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.

Best of NBA: Noel scores 9 points, grab 10 boards in Mavs debut

Best of NBA: Noel scores 9 points, grab 10 boards in Mavs debut

DALLAS -- Harrison Barnes scored 19 points and Dirk Nowitzki had 18 points and nine rebounds as the Dallas Mavericks ended a three-game losing streak by beating the New Orleans Pelicans 96-83 on Saturday night.

The Pelicans fell to 0-2 since trading for DeMarcus Cousins and pairing him with Anthony Davis.

Davis had 39 points and 14 rebounds but scored only 12 in the second half. Cousins finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds.

Seth Curry scored 10 of his 13 in the fourth quarter to help Dallas pull away. His 3-pointer with 4:49 to play gave the Mavericks an 84-72 lead, and the Pelicans never got closer than six after that (see full recap).

Harden leads Rockets past Timberwolves in 142-130 shootout
HOUSTON -- James Harden had 24 points and 10 assists to lead the Houston Rockets to a 142-130 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves as both teams set season scoring highs in a Saturday night shootout.

Houston won for the sixth time in seven games, handing the Timberwolves their first road loss in more than three weeks.

Minnesota committed a season-high 25 turnovers that led to 38 points for the Rockets.

Playing against Houston's guard-heavy rotation, Minnesota went inside all night and outscored the Rockets 68-44 in the paint. Karl-Anthony Towns had 37 points and 22 rebounds, and Andrew Wiggins added 30 points (see full recap).

Bulls benefit as James sits with strep, beat Cavs 117-99
CLEVELAND -- Dwyane Wade scored 20 points and Jimmy Butler recorded a triple-double, leading the Chicago Bulls to a 117-99 victory Saturday night over the Cleveland Cavaliers, who played without LeBron James.

James missed the game with strep throat, and coach Tyronn Lue said he wasn't sure how long the Cavaliers would be without the four-time MVP. Cleveland struggled as it often does without its star - they are 4-19 without him since he returned to Cleveland in 2014, including 0-4 this season.

Chicago has won all three games against Cleveland this season. It took advantage of James' absence to win its fourth straight overall (see full recap).

George ejected, Heat stay hot with 113-95 win over Pacers
MIAMI -- Paul George had another frustrating night in Miami.

Hassan Whiteside scored 22 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, Dion Waiters added 22 points and the red-hot Miami Heat pulled away late to beat the Indiana Pacers 113-95 on Saturday night. Miami outscored Indiana 42-22 in the final 16 minutes, all with George watching from the Pacers' locker room after an ejection.

"It felt like a playoff-type game," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said (see full recap).

Flyers suffer deflating outdoor loss to Penguins, fall in playoff picture

Flyers suffer deflating outdoor loss to Penguins, fall in playoff picture

BOX SCORE

PITTSBURGH – They won the battle inside the faceoff circle. Outshot their opponent badly. Blocked more shots, too.

And the Flyers still lost. Sound familiar?

Saturday's 4-2 defeat (see Instant Replay) to the Penguins at Heinz Field in the Stadium Series outdoor game likely confirms for general manager Ron Hextall it’s time to be a seller at the trade deadline with a playoff berth seemingly out of sight.

"We gotta score goals. We got good opportunities, but it’s getting old," Jakub Voracek lamented. "If we don’t find a way to win a game, nobody cares."

Not enough scoring from their pop-gun offense, which now has just 25 goals over their last 16 games. Which is a major reason why they've lost seven of their last nine.

"It's that cliché, gripping your stick and I don’t like to use that," Voracek said. "The bottom line, if we want to make the playoffs we got to score the goals. We're not scoring."

It was 36 degrees at puck drop and there were swirling wind gusts. Players said the first period was tough, but they adjusted as the game went on.

"It feels good. It feels awesome," Wayne Simmonds said. "It's the way ice hockey should be played."

So should a few wins with this club and it's not happening. They play well enough to win but ...

"We got to get going here," Shayne Gostisbehere said. "We're [five] points back and that's the biggest thing and it's in all of our heads now. It's getting down to not a lot of games left and we've got to get two points."

Goalie Michal Neuvirth did not have a strong game facing 29 shots.

"We walk away with the wrong result," coach Dave Hakstol said. "We have a day in-between to turn the page and get back at it."

Things began Pittsburgh's way with Sidney Crosby scoring at 11:18, sneaking to the low right slot near the goal line to take a perfect pass from Jake Guentzel and one-time into the far side on Neuvirth for his 34th goal.

Brayden Schenn, centering a new line with Nick Cousins and Jakub Voracek, had a solid scoring chance in the final minute of the period, but Pens goalie Matt Murray turned his shot aside. Murray also had two good saves on Sean Couturier earlier from in-tight.

Nick Bonino, one of the heroes from the Stanley Cup Final last season, made it 2-0 at 6:44 of the second period on the power play. He scored almost from the same spot where Crosby scored.

Minutes earlier, Guenztel took a questionable hit to the head area from Brandon Manning which the Penguins felt was illegal (see video). Pittsburgh came back with Chris Kunitz rocking Ivan Provorov two shifts later.

Manning’s hit energized the Flyers, who owned the second period.

Hours before the game, Voracek said what most people were already thinking.

"I would expect this to be the biggest game of the year," he said. "You look at the standings. We can’t afford to lose."

Voracek wasn't kidding when he said the Flyers needed to do something here. He went behind the net 4-on-4 with Justin Schultz and came around the front with the puck to muscle it past Murray at 11:14, cutting the Flyers deficit in half.

Voracek's goal, his second in three games, gave the Flyers even more of a lift and they made a strong push to tie the game before the period ended.

"We spent a lot of time in their zone and we were very strong on the forecheck," Voracek said. "We had comebacks early in the season … but two penalties in the end, it's tough … How do you rebound? You have no choice. We're not out. We have to start winning."

The Flyers killed off a carryover penalty to start the third but immediately after, the Pens got a strong forecheck with Eric Fehr behind the net, getting the puck over to 40-year-old Matt Cullen, who snuck up on Neuvirth and stunned him with a wraparound.

That was a terribly costly goal and made it 3-1 but Gostisbehere got it right back minutes later with his first goal in 34 games off a point shot during the power play.

It was as close as the Flyers got. Pittsburgh scored off a faceoff to make it 4-2 in the final six minutes. Sean Couturier lost a draw to Evgeni Malkin and the Pens scored off a point drive Neuvirth couldn't find.

"That was deflating," Gostisbehere said. "We can be sad for ourselves all we want … bad bounces or we can say, 'well, it's lucky.' But you know, it keeps happening for a reason."