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.

Union-D.C. United 5 things: Slumping Union look to end slide against D.C. United

Union-D.C. United 5 things: Slumping Union look to end slide against D.C. United

Union vs. D.C. United 
7:00 p.m. on 6ABC
 
Looking to avoid four-straight losses for the second time this season, the last-place Union (4-7-4) aim to prey on vulnerable D.C. United (5-8-3) in a battle at the bottom of the Eastern Conference on Saturday night (7:00 p.m., 6ABC) at Talen Energy Stadium.
 
Here are five things to know:
 
1. Back to slump busting
The Union are a streaky team. After losing four-straight matches earlier this season, the club claimed two draws then went on a four-game winning streak. Things were looking up until the Union stumbled again and dropped their last three matches, including a 2-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls last Sunday.
 
“We had a tough start, a hot run and a little bit of a dip,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “We can not allow this to be a long-term thing.”
 
Although the potential of another four-game losing streak will loom large over Saturday’s match, the Union will have to shrug it off if they want to turn their season around. The weekend tilt features the two lowest ranked teams in the Eastern Conference. 
 
“It’s a weird run of form,” said Curtin, who pointed out the Union’s recent losing streak was more about bad luck than poor play. “Streaks get longer and can get problematic or we can step up on Saturday night and put an end to it.”
 
To do that, the Union need more on both sides of the ball. Over that four-game winning run, the Curtin’s outscored their competition 11-1. They took the lead and locked the game down.
 
“It’s a league of runs, Curtin said. The strong teams are the ones that aren’t conceding a lot of goals. If you start with that foundation, which is something we believe in and something we’ve improved on but that hasn’t been perfect, it at least gives you a chance to get results in every game. We showed glimpses of that through the four-game stretch of winning.” 
 
2. Looking for a fix
To get back to those winning ways, the Union need a quick fix. But as Curtin explained on Wednesday, the defense, which has allowed five goals in its last three matches, has been unlucky rather than poor.
 
“If you look at our last eight games as a team defensively we’ve conceded six goals, which isn’t bad,” he said. “Four of them are without [Alejandro] Bedoya in the last two games. Two of the goals were down a man and two were on restarts. We have a team that needs to do a little better offensively and is a little cleaner defensively decisions as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.” 
 
But while leaning away from putting all of the losing weight on his defense, which has recently included Ray Gaddis, Jack Elliott, Oguchi Onyewu and Fabinho, Curtin, a defender at heart, didn’t let his team’s defensive effort go unscathed. 
 
“We need to continue work on things, to build on that,” Curtin said. “It does start with defense in this league. If you at the team at the top of standings and they defend their butts on for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do that in patches of games but it’s been too inconsistent.”
 
One solution? Score more. The Union have only managed one goal in their last three games. Curtin stated that it’s not for lack of chances but missing finish that has caused the trouble.
 
“You want to try to get into the situations where you get to th[Chris] Pontius comes to life, that’s where [C.J.] Sapong comes to life. In short, we need more crosses.”
 
3. Basement battle
Although Saturday’s match against D.C. United is technically just another early-summer game, it will tell a lot about where the two clubs are headed. It’s a battle of teams trying to climb out of the East basement.
 
“If we can [get a win], we put ourselves in a good spot moving up the table,” said D.C. United manager Ben Olsen. “Philly is right around us so it’s an important match at this point in the season.” 
 
The Union are leaning on previous success against United as navigation through Saturday. On May 13, they dismantled their rivals, 4-0, at RFK Stadium.
 
“We were good with the ball, possession was strong,” Curtin said. “We were clinical with our finishing. When you take your chances in this league it’s everything. That day we finished everything and that’s what it comes down to. Hopefully, we have a sharp day in front of goal, we’ve proven we can do it.”
 
Olsen is expecting a familiar contest.
 
“We know them very well and they know us very well,” he said. “There will be no secrets on what our teams are about, it’s always a physical matchup, it’s a rivalry game for us. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s never an easy place to get points but we’ve done it before.” 
 
4. Keep an eye on
Deshorn Brown: The United newcomer, who was acquired this week from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, made his debut on Wednesday for United and will likely play a factor on Saturday. He’s a speedster that the Union know well. “Tough timing,” Curtin said. “It’s speed, that’s what he is. He looks to get in behind, he’s a guy who creates chances and he’s dangerous. We’ll see him for sure. That’s my belief at least. I think we’ll see Deshorn one way or another. It was a good acquisition for them.”

Alejandro Bedoya: After missing two games with a lower-body injury, the midfielder is expected to return Saturday against United. That should give the Union a boost on both ends of the ball, as the club found chemistry and settled nicely with Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin working together in the center.

5. This and that
• The Union will be without Derrick Jones, who is suspended after receiving a red card last Sunday against the New York Red Bulls. It puts Curtin is a tough position as Warren Creavalle (out with a right hamstring strain) would be the primary depth behind Bedoya at the No. 8 spot.

• The Union will also be without Fabian Herbers and potentially Jay Simpson, who is questionable with a left hamstring strain. United will miss Nick DeLeon, Bobby Boswell, Sean Franklin and Patrick Mullins. 

• The Union are 8-8-4 against D.C. United all time and 6-3-0 at home.

Flyers move up to draft Isaac Ratcliffe, who is 'going to be a force in the future'

Flyers move up to draft Isaac Ratcliffe, who is 'going to be a force in the future'

CHICAGO — Isaac Ratcliffe was the biggest player in this year's NHL draft at 6-foot-6, though a little light at 200 pounds for that frame.

He plays like Wayne Simmonds at the net with a physical edge and he's a left winger, too.

How badly did the Flyers want him?

So much so, they moved their second-round pick (44) along with a third (75) and fourth (108) to Arizona on Saturday morning to take the Coyotes' pick at No. 35 and select the big winger from the OHL's Guelph Storm (see Day 2 tracker).

"They definitely showed interest and going through a trade like that to get me here, it definitely makes me feel happier where I am," Ratcliffe said.

"Even on top of all the emotions and the excitement I am feeling right now, being in this organization and city, it's definitely going to be awesome for the future."

He models his game after the Rangers' Rick Nash, who goes 6-foot-4, 212 pounds.

"He's a big guy like myself and he moves well," the 18-year-old Ratcliffe said. "He has that offensive instinct but he plays well in the defensive zone. Any position on the ice, whether power play or penalty kill, he can take over any aspect of the ice with his size and abilities."

General manager Ron Hextall forecasted coming into the draft that the Flyers would be looking to beef up on the wings, given the lack of such on the organizational depth chart. Ratcliffe plays both sides of the ice.

He met with the Flyers at the NHL Scouting Combine, but most of the contact came before that with amateur scout Rick Pracey.

Ratcliffe seems like a prototypical Flyer.

"I'm a big guy, I think I can play both offensively and defensively," he said. "Really, that full-ice game and playing all areas in the zone. Adding that to their lineup, and being able to maneuver my way into their lineup, being with a lot of those guys ... I think I can bring a lot to the table."

He was ranked 15th by NHL Central Scouting.

"Coming into the draft, I didn't have any expectations," Ratcliffe said. "I knew how unpredictable it can be. I know there are a lot of great players in this draft. I didn't know if I'd go [Friday] or today."

His goal is to add more speed to his game and to fill out his tall frame.

"I'm definitely going to have to get a lot stronger, too, to try and make my way to the next level," he said. "I need to prove to them they made the right pick here. I'm still developing. I got the height now, I need to put on a little weight now to get that size."

Ratcliffe had a prediction for Flyers fans, too.  

"In the next one to two years, you're going to see that progress and start to see how big a player I can be and that I can be one of the top players in this draft with my size, with my talent," Ratcliffe said. "I can definitely be a player who's going to be a force in the future."