Eagles' secondary still a primary concern

THEY ARE easy targets: Nate Allen, Cary Williams and poor Bradley Fletcher.

They served as chief scapegoats for the Eagles' missed 2014 postseason. They served as evidence for the demotion of general manager Howie Roseman.

Allen was a second-round pick during the Brian Dawkins Hangover; Williams and Fletcher, two modestly priced, free-agent solutions who had never been the featured corners on their previous teams. capegoating them was justified, and the evaluation of their talents was poor. They probably played to their abilities; competent players who need support, all of whom have plenty of NFL life left.

They might succeed with their new teams. Allen signed a deal with Oakland that guarantees him nearly $12 million. Williams went to Seattle and neatly replaced Byron Maxwell, the Eagles' centerpiece free-agent signing this year; it will be fascinating to see which plays better in his new home. Even Fletcher managed to land a job with New England.


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Together, though, they were awful.

The Big Question: Are the defensive backs – the worst unit of players on the Eagles' 10-win team – better today than they were a year ago?

The answer: almost.

Given time . . . maybe.

And, but for the inexplicable trade of splendid nickel corner Brandon Boykin, they most certainly would be.

Boykin would have cost the Eagles about $1.5 million in his fourth season. Certainly, he would have left the team for no compensation after this season. At 5-9, he never would get the chance to prove his worth as an outside cornerback with the Eagles, who are fixated on size; they would not have extended his contract.

However, if the team is serious about making a playoff run in 2015, why trade its best defensive back over the past three seasons . . . for a fourth-round pick (at best)?

That's a joke. True, Boykin was a fourth-rounder himself, but he was projected to be a late first-round pick and slam-dunk second-rounder had he not broken a leg at the Senior Bowl. He was a steal.

Every once in a while a team might get a Boykin or, say, a Darren Sproles in the fourth round, but that gamble is not worth weakening the front line.

The solid play of safety Malcolm Jenkins and the expected brilliance of Maxwell cannot completely overcome the unknown capacities of corner-turned-safety Walter Thurmond; the questionable competence of Nolan Carroll, who couldn't crack the flawed lineup last season; and, without Boykin, the alarming instability at nickel cornerback – a position that, like the slot receiver, essentially creates a need for a 12th starter.

Considering the nickel corner's importance, five players hold positions of great significance in the answering of The Big Question.

Three are gone.

One is green.

One is a career backup.

Perhaps the boldest move Chip Kelly made in the past two offseasons was the trade of Boykin to the Steelers. Gone.

Still, Kelly had four players who figured into the replacement of Boykin: second-round rookie Eric Rowe, veteran E.J. Biggers, second-year player Jaylen Watkins and JaCorey Shepherd, a sixth-round pick who spent the summer as Boykin's direct understudy.

Shepherd tore an ACL early in training camp. Gone.

Watkins, who gained 10 pounds in the offseason in anticipation of challenging for the safety spot vacated by Allen, was among the final cuts. Gone.

Rowe is 6-1, runs a 4.4-second 40 and is possessed of athleticism that might one day land him in the Pro Bowl. However, he played safety the first three of his four seasons at Utah, and, well, it shows.

One of the Eagles' strategies in the preseason involved moving Carroll, a starting corner, to nickel when Rowe enters the game. So far, that gambit weakens both positions. Rowe is on a four-year deal; with work, he'll be pretty good by its end. Very green.

Really, Biggers might be the best option as the third corner until Rowe's instincts catch up to his athleticism.

The Eagles travel to Atlanta to face Matt Ryan with Julio Jones and Roddy White to open the season, then welcome Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to Lincoln Financial Field. Rowe was undressed last Thursday by Jets third-stringer Matt Flynn (since cut), and Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker didn't play, of course.

Nickel isn't the only issue. Thurmond and Carroll have had fine training camps, but neither has filled this role before.

Can Thurmond be a competent open-field tackler at full-speed? Cornerbacks seldom have to hit tight ends and running backs, and they almost never get blocked by offensive linemen. Safeties do. Thurmond is 10 pounds lighter than Jenkins and 20 pounds lighter than Allen, whom he will seek to replace.

And, finally: The reason Carroll did not supplant Fletcher or Williams last season had nothing to with Eagles coaches misevaluating him for 15 weeks.

Defensive coordinator Billy Davis last month offered an absurd admission that he should have played Carroll more, but there are two glaring inconsistencies in that admission.

First, since Kelly's arrival, he and his staff have done a terrific job of preparing and promoting backups. That's how Bennie Logan became the starting nose tackle as a rookie. That's how the Birds survived a raft of injuries to the offensive line last season.

Second, Davis cannot denigrate a current starter. He can't say that, for at least most of the season, Carroll was worse than the players in front of him.

Carroll did not supplant Fletcher or Williams because Carroll did not earn that promotion. He was not good enough.

Maybe now he is.

The Eagles had better hope so.

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch