Eagles Training Camp Positional Preview: Cornerback

NFL: SEP 27 Bengals at Eagles
PHILADELPHIA, PA – SEPTEMBER 27: Philadelphia Eagles Cornerback Darius Slay (24) interacts with the Bengals bench after a play in the second half during the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles on September 27, 2020 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

There’s no doubt that cornerback will be the position at the top of everyone’s mind as we head into training camp. Rightfully so, as the secondary of the Eagles has been a hodgepodge of Band-Aids and stopgaps for the last few seasons. Now with a lasting CB1 on the roster, Philadelphia will need to sort out the scrum of roster hopefuls behind Darius Slay. Obviously, the preeminent debate will be centered around the second outside corner position. However, if that spot goes to the presumed starter, Avonte Maddox — there is a major question about who will start in the slot.

CB 1 | Darius Slay

It almost feels strange to write about a lockdown CB1 on the Eagles roster; it’s been so long since they’ve had one. While he didn’t have his best statistical season in his first year with the Birds, a lot of that was due to Jim Schwartz’ drastic defense and a who’s-who of fill-in safeties playing behind him. Regardless of his performance against D.K. Metcalf, there is no reason to doubt the man as the top corner on the roster heading into the season.

Even if there are some harboring doubts, the move to a more zone-dominant scheme should help Slay. According to PFF, he is tied for the 3rd best zone coverage since 2011 (91.9 grade). With more safety help over the top, he will have the freedom to take more calculated risks on the football. There’s a reason he has led the league in forced incompletions since 2016. He’s a heady player that is great at pealing off to make a play on the football. Coupling that with a coaching staff that seem hellbent on harnessing the power of their players’ best attributes, 2021-2022 has the makings of a major bounce back year for number 2.

Look to see a lot more of this in 2021:

CB2 | Avonte Maddox

As the only other player on the roster with significant NFL playing experience, Avonte is a lock for the roster. The question is where he will line up for the Eagles. Most likely, he will start the season on the outside across from Slay. However, I know I am not alone in saying that I like him best in the slot. One major factor is how often Jonathan Gannon will have his defense deploy dime or nickel packages. Maddox may not be the surefire answer at CB2, but you want him on the field as often as possible — especially early on in the season.

When rumors surfaced that the Eagles were looking to sign Dallas Goedert long-term, the fine print included that the team may look to ink Avonte to a deal as well. It makes a lot of sense in Gannon’s scheme versatile defense to lock up a player like Maddox.

However, they will likely want to see what exactly he can add to the new look defense. Although he’s been in the league for three seasons, it seems as if there is still plenty of room for the 25 year old to grow. If he came down with a few of his missed interceptions over the last few years, I think we would be looking at the Pitt man in a much different light.

Zech McPhearson

The Eagles’ 4th round pick is in a unique position where he finds himself in a two-way battle for two different positions on the roster. Whether Maddox starts on the outside, or in the slot, McPhearson will likely compete for the other starting spot. Going forward — assuming the Eagles will look to add a top corner in next year’s draft — I think Zech will find a home in the slot. Truthfully, his skillset sets him up nicely to play both positions at a high level. He’s a very solid all around player. As a prospect he was sold as a jack-of-all trades, master of none kind of player, but his underrated athleticism and high IQ could easily sneak him into a starting role early in his career.

The key to McPhearson’s young career has been growth. As a player that got better every year in college, he will look to continue that trend while looking to mount the steep learning curve of becoming an NFL corner. Even though he was impressive in his final college season, he does not have a lengthy resume in terms of playing time. Still, he’s a very fluid athlete with an impressive feel for the football and won’t make many mistakes. All that bodes well for his fit in Jonathan Gannon’s scheme.

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