While the Eagles finish their offseason program with 10 organized team activities and a three-day mini-camp, The Inquirer will reset the team’s 90-man roster and look at each position heading into July’s training camp. We have already looked at offensive line, tight ends, defensive line, outside linebackers, wide receivers, quarterbacks, and inside linebackers.
Projected first team
Cary Williams (6-1, 190), 29, 6th season; Bradley Fletcher (6-0, 200), 27, 6th season; Brandon Boykin (5-10, 185), 23, 3rd season
The Eagles’ secondary must play better after allowing more passing yards than any team in the NFL last season. , The team will count on the same top three cornerbacks for the improvement, though. Cary Williams and (most likely) Bradley Fletcher will start on the inside. I considered Brandon Boykin a starting cornerback even though he plays in the slot because he’s on the field more than half of the defensive snaps.
Don’t expect Boykin to play on the outside much, if at all, this season. The Eagles consider the inside a different position than an outside, and Boykin is skilled in that role. The Eagles will face a number of skilled slot receivers this season, and they will need Boykin to match up to those players. Boykin wants to play on the outside. If he stays on the Eagles long term, they will likely need to pay him like an outside cornerback. But that’s not an issue for this season, and Boykin is so valuable to the defense.
A player that skilled should probably be on the field for more than 51 percent of the snaps, which is a dilemma for the Eagles. The front office/coaches believe the slot cornerback will play more than 60 percent of the snaps in most cases, so it will be interesting to see how many Boykin plays this season. Maybe teams play more three-wide receiver sets against the Eagles keeping Boykin on the field. Or maybe the Eagles use the nickel as a base more frequently. It's also possible they gave him some reps on the outside, although his body type is simply not what coach Chip Kelly looks for on the outside.
Kelly desires tall, long-armed, physical players on the outside. Both Williams and Fletcher fit that style. An improved pass rush will help both players, but their play must also improve. The NFC East is not loaded with big receivers aside from Dez Bryant. The nonconference slate does not include some of the top receivers, either, although Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson will be challenges. Those big receivers on the ones who Williams and Fletcher are most valuable against, and it's true that cornerbacks at that size are difficult to find.
Williams, who was on the field for 94 percent of the defensive snaps, improved as the season progressed. The coaching staff became more familiar with how to use him, which helped. Aside from a forgettable performance against Minnesota in December, Williams was a dependable, reliable cornerback in the back half of the schedule. The Eagles are counting on him to play that way in 2014. He mans the right side, which is a role Williams will keep in 2014.
Bradley Fletcher plays the other side. He also closed the season in good form last season. Nolan Carroll will push him, but look for Fletcher to retain the job. Internally, the Eagles did not view the cornerbacks as much of an issue as the statistics might suggest. They need to play better, but the Eagles will mostly stick with the same personnel. The unit's depth will by helped two offseason additions: Nolan Carroll and Jaylen Watkins.
Projected second team
Nolan Carroll (6-1, 205), 27, 5th season; Jaylen Watkins (5-11, 194), 21, rookie
Both of the Eagles’ new additions at cornerback will be on the roster in 2014. Carroll fits the prototype for an outside cornerback in Kelly’s system, and he also has intriguing experience. He started 22 games during the past two seasons with the Dolphins, so he’s capable of stepping into the lineup. Fletcher dealt with injuries last season and previously in his career, and the Eagles badly needed depth at outside cornerback. That’s where Carroll helps. He can play special teams, but look for him to also contribute on defense.
The Eagles selected Watkins with the first pick of the fourth round, and are bullish about his potential. Watkins can play cornerback or safety. He plays the outside and the slot. That’s the versatility that Kelly craves. In the first year with the system, look for the Florida product to be a potential special teams player on Sunday and a utility player who can step into different roles if injuries beset the Eagles.
Roc Carmichael (5-10, 197), 25, 4th season; Curtis Marsh (6-1, 197), 26, 4th season
Both Carmichael and Marsh were on the roster last season. After the additions of Carroll and Watkins, they must hope for a strong training camp and preseason to boost their candidacies of making the roster in 2014. The Eagles saw some promise in Carmichael last season after the Texans let him go. Carmichael was inconsistent when he played, but he will get a full offseason. Marsh has the size that tantalizes, but he has not done enough since the Eagles selected him in the third round in 2011 to become a reliable cornerback.
If the Eagles keep six cornerbacks, one could make the roster. If one of the top cornerbacks suffers an injury, Carmichael or Marsh could also sneak onto the roster. But the top five cornerbacks are pretty well established entering training camp.