What should the Eagles do at cornerback this offseason?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 LSU at UCLA
PASADENA, CA – SEPTEMBER 04: LSU Tigers cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (7) looks on during a college football game between the LSU Tigers and the UCLA Bruins played on September 4, 2021 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

The Eagles find themselves in a really unique situation. Loaded with first-round picks, the team can go in so many directions this offseason, each more exciting than the last. But while the QB position will be the talk of the town, there could be a fascinating transition happening at cornerback.

The situation

Darius Slay and Avonte Maddox carried the secondary on their shoulders in 2021. Slay returned to the All-Pro form we all grew accustomed to seeing in Detroit, and Maddox shined when left to his own devices in his most natural position, just like many expected.

Slay does account for a $22M cap-hit in 2022 and while there’s no reason to move on from the ball-hawking veteran just yet, preparing for life after his departure would be a smart move. The Eagles have the assets to groom a future CB1, but is that the path they’ll go down?

As for Maddox, he earned himself a shiny new contract, which did naturally raise a few questions. It’s not that Maddox didn’t deserve the contract because he absolutely did, but the Eagles drafted rookie slot CB Zech McPhearson only months before, likely as an insurance policy for if Maddox was to depart in free agency. Few people would’ve been able to see the sudden spike in production, but it probably placed a ceiling over the rookies’ head, at least in the nickel.

Steven Nelson is likely on his way out. He held out for a big deal this offseason and didn’t get it, hoping a prove-it year would be enough to raise his value. The Eagles either bring him back at a reasonable price, or he tests the open waters once more, vacating that CB2 spot.

This is where things get interesting.

Don’t look to the draft just yet

McPhearson didn’t look bad when tasked with some outside assignments this season, but he wasn’t consistent. Like Maddox, his lack of height is always going to work against him, but in the nickel, he would likely thrive.

The Eagles were relatively quiet this season when it comes to trades. However, they did pick up a rookie cornerback in the way of Kary Vincent Jr. and when partnered with the earlier arrival of Tay Gowan, it’s clear that long-term growth is the name of the game.

Both players have been surprisingly productive around the catch-point, with Gowan bringing the typical UCF wingspan to the table, and Vincent shining with 8 PBU’s and 4 picks for LSU in 2019. Are either of them ready for a full-time CB2 role? Probably not, but that’s not where this plan is leading.

Now we look to the draft

A lot can happen between now and draft night, but one thing looks inherently clear. If they want to, the Eagles will have more than enough ammo to move up as far as they see fit to grab a player of their choice. This means that every option is logistically on the table.

Some people are fearful of Derek Stingley Jr.’s injury history, while others prefer Ahmad Gardner, and even Andrew Booth, who projects to be more of a developmental talent after struggling in coverage during his first year as a starter.

If the Eagles can groom one of this years’ top CB talents to eventually take the baton from Darius Slay, then a natural line of succession would occur. Allow the soon-to-be drafted rookie to hold down the CB2 spot for a year before turning it over to someone like Gowan or McPhearson, who would have a year to wait in the wings and hone their craft.

Given the lack of depth at safety, both players could also benefit from adding the ‘versatility’ trait to their arsenal. Kary Vincent Jr. has a stunning 100m track record that could really see him be a weapon playing down inside the box, so it’s important to add his name to these discussions.

The Eagles don’t have to go and draft the top CB in this class. In fact, they could even trade for a mid-term solution, or poach a free agent. There’s clearly a desire to prop up the pipeline of prospects and the only way that will yield results is if there is a clear path to an eventual role on this defense. It’s important that no matter the direction, Roseman acts with that in mind, so that by the time Darius Slay does leave the City, there’s a lockdown corner ready to fill some very large shoes, and a couple of young players ready for the jump to a CB2 role.

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

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