brings a wealth of starting experience to the Eagles secondary…but not the position where they’re craving that quality. The cornerback position has faced criticism throughout the Summer as OTA’s and Training Camp have continued to expose a glaring weakness, while at Safety, the position Graham was signed as, everything seems as stable as ever. However that doesn’t mean the dominoes won’t fall in favor of the young cornerback corps.
When it comes to the slot position especially, the Eagles may have more questions than many think. Ron Brooks is coming off of a season ending injury and having taken a pay-cut in the offseason, it’s now a prove-it deal situation for the veteran. During his limited time in the Eagles Defense, Brooks flashed the aggressive style that Schwartz covets as well as some impressive plays against Chicago. However there were numerous scenarios where he was saved from letting up a big play by outside factors. Some sporadic tackling certainly didn’t help things, but with Patrick Robinson competing for a starting role outside, the Eagles are relying on the former Jim Schwartz Pupil to hold the fort.
Brooks has never played a full 16-game season and although his career best numbers came under the tutelage of Schwartz in Buffalo, if he were to go down again there’s an unknown void. As of right now, it’s a choice between rolling back into the team’s base package and out of the nickel, or inserting Aaron Grymes into the fray should he solidify a spot on the roster.
The Eagles scheme calls for a lot of 5-DB formations, meaning nickel situations and man-coverage throughout the game. Jim Schwartz told the media on Friday that the team spent roughly 70% of last season in the nickel formation, which largely explains why Mychal Kendricks saw his role became marginalized.
When Brooks went down, it was the responsibility of Malcolm Jenkins to line up in the slot and keep the fortress from collapsing. That in itself isn’t exactly ideal. It forced Jaylen Watkins into the game for a staggering 38% of defensive snaps last year. On paper, the Eagles have one of the most dangerous Safety tandems in the league in Jenkins and McLeod. With Jenkins forced down into the slot, the Eagles would be again looking to Watkins or Terrence Brooks. This is where Corey Graham comes in…as Jim Schwartz told the media ahead of open practice at the Linc.
“Well, Malcolm has played some nickel in the past, particularly when we like some of those match-ups in there, so there’s potential for that opportunity for a safety to come in – a three-safety package, which we played probably more due to necessity last year. Some was on our terms, but some was due to necessity. But it allows us potentially to do it more on our terms.”
Graham was one of the Bills’ most durable players lat year. Playing in 98% of snaps, he recorded 87 tackles and an interception. Since entering the league in 2007, Graham has only missed one game and spent eight of his ten season’s playing in a mix of cornerback roles for the Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears. However it’s been three years since he last lined up at the position. Moving him straight outside may not benefit the team hugely, but having him cover the bases while Malcolm Jenkins comes down into the box or lines up in the slot in 3-safety formations sounds a lot more promising.
“I was talking about that with him yesterday or two days ago when he had come in.” Jim Schwartz explained on Sunday. “We’re going to start him off at safety, but one of the things we like about him is he is a multidimensional player. He’s even played nickel in the past. He’s played corner. He’s got the ability to match up against wide receivers. I think that’s one of his strong points. He made 100 tackles I think a couple years ago, so he’s a reliable player.”
For Graham, production nor durability have ever been a concern. His versatility of being able to line up in just about every spot give the Eagles valuable depth…but not just in the sense that if someone goes down they haven an option. Graham’s experience means he can enter the game at any given moment and provide that sense of reliability needed.
By having three Safeties who are proven starters contributing in a Defense that thrives on taking advantages of mismatches, it gives the Birds some much needed optionality at cornerback. They won’t be forced into having to roll out a base formation should an injury occur, nor would they be suffering a severe drop-off in talent if any defensive back endured a setback.
For Jim Schwartz, it’s all about scheme and implementing that style of play throughout the Defense. Corey Graham may not start outside against Washington. He might not start in the slot, in fact, he might not start at all. But for a cornerback corps that’s limited when it comes to proven starting talent, having that optionality can only boost a Defense that craves DB consistency.
Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports