As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to open training camp on July 25, we examine whether the team is better or worse than last season at each position. We continue with cornerback.
An offensive holding penalty knocked the Saints into a 3rd and 12 during their first-round playoff matchup in Philadelphia. If the Eagles come up with a stop, they’ll force a punt. Cary Williams has to come out of the game for one play with an injury, though, so Drew Brees wastes little time, going right after the corner’s replacement. It was Roc Carmichael, who the Birds picked off of Houston’s practice squad in September.
Kenny Stills beat Carmichael for a 14-yard gain to continue the drive, which ended five plays later in a touchdown for New Orleans.
Depth at cornerback was so bad last year, the Eagles literally could not get away without having both starters on the field for play versus an elite quarterback. That shouldn’t be the case again in 2014.
Philadelphia added Nolan Carroll during the offseason, perhaps the club’s most underrated free-agent signing. Carroll, who’s 6’1”, 205 pounds, started 22 games over the past two seasons for the Miami Dolphins and was not bad. If he had to fill in for a few games for either Williams or Bradley Fletcher, I would not be concerned.
In fact, there’s a feeling Carroll could push for one of their starting jobs this summer. Either way, assuming the Birds don’t release either Williams or Fletcher, that’s one more decent corner than the Eagles had last year.
The Eagles also used a fourth-round draft pick on Jaylen Watkins out of Florida, who’s not expected to be much of a factor this year, but could be counted on if injuries mount. Carmichael was once a fourth-round pick, too, but it wasn’t hard to see why he never made it with the Texans, as his coverage style very often didn’t include looking for the ball. I’ll take my chances with the rookie, and say the depth at cornerback has improved overall.
Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher
There was an underwhelming feeling when the Eagles signed Williams and Fletcher to free-agent contracts last offseason, but they served their purpose as stopgaps in the secondary. The defense needed guys who were competent and would give maximum effort in the wake of the Nnamdi Asomugha/Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie experiment, and got exactly that from the two newcomers.
Williams may possess only average athleticism, but he gets the job done. The main concern with him is he turns 30 in December, which means decline is right around the corner, and Williams can’t afford to lose much ability and remain effective. Otherwise, he does an adequate job of disrupting opposing receivers with his physical play.
Fletcher, in my opinion, was the better of the two last season. Anecdotally speaking, it’s difficult to remember too many times when he was beaten but didn’t have tight coverage, or many big gains at all against him for that matter. Fletcher finished 2013 tied for 17th in the NFL with 15 pass breakups.
The duo is nothing special, but the Eagles should be able to get by with another year of Williams and Fletcher.
One could make a case for Boykin as the Eagles’ Most Valuable Player last season. The nickel cornerback tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions despite only lining up for 50 percent of Philly’s defensive snaps. Two of those picks sealed wins for the Birds.
In fact, all six of Boykin’s INTs came in Eagles victories. So did 14 of his 16 pass breakups. Four of the picks were also recorded in the fourth quarter, so Boykin clearly had a flare for the dramatic.
It’s hard to come up with many individual performances that had a larger direct impact on the outcome. Basically, if Boykin made a play, Philly had a good shot at winning, and if he didn’t, well…
There’s reason to believe Boykin will continue improving simply on the basis that he’s only 24 years old and heading into his third NFL season. Then again, he already appears to be an elite slot specialist. The only thing that’s left for him to do is find a way to get on the field more, because if Boykin 50 percent of the time can produce those types of results, imagine what he could do with 75 percent, or 90.
There is little not to like about Watkins for a fourth-round draft pick. He’s just a tad undersized at 5’11”, 194 pounds, but don’t mistake him for small—his 22 reps in the bench press were tied for the most among the cornerbacks invited to the combine. Watkins 4.41 in the 40-yard dash was a top-five time as well.
Watkins has experience playing all over the field, which is another plus. He played outside the numbers, in the slot, back deep at safety and on special teams at the University of Florida. In fact, Watkins is so versatile, the Eagles aren’t even entirely sure what his position will wind up being down the road. Now that’s an unknown.
For now, Watkins is staying at cornerback, where he’s theoretically a better option than Roc Carmichael or Curtis Marsh. The only other complaint really is that for all his ability, it didn’t bear out in the numbers at Florida. Watkins finished his college career with three interceptions and 24 pass breakups, which are relatively low totals.
Perhaps all that moving around didn’t allow Watkins to master any one position, or he was so good, quarterbacks looked the other way. Whatever the case, his development will be closely monitored in Philly, where Fletcher is in the final year of his contract and Williams could become a cap casualty in 2015.
BETTER OR WORSE
Better. Boykin is simply incredible in the slot. The Eagles will go with some combination of Williams, Fletcher and Carroll on the outside, which is fine. Either way, the odd man out should improve the unit’s depth—provided he’s not sent packing. Other than that, there are no real changes, but seeing as lousy reserves might’ve cost them in a big game last year, I’m going with the improved depth upgrades the cornerback situation overall.