Epic DB backfires leave Eagles in familiar spot

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Epic DB backfires leave Eagles in familiar spot

By failing miserably in their infamous 2011 attempt to build a Super Bowl-ready secondary, the Eagles find themselves in the same position nearly two years later.

With free agency around the corner -- the legal tampering window starts midnight Saturday -- and the draft quickly approaching, the Eagles enter the main period for roster assembly with a secondary that needs reinforcements at every position.

In fact, their defensive backfield is more suspect now than it was after the 2010 season, when the club set a franchise record for most passing touchdowns allowed. Last year’s team was just the eighth in NFL history to allow at least 30 touchdown passes and intercept fewer than 10.

Epic backfires Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are headed for the exits after two woefully uneventful seasons, and nobody would be stunned if the Eagles believed that both of their starting safeties from last season -- Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman -- needed to be replaced.

At very least, three of the five positions (including nickelback) will have new faces going into 2013, which means the Eagles will attempt to execute the most complex overnight reconstruction project in the game.

Several NFL personnel chiefs acknowledged that the secondary is the most difficult area of the defense to overhaul on the fly compared to the defensive line and linebackers.

“Defensive line, I feel like typically you can find guys even as college free agents that at least have the athletic tools to play that don’t need much prep time to play,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. “I mean, we played with guys on Sunday that we brought in Tuesday and threw them in at nose guard and three-technique and five-technique and they were at least able to get us through a game.

“So, I would say the secondary you have to be a little bit more engaged, especially at the safety position.”

The problem is, the law of supply and demand makes for complicated economics. Corners and safeties are among the most coveted commodities every offseason as the league trends more toward spread offenses and hurry-up attacks that limit personnel substitutions.

In this age of 5,000-yard passers and receivers who resemble linebackers but run like sprinters, it’s no longer feasible to compete with just one Pro Bowler in your secondary, and the gulf between good defensive backs and great ones makes the jockey for an elite even more cutthroat.

“The one thing that has changed a little bit in the NFL is the need for corners has vastly changed,” said Steve Keim, first-year general manager of the Cardinals. “So many times now you’re playing 60 percent of nickel defense, so all of a sudden that fifth DB becomes a starter.

“So when you look at teams sometimes and ... you say, ‘How many times is that third receiver or fourth receiver, how does he compare to that third or fourth corner?’ It’s supply and demand and there’s not a ton of corners out there and everybody always needs them, so it can be extremely difficult to vastly change your secondary and the landscape of it.”

Yet, this is exactly the dilemma the Eagles face (again) as they look to equip first-year head coach Chip Kelly with a roster that can immediately be competitive and get the franchise back into the postseason. The trick for general manager Howie Roseman and his personnel staff is avoiding their 2011 mistakes, while simultaneously staying aggressive on the open market.

The additions of Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie were disastrous on so many levels and served as painful reminders of the perils involved of building with outsiders. At the same time, the Eagles can’t enter 2013 with a stable of defensive backs just a few months removed from their last frat party.

It appears as if the Eagles understand that they need to use both free agency and the draft to fill their myriad holes. As CSNPhilly.com reported last month, the brain trust has interest in targeting free-agent cornerback Sean Smith, a physical talent who spent his first four seasons with the Dolphins and is considered among the top three corners on the market (see story).

Dashon Goldson, the 49ers safety who is expected to hit free agency, would be another sensible addition. So would Jets safety Laron Landry, who the Eagles passed on last year, or Jaguars corner Derek Cox.

The team is also said to be interested in safety Rashad Johnson, a backup for the past four seasons with Arizona whose play on special teams has caught the eyes of league executives.

This year’s draft is loaded with defensive backs who several personnel men think can start immediately, including Alabama’s Dee Milliner, the sparkling gem of the cornerback class who could be picked by the Eagles at No. 4 overall.

“When I look at it, there are a number of corners in this draft class that can play and they can help teams as a one, two or three,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “I would say that’s a strength. There’s a strong safety class. In our minds, there are five or six starters in this class at safety and that’s rare to me.”

If the Eagles signed Smith and drafted Milliner, they’d be in pretty good shape at corner, especially with the return of second-year slot corner Brandon Boykin. They’d also be following the blueprint laid out last year by the Rams, who rebuilt their secondary through the draft and free agency and then jumped up eight spots in overall defense and more than tripled their win total from 2011.

St. Louis turned over almost its entire defensive backfield last year under new coach Jeff Fisher by lavishing free-agent corner Cortland Finnegan with a five-year, $50 million deal and using the 39th and 65th overall picks on cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, respectively.

All three played prominent roles for the Rams, who improved from 22nd overall on defense to 14th overall. Jenkins, a first-round prospect whose troubled background forecasted his slide, picked off four passes and returned three of them for touchdowns.

“You get those two players [Finnegan and Jenkins],” Rams general manager Lester Snead said, “you not only upgrade, you went to one of the best tandems in the league.”

Thanks to bad drafting and their free-agent blunders, the Eagles don’t even have backups who can step into starting positions and hold the fort down while the front office works on patching the holes.

If reserve corner Curtis Marsh, a 2011 third-round pick, couldn’t impress himself on the coaches last year with all the turmoil among the corners, it stands to reason that he doesn’t factor in Kelly’s plan going forward.

Dime corner Brandon Hughes and backup safety Colt Anderson, a restricted free agent, aren’t viewed as anything more than special teams standouts.

Boykin could potentially move outside, but that would leave the team with a gaping hole in the slot, a position that’s become more valued over the past few years. Maybe the new regime can unlock the potential of safety David Sims, but that’s a tall order.

If Roseman and Kelly were being honest last month when they each dismissed the idea of a transition season, then the Eagles can’t gradually manicure the secondary and pin their hopes solely on draft picks.

Instant Replay: Nuggets 106, Sixers 98

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Instant Replay: Nuggets 106, Sixers 98

BOX SCORE

The Sixers were shorthanded against the Nuggets and it showed.

Playing without Jahlil Okafor, Robert Covington and Jerryd Bayless (see below), the Sixers didn’t get enough throughout the game from their offensive leader Joel Embiid. He finished with 17 points, but scored only seven through the first three quarters. 

The Nuggets’ second-half push led them to a 106-98 victory over the Sixers. 

How it happened
The Sixers led 27-18 after the first quarter and led by 10 with 3:27 to go in the first half. The Nuggets, however, closed out the second quarter on an 11-3 run. Jamal Murray scored 14 points in the quarter. 

The Sixers faltered in the third as the Nuggets outscored them 23-17. They shot 5 for 19 (26.3 percent) from the field, including 0 for 6 from Embiid, who scored one point off a free throw. Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton combined for 17 of the Nuggets’ points. After only committing five turnovers in the first half, the Sixers committed seven in the third quarter alone. They dropped to 0-11 when trailing after three.

The Nuggets opened the fourth quarter on a 5-0 run. The Sixers were left chasing down the stretch. Embiid drained a three with 1:15 remaining to bring the Sixers within four, but that wasn’t enough. The Nuggets held them off to improve to 8-14 while they Sixers dropped to 4-17. 

Inside the box score
• Embiid struggled for most of the game, shooting 2 for 11 from the field through the third quarter. He totaled 16 points on 5 of 15 shooting. Embiid did record a career-high five blocks, but also had three turnovers.

• Dario Saric followed up Saturday’s double-double with another strong performance: 17 points on 6 of 12 shooting and eight rebounds.

• Ersan Ilyasova (eight rebounds) and Sergio Rodriguez (seven assists) also scored 17 points each.

• The Nuggets were led by a season-high 24 points from Gallinari. Barton dropped 22 points and eight rebounds, while Murray also scored 22 points off the bench. 

(Lots of) injury updates
Okafor missed the game because of gastroenteritis and will not travel to Memphis. Covington was out his second game in a row with a left knee sprain. Bayless sat out his fifth straight game with left wrist soreness. 

Nelson applauded
St. Joe’s alum Jameer Nelson received a warm welcome from the Sixers’ crowd when he checked in for the Nuggets. The 13th-year NBA veteran was a leader on the 2003-04 Hawks team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and went 27-0 in the regular season. Nelson played high school basketball in Chester, PA. On another St. Joe’s note, Nelson’s former teammate Dwayne Jones has been helping the Sixers rebound during shooting drills at practice and pregame warmups. 

Up next
The Sixers are traveling to Memphis Monday night to play the Grizzlies (13-8) on Tuesday. The team will continue on to New Orleans to face the Pelicans (7-14) Thursday.

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

Cesar Hernandez remains a person of interest as Phillies look to improve

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Phillies have completed the signing of veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to a one-year, $7.5 million contract (see story). The deal could be announced Tuesday and will require the club removing a player from the already-full 40-man roster.

Benoit is one of three additions that the Phils have made to their bullpen this offseason — the club traded for veteran right-hander Pat Neshek and picked up lefty David Rollins on waivers — and more will likely come, probably on minor-league contracts, before the team reports to spring training.

Now that the bullpen has been addressed, let’s take a look at what could be next for the Phillies this winter.

• The addition of Benoit could create enough back-end bullpen depth that GM Matt Klentak could look to trade either Jeanmar Gomez or Hector Neris. Gomez saved 37 games in 2016, but struggled down the stretch. Neris showed great promise in recording a 2.58 ERA and striking out 11.4 batters per nine innings in 79 games in 2016. The hard-throwing righty is young (27), talented and inexpensive so the Phils would have to be overwhelmed by an offer to move him. Last year, Klentak moved a young closer in Ken Giles for a significant return from Houston, so he has history in making these types of moves.

• In addition to more potential comings and goings in the bullpen, the Phils will look to add a backup infielder and maybe a backup catcher in the coming weeks. Andres Blanco could return as that extra infielder. A.J. Ellis could return as the catcher. But nothing is firm. In fact, Klentak hinted Monday that he’d be comfortable bringing Andrew Knapp up from Triple A to be the backup catcher next season.

“I don’t think we need a veteran backup catcher,” Klentak said. “If it works out, we’re open-minded to that. But Andrew Knapp just finished his age 25 season in Triple A. He has a full year of at-bats in Triple A. At some point for both he and (Jorge) Alfaro, we’re going to have to find out what those guys can do at the big-league level. During the 2017 season, we’ll have to find out — not just about those two guys — but others.”

• One of the biggest remaining issues facing Phillies management this winter centers around the outfield and the offense. Basically, Klentak and his advisers are weighing the merits of adding another veteran hitter — the club already traded for Howie Kendrick — to improve the offense or giving a significant playing opportunity to a promising youngster and potential future core piece such as Roman Quinn in what currently projects to be one opening in the outfield.

“That topic is the one that we have spent the most time discussing, not just here but this offseason, about striking the right balance between adding a veteran bat or veteran free agent to this team to make our team better, but again, not taking playing time away from players that need the playing time.

“That’s part of the dynamic that we have to consider there. Roman Quinn came up at the end of the year and, at times, looked like a legitimate major-league contributor. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that he hasn’t logged a single at-bat at Triple A yet.

“This doesn’t have an obvious answer. We are continuing to talk about trade acquisitions and talk to agents for free agents to see if the right opportunity exists to blend all those factors together. But what we do not want to do is bring in so many veterans that we are denying opportunities to our young players.”

This brings us to a situation that could potentially satisfy the team’s desire to improve the offense without taking away a playing opportunity from Quinn.

J.D. Martinez of the Detroit Tigers is an outfield bat that the Phillies like. They like his production and the fact that he’s signed for just 2017. In other words, he wouldn’t block a young prospect’s pathway to the majors, at least for long.

Martinez, owed $11.75 million, which is very affordable for the Phillies, is a serious trade candidate for the cost-cutting Tigers and the Phillies have spoken to Tigers officials, dating to the early part of the offseason.

According to sources, the Phillies and Tigers could be a trade fit if the Tigers were to deal second baseman Ian Kinsler. If the Tigers move Kinsler, they could look to move Martinez to the Phillies for second baseman Cesar Hernandez. Phillies officials have said they are in no hurry to deal Hernandez, but the team does have depth at second with a pair of prospects (Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin) on the way and a ready-made stopgap in Kendrick at the position. 

So keep an eye on Kinsler. If he moves, the Phillies could pursue the veteran bat that would make their offense better. And it would not cost Quinn an opportunity as he could play left field with Kendrick moving to second.