As they don their uniforms for the 2020 season, many aspects of the Eagles will be very different than they were last year — none more so than the cornerback room. A major liability for the team in 2019, GM Howie Roseman spent big trying to remedy the position that has given Philadelphia fans fits for the last decade. Among the new faces are returners hoping to assume new duties, reach their potential or retain their role from the previous year.
Cemented into the CB1 position, Darius Slay was a welcome addition to a group that has been out of sorts for seemingly the entirety of the franchise’s existence. New recruit — and vastly underrated at that — Nickell Robey-Coleman should assume the slot corner role, although he will have some competition. Outside of those two, the waters muddy significantly. Before we dive in head first, let’s take a deeper look at Slay and NRC.
CB1 | Darius Slay
After signing Slay to a 3-year, $50.5M deal, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that he will take over as the Eagles top corner. Despite a down year in 2019 — likely due to nagging injuries — Slay is still one of the better corners in the game. Without a doubt, he is the best corner the Eagles have had in a long time.
Even in an off-year, Slay was 4th in the league with 13 PBUs, had the 11th best coverage rating in the league, registered two interceptions and allowed only two touchdowns (per PlayerProfiler). Although, the numbers from his last healthy season in 2018 are much more promising.
In 2018, Slay was fourth in coverage rating, had a 0.0% burn rate, allowed the third-lowest catch rate (51.6%), and a passer rating of just 72.3. Those are true number one numbers. With a long offseason to recover, the Eagles should be getting the best version of the 29-year-old.
Slot | Nickell Robey-Coleman
Howie Roseman pulled off a heist inking Robey-Coleman to a 1-year, $1.3M contract. He was 19th on Pro Football Focus’ list of top 26 cornerbacks in 2020, which featured only six slot corners. Adding any player of that caliber is a huge plus, but adding one on a contract barely more than the veteran minimum is unheard of.
In terms of his skill set, not many put it better than GM Howie Roseman:
He’s explosive, he’s twitched up … he can really mirror receivers. He’s got this competitiveness, this toughness, the speed we’re looking for in the defensive backfield.
Even at 5’7″, 169lbs Robey-Coleman is a physical player. He’s solid in run support and will lay a lick from time to time. However, he can be out-muscled by bigger tight ends. While the massive, Gronk-like TE’s are slowly being phased out of the league, there are still some matchups that don’t favor NRC. For those showdowns, it helps to have versatility in the secondary. The Eagles have a handful of safeties that excel at covering tight ends.
In any other matchup, the man is a handful. There are countless times that his limited length seems like it would be a problem, but his lightning-quick breaks on the football make up for any physical shortcoming. Time and time again, Robey-Coleman can be seen jumping out routes and undercutting crossers. He truly has sideline-to-sideline range. The effect he will have on the entire defense is immeasurable. All that for $1.3M.
CB2 | Avonte Maddox
Maddox is the de facto number two at the moment, although he will have steady competition for the role. Both he and Sidney Jones have the benefit of having the skill set and experience to play both outside and in the slot. Therefore, we may see Maddox line up all over the field this season. That bodes well for his snap count.
For the moment, with Robey-Coleman entering the building, Maddox will return to the outside corner role — one that he excelled at in his rookie season. That year he led all cornerbacks allowing a reception just once every 21.7 snaps in coverage (per PFF). He also allowed a passer rating of just 59.9, which also led all CB’s. These numbers are even more impressive when considering Maddox was bounced all over the formation. He played 109 snaps in the slot, 295 snaps on the outside, and 226 snaps at free safety.
2019 was a tough season for Avonte. He missed four games early in the season after a nasty collision in Green Bay. He then returned to a very segmented Eagles secondary and never really got his feet under himself. 2020 should be different. He will be given the opportunity to specialize in a role he played so well in his rookie season. He will also have the benefit of learning from Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman, both of whom are perfect mentors for the young man.
Nevertheless, the entire season he will have Sidney Jones biting at his heels for a chance to get on the field. That level of competition can only mean good things for an Eagles secondary that is exponentially more talented this year than years prior.
Sidney Jones has yet to become the player that Philadelphia had hoped. Still, the young man has much of his career in front of him and left some very promising film on record last season. A player that was once the jewel of his draft class, there is no denying Jones has talent. A rocky start to his time in the NFL, battling with injuries and mental miscues, has put a damper on the very tantalizing projection of his career. Still, there is no reason he can’t still become a very solid starting corner in the league.
The young man’s pedigree began to show when he was relegated to a bench spot midway through the season. Forced into action in three must-win games, he came away with the game-sealing play in all three.
From the outside looking in, it seemed that what was lacking from Jones’ game was confidence. After all, he was a top recruit that fell to the second round due to an Achilles injury at his pro day. The most difficult part of serious injuries is the mental hurdle. Now with three season-altering plays under his belt, Jones’ confidence looks restored. Avonte Maddox may be the starter for training camp, but there is no question that Sid will get his opportunity as well.
Fans may be surprised to see this name be first in this category. The truth is that Williams brings something to the table that neither Rasul Douglas or Cre’Von LeBlanc can: NFL starting experience.
William’s career has been one marred by injury. After starting off on an incredible run, he spent the last season and a half on IR. However, in 2017, his last healthy season, he allowed a passer rating of just 70.5 and registered 12 PBUs. He was PFF’s 10th ranked overall corner, being particularly excellent in coverage. What was most impressive was his performance against long-winded throws. On throws more than 2.6 seconds after the snap of the football, he was the number one corner in the league, allowing a shockingly low passer rating of 10.4. That figure was 6 below A.J. Bouye, the second-place finisher.
If Williams can maintain steady health, that stat alone will have Eagles fans salivating. Long passes have killed the Birds over the last two seasons and have seemingly been an Achilles heel for all the corners on the roster. There aren’t many times opposing quarterbacks will be allowed more than 2.6 seconds in the pocket, but when they are it’s insurmountably defeating when the pass is completed. Williams is here to make sure that doesn’t happen.
While he may be a long shot for a starting position, it won’t surprise me if a healthy Williams can make a play for the first man off the bench after Sidney Jones. Rasul Douglas has failed to curry the favor of the Eagles coaching staff and Cre’Von Leblanc hasn’t spent enough time on the field to cement his position. That leaves the window open for a former standout to regain his glory.
Philadelphia has been through the ringer with Rasul, sharing in both the ups and the downs of his young career. He absolutely has the talent to hang with the big boys but hasn’t won the favor of the coaching staff. It’s true that he simply isn’t the best fit for Jim Schwartz’s scheme, but there seems to be more to it than that.
Still, in his three-year career with the Eagles, fans have seen the best and the worst of Sul. The rangy, disruptive, hard-nosed defender is everything you want out of a corner within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. He’s sticky in coverage, pesky at the catch point, and unafraid to stick his nose into contact. However, he lacks the long speed to shadow the league’s faster receivers and the wherewithal to cover deep zones.
When it comes to Jim Schwartz’s defense, both traits are essential. Rumors that Douglas may be on another team by the start of the season have some underlying venom. He doesn’t seem to want to be here and the coaching staff is dead set against letting him get a feel for the starting role. He has the potential to be a starting corner in the NFL, just likely not with the Eagles.
The fact that he can only play outside corner puts him in a very difficult heat in the competition for snaps. While he does fantastic work on special teams, his talent is wasted as a gunner and another team is likely to notice. Still, his length and physicality set him apart from the other corners on the roster, and because of that, he may find some situational work playing the match-ups game. Whether or not it’s in an Eagles’ jersey, Rasul will be a contributor in 2020.
A PSN favorite, LeBlanc is facing an uphill battle in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. After stealing the spotlight in 2018’s unexpected playoff run, the young man was given an extension while he made his way back from injury. Many were excited for his return to the field as an impact slot corner with big-play potential. Yet in 2019, he started only one game — Week 17 against the Giants — and spent 94% of his snaps on the outside. That, in relation to the 51.9% of snaps spent in the slot in 2018, came as a surprise.
Now, last season was a conundrum in regards to how the Eagles managed their secondary. Due to injury, many DBs played out of position for a bulk of the season. However, it does beg the question of where the coaching staff believes LeBlanc fits. A newly created log jam at the position only complicates matters. On the other hand, with the Eagles’ secondary slowly transitioning to a more position-less approach, that versatility may actually be a boon for “Captain Cre’Von”.
Nevertheless, the window for the young man to make the jump that many people were hoping for in 2019 is closing. There’s no doubt of this man’s ceiling, he just has to show it with more consistency. Regardless, while he may never play his way into a starting role, his skill set and mentality match what the Eagles like to do and he should be able to carve out a role as a rotational player and special teamer.
Craig James will be in the hearts of Eagles fans for a long time because of this play:
Thrown into a late-game goal-to-go stand, James came up huge against the Packers. That being said, as a depth corner, he has a way to go. At one point he was vaulted ahead of Sidney Jones for the starting spot, but that didn’t last long.
There’s a lot to like about James as a developmental corner. Any undrafted rookie that can be thrown into their first plays in that situation deserves some respect. If nothing else, you want to know your depth players are never too small for the moment. That rings true for James. The Eagles would certainly be smitten to keep him on the practice squad in case of injury, and they could do a lot worse.
Smith has spent the first two seasons of his career bouncing from the Chiefs to the Packers then back to the Chiefs. In terms of on-field production, his numbers and experience are limited. In 2018, he was targeted 7 times in coverage and allowed a 57.1% completion rate along with a +30.2 coverage rating (per PlayerProfiler). Those are all impressive numbers. Still, he has a steep climb ahead of him to stick to the Eagles roster.
The one way he may be able to do that is by returning kicks. In just two seasons, Smith has racked up 1,189 yards on just 46 returns, averaging 25.8 yards per return. For a team that has struggled to find a consistent returner, this is welcome news. While he may not be in line for defensive snaps, Smith’s value as a returner could earn him a spot on the final roster. Now, Philadelphia has plenty of options for return specialists and may decide it’s not worth keeping a roster spot open for Smith. However, there is a reason they brought him to Philly.
For in-depth analysis on all the Eagles’ UDFA additions, check out our own Steve Beavon’s series. Both the Birds’ new corners are featured in the article below:
Michael Jacquet III
Jacquet is a 2020 UDFA that has some upside as an off-man outside corner. At 6’1″, he’s got more length than most of the corners already on the roster, which should translate to zone coverage as well. He was asked to play a ton of off-man at Louisiana-Lafayette and was often tasked with the opponent’s best receiver. His backpedal is smooth and he has some good speed, but he can get taken advantage of when asked to mirror quicker receivers because of limited agility and change of direction.
As a recent wide receiver convert, with only two years playing corner, there are obvious green moments. Overall though, there is a lot to like. He’s a pretty sure tackler, but you’d like to see him be less tentative in run support. Still, you can find him all over the field and he could very well stuff the stat sheet in the preseason. There’s enough to his game to stick to a practice squad, but whether or not it will be with the Eagles is another question entirely.
Prince Smith Jr.
The local kid from Philadelphia was a small school standout at the University of New Hampshire. In 2016 he won the CAA defensive rookie of the year award after leading the team with five interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. He then went on to start 29 of a total 36 games over the next three seasons. Throughout his career the 5’10”, 185 pounder was a PBU machine, registering at least 8 every season. His production did trail off a tad from his rookie season, but that may simply be because quarterbacks no longer looked to challenge him.
As Steve mentioned, Smith’s biggest hurdle will be readying himself for professional football. He has all the tools and technique you like to see out of a developmental prospect, but will he be able to compete against NFL caliber opponents? His value on special teams will be pertinent to his shot at making the squad in any capacity, but as a three-year starter in college, he may have to brush up on his gunning.
The other question is where he fits. He has the size, build and athleticism to man the slot, but played on the outside in college. If he can prove he has what it takes at both positions, his versatility will be invaluable. However, it may be the case that he is asked to move into the slot exclusively. In which case an already difficult transition may become that much harder.
No matter how you swing it, the Eagles’ cornerback room is in a much better place now than it was at this point last season. They have secured a true number one corner, solidified the slot corner position and created competition for the remaining spots on the roster. The starting lineups will no longer be decided by necessity and Jim Schwartz will finally be able to exercise his creativity to the fullest extent. The Eagles have seven — seven — corners on the roster that have played in NFL playoff games. That doesn’t include Trevor Williams, who was unlucky enough to play for the Chargers.
Although it’s likely Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman remain at their respective positions, it’s likely every other corner on the roster spends some time moving around the field. You can expect more nickel and dime packages than ever before. The Eagles secondary will be a very fun one to watch in 2020.