The Philadelphia Eagles were incredibly active in turning over the roster this offseason. LeSean McCoy gave way to Demarco Murray, Nick Foles was flipped for Sam Bradford, Trent Cole (finally) passed the torch to Brandon Graham, and cornerback Byron Maxwell replaced Cary Williams. While there is little doubt that these transactions will profoundly affect the future of the franchise as a whole, the success of the defense hinges largely on the evolution of a secondary at the forefront of the offseason roster transition.
Safety remains a serious question mark (particularly in depth), however, the Eagles are at least returning a key piece in Malcolm Jenkins at one of the two starting positions. The same can not be said of the cornerback group, who will employ two new starters following the departures of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. How Williams’ and Fletcher’s replacements fair in 2015 will go a long way in determining the defense’s ceiling in both the short and long term.
After signing a lucrative six year contract, Byron Maxwell will hold down the CB1 job. Much has been made of the Maxwell acquisition — with many questioning whether the investment matches the experience/production — but one thing is clear: Maxwell fits the physical profile of what the team is looking for in a top flight corner.
In terms of measurables, Maxwell is a revelation. Boasting a 6’1″ and 200 pound frame, gargantuan 33 1/2 inch arms, and 4.43 40-time, Maxwell has height/weight/speed combination that the Eagles’ brass covets on the outside. Not only that, during his time in Seattle, Maxwell demonstrated the ability to cover the slot, a skill that will afford Billy Davis flexibility in shuffling his personnel.
Many have posited that Maxwell will not live up to the hype that has followed him from Seattle — a fair criticism to be sure given his price tag — but there is little doubt that he will provide an upgrade over his predecessors (though the bar is set admittedly low). Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher headed a unit that was among the weakest in the NFL, allowing an abominable amount of back-breaking plays, damning an otherwise improved defensive unit. If the secondary is to take the next step, Maxwell and his counterpart will have to prove more efficient in limiting those “X-plays” that, in the 2 years of the Chip Kelly regime, the defense has been at the bottom of the league in.
For a defense that Kelly and Davis envisioned as a “bend but don’t break” operation, there has been a lot more breaking than bending.
The player currently projected to play opposite of Maxwell, Nolan Carroll, will play as pivotal of a role as the former in turning around one of the NFL’s worst units. If Maxwell does in fact live up to his billing, offenses will be sure to target Carroll early and often, so it is imperative that he does all the little things right and limits mistakes.
Heading over from Miami during the 2014 offseason, Carroll served primarily as a dime-linebacker in his first season in Philadelphia. How Carroll transitions to a full-time role will be heavily contingent on his preparation, which to this point appears to have impressed the staff, given Chip Kelly’s disposition on Carroll’s progress. From Kelly in May:
"“Nolan Carroll has done an unbelievable job in the offseason,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that stands out in terms of what he’s done in the weight room and some of those other things.”"
The “other things” that Kelly is referencing are likely in regard to film study and improvement on technique. New defensive backs’ coach Cory Undlin has put an emphasis on improving the technique of his players, and has communicated changes that he aims to make in implementing his style. How Carroll responds to these changes will go a long way in determining whether he is able to perform consistently and limit the mistakes that have condemned the secondary in years past.
Judging by Kelly’s comments, the early indications are that Carroll has responded well to the changes that have been put in place. Whether the preparation and adjustments pay off remain to be seen, though we’ll get a better idea when camp opens. As of now, Carroll’s experience has given him the edge in the race for the job opposite of Maxwell. However, as always, everything will come down to Carroll’s training camp performance, and how he stacks up to his competition.
Carroll’s primary competition, rookie Eric Rowe, is likely facing a steep learning curve heading into his first training camp. While the staff seems very high on Rowe, it remains unlikely that he is able to unseat Carroll. To be clear, this is not an indictment of Rowe’s ability — especially considering the fact that he has yet to take an NFL snap — but young corners face a difficult transition to the NFL, and commonly take time to develop. Starting a green corner often leads to rookie mistakes, leaving the player susceptible to being burned by the equally gifted but more savvy veteran players. Given the nature of a pass-oriented league, a few of these small mistakes can be the difference between a 10 and 50 yard gain, and, subsequently, a win or loss.
Rowe has very limited experience at cornerback, even at the collegiate level, so this notion applies to him perhaps even more so than the average rookie. Still, if Rowe shows that he can handle the job it’ll be his for the taking. As previously mentioned, the staff appears very high on Rowe, and would prefer that he plays so well that he forces their hand, however, it’s unlikely that this is the case. There’s no reason to rush Rowe, and the staff will be careful in developing a potentially valuable asset. Expect Rowe to give Carroll a healthy push in TC, but ultimately settle into a sub package role as a rookie.
Though Kelly and the staff would like you to believe that slot man Brandon Boykin is in the mix for the outside job, he’ll be reassuming his role inside the formation. Actions speak louder than words, and the team’s refusal to give Boykin the starting nod in week 17 is testimony to how the organization views his skill set on the outside.
There’s little projection here. Boykin is one of the league’s best nickel corners, and he will have a stranglehold on the job (barring a trade) until his inevitable departure following the season. After Boykin leaves — depending how the secondary shakes out — Walter Thurmond could assume slot duties should he prove incapable at safety, or the staff could turn to rookie Jacorey Shepherd.
Shepherd has impressed the staff in the early goings, and he could be the heir to Boykin’s role in 2016. Given Shepherd’s unknown status with the team, any projection is pure speculation at this point. Little is known in regard to where the coaching staff projects Shepherd, but it will be interesting to monitor throughout training camp. My guess is that Shepherd wins the competition for one of the final roster spots and contributes on special teams.
Other players such as Jaylen Watkins, EJ Biggers, Randall Evans, and Denzel Rice will likely be competing for one (if that) roster spot. The favorite among the group is likely Watkins, who the team feels can compete at both corner and safety. Biggers is similar in his ability as a versatile piece, however, doesn’t possess the upside that a younger and more talented player like Watkins does.
Evans, meanwhile, could be a dark horse for a roster spot, and is a likely practice squad candidate.
More from Inside the Iggles
- Eagles captains earn high praise on roster blending veteran leadership, youth
- How former Eagles star Cre’Von LeBlanc helped Renegades upstage Cowboys
- Eagles 2023 schedule: Every WR duo Darius Slay, James Bradberry will battle
- Imagining better names for Jason Kelce’s Good Guy Award
- Bold predictions for the Philadelphia Eagles offense in 2023