With the trade of Asante Samuel, the Eagles will complete a purge of recent starting cornerbacks, moving away from the smaller group that once manned the defensive backfield and toward a roster of cover men with the rare and increasingly important blend of speed and height.
It’s a trend that the Eagles embraced last offseason, one that coincides with a rising number of big receivers around the league and that we could very well see continued when the Eagles make their first round pick Thursday.
If Stephon Gilmore (6-foot) or Dre Kirkpatrick (6-2) are there when the Eagles choose at 15, and Fletcher Cox is off the board, don’t be surprised if the Eagles add to their stable of big cornerbacks who can play physical, press coverage. Gilmore has risen farther in many analysts’ eyes, but Kirkpatrick was more noted for his physical play in college and ability to press wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.
With their size and athleticism, each represent a rare commodity that is becoming more and more valuable in the NFL.
Howie Roseman addressed this indirectly while talking about another topic in his recent meeting with reporters. At the most recent NFL Combine, he said, the vast majority of wide receivers – in the neighborhood of 70 percent – were 5-11 or taller. Meanwhile, somewhere around 35 percent of corners were over that height.
“It’s much harder to be a defensive back. You don’t have the same talent level on defense,” Roseman said. Which means big corners are more in demand to combat those big receivers, but harder to find. Anyone who has taken even the most basic economics class knows what that does to the worth of big cover men.
A couple days after Roseman spoke, an excellent Sports Illustrated article made this point: last season there were 20 starting wide receivers who stood at 6-3 or taller, up from just 11 in 2001. Eight of the top 10 wide receiver prospects in this draft are 6-2 or taller.
“The increased size and athleticism at the position is forcing teams to reevaluate their approach to drafting cornerbacks as well,” wrote SI’s Jim Trotter. “Some now want corners who are at least 6 feet.”
The Eagles seem to be among that group. Since the end of the 2009 season the Eagles have jettisoned Sheldon Brown (5-10), Ellis Hobbs (5-9) and now Samuel (5-10). In their place the team has acquired Nnamdi Asomugha (6-2) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (6-2) and are trying to develop Curtis Marsh (6-1) and Brandon Hughes (5-11).
The change in size fits with a move toward pressing at the line of scrimmage, which Asomugha and DRC both prefer, and Samuel doesn’t. For a team whose defense is built on the pass rush, the ability to press is a critical element. Corners who can push up on receivers and take them away early rob quarterbacks of their first option when they feel pressure coming.
If you went to any of Juan Castillo’s press conferences last year, you almost certainly heard his mantra that sacks don’t come from only the d-line, but come from cover men who can make the quarterback hitch in his drop back, buying an extra second or two for Jason Babin or Trent Cole to get home. Andy Reid still believes in stopping quarterbacks on defense. That begins with the defensive line, but cover men who can help the line are a key complementary factor.
The Eagles’ changing philosophy is a big part of the reason (along with age and salary) that Samuel is on his way out. And it’s also a good reason to keep an eye on the big corners who might also be among the best available players when the Eagles choose Thursday.
With DRC in the last year of his contract, with Asomugha having mixed results in his first year, with Marsh's ability unclear, and with the value of big men who can cover the NFL’s increasingly tall receivers, Kirkpatrick or Gilmore may be hard to pass up.