Even before the Andy Reid era began, Philadelphia's defense was routinely anchored by a pair of Pro Bowl caliber cornerbacks, and 2010 might have been no different, if only the front office held on to Sheldon Brown. Instead, the Eagle of eight years was traded while the getting was still good, packaged with Chris Gocong in exchange for second- and fifth-round draft picks from the Cleveland Browns.
It was one of several controversial moves made by Birds management last off-season. Sheldon just turned 31, and had been unhappy with his contract for over a year. Despite coming off one of his best seasons, during which the former second round selection gutted out the stretch run with a strained hamstring, the Eagles sensed--as they so often do--a tenured player's prime was coming to its end.
The franchise gambled. Aware of Brown's dissatisfaction, not to mention on the heels of disappearing another prominent corner in Lito Sheppard, the club acquired Ellis Hobbs from the Patriots for two fifths at the '09 draft. He became the stopgap when the Eagles accepted a maximum offer for their aging starter, but after a neck injury ended Hobbs' season, and perhaps his career, somehow the team was down to... Dimitri Patterson.
The Eagles glossed over their need at corner last spring, confident Hobbs would be adequate for one season. When he didn't make it 16 games, a journeyman special teamer won the job and played about as well as you would expect, which was still good enough to beat out little Joselio Hanson. They did use a fourth round pick on Trevard Lindley, but the Kentucky product was never called upon to start.
It's safe to say the situation has degenerated from merely need or weakness into a downright hole, without a doubt the most dire on the roster. Even if Lindley suddenly emerged as an every down player this year, the Eagles would continue to suffer further down the depth chart, and Asante Samuel isn't getting any younger by the way. They need an immediate infusion of talent on the outside.
Okay, so this isn't exactly a revelation. Much of the local pre-draft coverage has been focused on filling that void, while the majority of mock drafts assume Philly will go corner in the first round. There is precedence too, with the Birds using the 26th pick on Sheppard in '02. Believe it or not though, the war room will have options on Thursday night. At some point early in the draft, the Eagles will be forced to address the position, just not necessarily in the first round.
It may be difficult to imagine right now, but sooner or later, meaning before this season begins, there will be some form of free agency. There has been talk of the Birds adding Nnamdi Asomugha going all the way back to January, when it was revealed the four-time All Pro's contract would void. The ex-Raider has been linked to the Packers and Jets as well, among others, but the free agent landscape isn't as barren as a year ago.
In fact, Asomugha only leads the pack in what could turn out to be a substantial number of corners flooding the market. In some cases, it's still up in the air whether certain players will be restricted or unrestricted free agents, because nobody knows for sure under what rules a post-lockout NFL would operate. Cincinnati's Johanathan Joseph, Kansas City's Brandon Carr, and Atlanta's Brent Grimes all fall in that grey area, and their respective clubs will likely do everything in their power to hold on to young talent.
There will be several others who are allowed to fall through the cracks though. Antonio Cromartie may have run his course with the Jets, his value rising significantly after a stellar campaign. Even if his rights are restricted, he'll be difficult to keep. Baltimore's Chris Carr headlines the undercard of unrestricted players, while veterans such as Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor and Washington's Carlos Rogers could be in play as short term solutions.
Which is not to say the Eagles shouldn't look for a cornerback in the first round of this week's draft. There are enough prospects that whether they choose 23rd, or move up or down as is so often the case, GM Howie Roseman should have no problems landing a talented player.
Most mocks suggest the Birds have almost no shot at either of the top two corner prospects in the draft. LSU's Patrick Peterson (6-0, 219) is being touted as quite possibly the best player in the draft, and won't escape the top five. Nebraska's Prince Amukamara (6-0, 209) is highly regarded as well, and observers don't expect him to slip out of the top ten. The Eagles are no strangers to trading up, but they haven't moved quite that high.
Perhaps the hottest name being attached to Philadelphia in the first round is Colorado's Jimmy Smith (6-2, 205). Smith is a big, physical corner, possibly the perfect complement to Samuel. What's reportedly causing him to fall on many draft boards, to the point where the Eagles might be able to nab him at 23, are character concerns stemming from a charge for underage possession of alcohol, and positive tests for marijuana. Most people would consider both of those relatively minor issues in the grand scheme.
Rounding out the top incoming rookies are Aaron Williams (6-0, 204) out of Texas and Brandon Harris (5-10, 191) from Miami. NFL Network's Mike Mayock actually has Williams rated higher than Smith, though that may be at least in part as a result of the dreaded character label. If the Birds are targeting either Williams or Harris, they may be able to move down and still get their man.
The problem with all three corners likely to fall into Roseman's lap at 23 is there are no guarantees any of them will be ready to play in Week 1. While it would be ideal for the franchise to bring somebody in and groom them as the shutdown corner of the future, the Eagles arguably need to enter a win-now mode. That's where the plethora of free agents comes in.
Then again, there are no guarantees many of those eventually-to-be-available players won't simply re-sign with their old clubs. The Eagles can take a chance and skip the top tier talent in the first round, but barring a major play to acquire Nnamdi Asomugha, they could be stuck with another stopgap, or worse, more mediocrity on the edge. It's an option though, and with needs along the offensive and defensive lines, one that
may be worth exploring.