Note: This is the ninth part of a 10-part series looking at the Eagles' roster entering free agency and the draft. The first part was quarterbacks, the second part was running backs, and the third part was wide receivers. the fourth part was offensive line, the fifth part was tight ends and specialists, the sixth part was defensive linemen, the seventh part was inside linebackers, and the eighth part was outside linebackers.
ON THE ROSTER
Under contract: Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Roc Carmichael, Curtis Marsh
Free agents: None
Outlook: This is an interesting position for the Eagles. They return all their cornerbacks, none of whom are old and all of whom are signed to reasonable contracts. Then again, the Eagles had the No. 32 pass defense in the NFL and the cornerbacks were inconsistent.
The decision the Eagles need to make is on Cary Williams’ future. Williams, 29, has a base salary of $4.75 million that becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. That’s a reasonable salary for a veteran starting cornerback, and if he’s in the Eagles’ plans, then he’ll remain around after that date. Williams is 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds with the long frame that the Eagles desire. He’s experienced and durable, starting every game during the past three seasons on winning teams. There were games in which he struggled, but he’s a starting-caliber cornerback in the NFL.
On the other side, Bradley Fletcher is due $3.275 million. Fletcher will be 28 next season and played 13 games in 2013. He’s a physical corner who specializes in press coverage. There’s a $2.525 million jump in salary from last season, but Fletcher is also a solid player. If the Eagles feel he's a starter, then they should keep him. If they're looking for an upgrade, then Fletcher's salary jump is an obstacle.
That’s the quandary the Eagles face. They probably need an upgrade at cornerback, but they have two starting cornerbacks under contract. This will be a major decision for the Eagles, and will affect what they do in the draft and free agency.
The one player who will definitely be in Philadelphia is Brandon Boykin. One of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL, Boykin finished with six interceptions last season and was among the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL. He will be 24 next season and is only improving. The major question with Boykin is whether they keep him inside, where he plays less but is so effective, or move him to the outside as an every-down cornerback. Boykin played only 51 percent of the snaps last season. He’s too good to be limited to half the snaps, but he’s too valuable to move from that nickel cornerback spot.
The only other cornerbacks on the roster are Roc Carmichael and Curtis Marsh. Carmichael is a player with upside. The Eagles signed him in Week 2 and he took meaningful snaps for the Eagles. Carmichael will be 26 in September, although his performance did not necessarily guarantee him a roster spot in 2014. But there is upside that intrigues the Eagles.
Marsh could be on the outside looking in. The 2011 third-round pick did not make the roster out of training camp last season, and was inactive toward the end of the season. He has size and raw tools, but the clock already ran out on him once and he’ll need to play exceptionally in the spring and summer to stay on the roster.
This could be one of the most important positions to address if the Eagles move on from Williams and/or Fletcher. If they keep both, then there would not be much more playing time to go around. So what the Eagles do with their two starters could dictate the offseason plans, as would their decision on whether to keep Boykin in the slot or move him to the outside.
If the Eagles look in the free agent market, they’ll find some appealing options. There’s a familiar face among the top names: Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They moved on from Rodgers-Cromartie last season, and don’t expect a reunion. New England’s Aqib Talib has blossomed since becoming a Patriot, and he could require the franchise tag or big contract to keep.
The Colts have reportedly made it a priority to re-sign Vontae Davis, the former first-round pick they acquired from the Dolphins in 2012. Philadelphia native Brent Grimes might be the top cornerback on the market, but he’ll be 31 next season and is 5-foot-10, which is not the profile the Eagles seek at that spot. He could also draw the franchise tag.
One player who could make sense is the Titans’ Alterraun Verner. He is 5-foot-10 and 187 pounds, but he’s an emerging player who is at a ripe age and has started 48 games during the past four seasons. The UCLA product had five interceptions last season. The Titans already paid big money to Jason McCourty, so Verner could hit the market.
Watch out for Green Bay’s Sam Shields, who is 26. He has started 35 games during the past four seasons and battled injuries, but he’s been productive and has good length.
In the draft, the Eagles might be the range of where some of the top cornerbacks are expected to go in the first round. The top player is Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, who is 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds, and is a physical player who was a consensus all-American. Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert is competing with Dennard for the top cornerback honors. He’s also a big-time return threat. Texas Christian’s Jason Verrett can play the nickel spot, so he would make sense if the Eagles want to move Boykin to the outside.
Florida’s Louchiez Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller will also push for consideration. Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner is a cornerback/safety hybrid.
After the first round, there are some players with the body types the Eagles crave who could be appealing starting in the second round. Pay attention to two 6-foot-3 cornerbacks: Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Utah’s Keith McGill. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock commented on the amount of long cornerbacks in the NFL. There’s a former Oregon player among them: Terrance Mitchell, who was the unheralded of the Ducks’ starting cornerbacks last season but led the team in interceptions and was a three-year starter.