When the Eagles return from their summer break to open training camp on July 24, there are expected to be 11 cornerbacks reporting, most of whom could make a case for winning a starting job this fall.
That might be generous, but not by much. Undrafted free agents Jomal Wiltz and Randall Goforth are probably more likely to wilt in camp and go forth to their next career opportunities, and second-round draft pick Sidney Jones won’t get back on the field after Achilles tendon surgery until sometime around the September opener. As for the others, however, they are one big bag of cornerbacks and no one has really ripped his way out yet.
“You’d love to see two guys emerge from the ranks, but a lot of these guys are unproven,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said as the team closed its June mini-camp. “You’d like to get that as soon as you can, but it’s been impressive to see the competition. As a coordinator or coach, this might make you feel good about the next guy getting plugged into a situation, as opposed to just having two premier guys and being one injury away from panicking.”
Not that having two premier guys would be a bad thing, and it could be the Eagles have those somewhere in the bag where they are all jostling for position. All that was learned in the spring functions is that it is an athletic, competitive bunch. When the reality of training camp arrives, with full pads and contact, and the knowledge that the coaches’ impressions will be written in ink, that will help sort things out.
“I’m really curious when we get into camp with the pads on and we get to do a little more of the physical, bump-and-run and things like that, that’s when we get a chance to see these guys really in action,” head coach Doug Pederson said.
That’s when Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will really find out if the front office did enough to mortar a position that was viewed as one of the team’s glaring deficiencies. If the addition of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith bolstered a poor receiving unit, and plugging in LeGarrette Blount solidified the run game – two other needy positions – did bringing in veteran Patrick Robinson amid a passel of young, eager corners fill the hole that grew deeper all last season?
The Eagles gave up 59 pass plays that went for 20 yards or more in 2016. That’s a lot, and while the corners took most of the heat, it wasn’t entirely the fault of Nolan Carroll or Leodis McKelvin, the starting cornerbacks. It takes a village to be as porous as the Eagles were in pass defense, so the lack of a consistent rush at the line factored in, as did the play of both Jaylen Watkins and Jalen Mills, who were on the field in nickel and dime situations. Jenkins and Rodney McLeod were solid at safety, but far from perfect.
Still, neither Carroll nor McKelvin was kept around and the team knew it was starting nearly from scratch at that position. Returners included Mills, who might be best suited to the nickel role; Ron Brooks; C.J. Smith; Aaron Grymes; and Dwayne Gratz.
Brooks played for Schwartz in Buffalo and missed most of last season with a quad injury. Smith, an undrafted free agent in 2016, played one defensive snap. Grymes, one of two Canadian Football League veterans in the cornerback mix, was active for one game but didn’t get a snap. Gratz, a five-year veteran previously with the Jaguars and Rams, was picked up late in the season and never activated.
New for the coming year, the Eagles signed Robinson, who is on his fourth team in eight seasons; undrafted free agents Wiltz and Goforth; and 27-year-old Mitchell White, the other CFL veteran. They also drafted Jones in the second round and Rasul Douglas in the third.
As said, there are good cases to be made for many of them, even if Schwartz would prefer there were great cases to be made for just three of them. Did the mini-camps help clarify the situation?
“Not really. Not yet,” Jenkins said. “We’ve seen guys making plays, but it’s about consistency and really learning the scheme and knowing what you’re doing. We’ll see more in training camp. We’ll see what happens.”
Of the whole cornerback group that will be on the field for camp – not that it is always a true indication of talent – only Robinson (32nd overall in 2010), Gratz (64th in 2013) and Douglas (99th in 2017) were selected before the fourth round of the draft. Brooks was a fourth-rounder, Mills a seventh-rounder, and the others (White, Grymes, Smith, Goforth and Wiltz) were not drafted. Not an overwhelming bunch of resumes.
It isn’t easy to plug every gap in a team’s roster, although the Eagles didn’t do badly this off-season. At most of the trouble spots, it seems as if enough attention was paid to getting either talent or depth. There is something still worrisome about the cornerback position, however, and it won’t be long now until the worries are either dismissed or until they dominate the conversation.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what those guys can do in training camp and the preseason,” McLeod said.
So are they, because, themselves included, no one really knows yet which cornerbacks will finally emerge from the bag or, more importantly, how many.