Before you even think about evaluating the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive performance against the New England Patriots on Friday, remember, that was with Curtis Marsh at cornerback. The 2010 third-round pick was burned for three touchdown passes and several other big plays upon replacing Cary Williams, who exited the preseason affair with a hamstring injury after coming up with a pick-six on the opening series.
Nolan Carroll hasn’t even set foot on the field in an actual game for the Eagles yet, but if the past three contests have demonstrated anything, the free-agent addition will be an invaluable addition to this secondary.
I say three games, because it was during Philadelphia’s postseason loss to the New Orleans Saints where depth at cornerback first reared its head as a crippling problem. Let’s set the scene.
The Eagles had New Orleans pinned in a third-and-12 midway through the third quarter, but Williams was shaken up and forced to come out for a play. In came Roc Carmichael, and Saints quarterback Drew Brees immediately sensed blood in the water. The future Hall of Famer went right after Carmichael, hitting receiver Kenny Stills for a 14-yard gain to move the sticks.
Five plays later, the Saints went into the end zone for a touchdown. The Eagles lost by two.
Carmichael saw extensive playing time in Philly’s Week 1 preseason matchup at Chicago, an outing reminiscent of Marsh’s efforts against the Pats. Both corners have struggled to find the ball or even keep track of their assignments.
Tom Brady knew to go at Marsh from experience. When the Eagles and Patriots held joint practices in 2013, the two-time league MVP picked on Marsh repeatedly. If the football hit the ground on even one of those attempts, I don’t recall.
Fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins also took his lumps against the Bears in Week 1, none worse than allowing a 73-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen to Chris Williams. However, Watkins gets something of a pass considering he was a rookie making his NFL debut.
Carroll may not be an all star or anything, but he does bring quality experience to the table. Signed to a two-year deal in March, the fifth-year veteran started 22 games over the past two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, where he was at least competent.
Unfortunately, most in Philadelphia haven’t had their first close look at Carroll because he’s missed the last two exhibition games with an unspecified muscle injury.
Once Carroll is cleared to return, he provides an immediate upgrade over Marsh and Carmichael, who have combined to start two games over seven combined seasons in the NFL. Both starts belong to Carmichael last season, who was barely adequate filling in for Bradley Fletcher in wins against Green Bay and Washington.
Carroll might be more than merely depth for the Eagles, too. He was drawing rave reviews at training camp, and minicamps before that, with some observers suggesting he might beat out Fletcher for a starting job over time. The injury likely put a stop to a burgeoning competition for that spot, but the expectation is Carroll will contribute.
Carroll was quickly becoming a fixture in the defense’s dime package, and head coach Chip Kelly has been looking forward to seeing more.
“Obviously, Nolan is a guy that's continuing to show up every day, so obviously he warrants playing time. We'll see where we can get him fit in and help us as a team defensively.”
At 6’1”, 205 pounds, Carroll possesses the size and length Kelly prefers in an outside corner. He’s only 27, so perhaps there’s even a little upside there. Williams is a likely cap casualty in 2015, and Fletcher is scheduled to become a free agent, so Carroll’s eventual assent to starter seems preordained.
For now, though, the Eagles just need to get him healthy back on the field—rather desperately, from the look of things.