Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Cornerback

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Cornerback

We pick up our training camp preview at cornerback, where despite the "losses" of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Eagles look as though they might be improved and even somewhat deep.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End | Offensive Line
Defensive Line | Linebacker | Safety ]

Is Cary Williams going to be a free-agent bust?

That might depend on your expectations going in. Williams isn’t a shutdown corner by any means. In fact, only six corners in the NFL surrendered a higher percentage of first downs and touchdowns per snap than Williams during the regular season in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, which is highly suggestive that opposing quarterbacks are willing to go after him.

His disinterest in the Eagles’ spring workouts won’t allay any concerns, either. Williams was absent from OTAs with a number of excuses, and while it’s debatable just how much that really matters, his attitude likely only created even more doubters.

Still, it seems like the former seventh-round pick is a perfectly adequate replacement for right now. He was good enough to start all 32 regular season and six playoff games for Baltimore in the past two years, including the Ravens’ victory in the Super Bowl this past February. The 28 year old even became something of a playmaker for the first time in ‘12, hauling in six interceptions with 23 passes defensed over 20 games.

The Eagles are only on the hook for three years, $17 million with Williams. It’s not a contract reflective of a star, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect to have one. That said, for that kind of money I’d expect Williams at least perform better than Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did last year, something he seems more than capable of.

Who is the other starter at cornerback?

The competition is probably a bit more wide open opposite Williams, but for now it appears the favorite has to be Bradley Fletcher. Fletcher was actually the first corner the Eagles signed this offseason, which probably doesn’t mean all that much other than their interest level was high. He’s also the only other corner on the roster to have started more than one NFL game on the outside.

Signed as a free agent from the Rams at a very reasonable two years, $5.25 million, the third-round pick out of Iowa posted solid numbers as a sophomore in 2010, intercepting four passes and defending 11 more in his first full year as a starter. Injuries derailed his follow-up campaign though, and the organization was quick to move on in the offseason. New head coach Jeff Fisher brought in his buddy Cortland Finnegan from Tennessee, then used a second- and third-round picks on Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson.

Fletcher appeared in all 16 games last year and started four, performing well with the snaps he was given – one pick and eight passes defended in 374 plays. He’s been working with the first-team D for the Birds this spring, and as long as he can stay healthy it seems like an excellent low risk/high reward signing.

Can Brandon Boykin play on the outside?

Maybe he can. Thought of almost exclusively as a nickel cornerback when the Eagles drafted him in the fourth round of the ’12 draft, Boykin is lobbying for a chance to start, and Chip Kelly gave the Georgia product some looks on the outside with the first-team defense this spring.

The primary concern is Boykin’s size. At 5-10, 185, bigger wide receivers can move out of the way, or one would think go over the top of him. However, the latter might not be the case. Anybody who’s ever seen Boykin dunk a basketball knows what we’re talking about. The dude can fly.

Boykin still may not be the ideal person for that role. He’s coming off a fine rookie season in the slot, playing all 16 games for the Birds last season, and they might not have anybody better suited for that position right now, whereas there is some competition on the outside. That said, Boykin could probably handle the responsibility in a pinch – perhaps he could even do more with the chance than that.

Will Curtis Marsh make the team?

He’s on the bubble to be sure, but has a shot. The Eagles used a third-round pick on Marsh in 2011, although he hasn’t been able to get on the field for a number of reasons. He was very raw coming out of Utah State, having begun his collegiate career as a running back. Since then of course he’s been blocked by the likes of Asomugha, DRC, and Asante Samuel to name a few. Marsh has just 75 career snaps at cornerback in the NFL.

It’s a little curious he never got a chance to play last season while two of those other guys were stinking up the joint. Marsh has good size (6-1, 197) and athleticism (4.46 40-yard dash), and always seemed perform fairly well versus stiffs in the preseason for whatever that's worth. Thanks in part to Cary Williams’ absences, he got to run with the first teamers a bit in the spring, but he did in 2012 as well, and look how much that meant.

I’d venture a guess there is a fifth CB spot on the roster, and it’s between Marsh and Brandon Hughes. We’ve seen what Hughes can do, and it’s nothing special. Wouldn’t mind seeing Marsh get one last opportunity instead.

Could Jordan Poyer make an impact in his rookie season?

Perhaps as good or better of a chance as any mid-to-late-round draft pick on the team. Projected to be an early mid-rounder (if that makes sense), Poyer was a pleasant surprise for the Birds in the seventh. He was a consensus All American his senior season in college with respectable size (6-0, 191) and measurables (4.54 40, 30.5-inch vert). He’s not lacking confidence, either. Having played in the Pac-12 at Oregon State, Chip Kelly is plenty familiar with his capabilities as well.

There is surprisingly some stiff competition at corner, and Poyer will be starting at something of a disadvantage having missed most of spring workouts due to the graduation rule. Even still the 22 year old could rise up the depth chart to No. 4 – ahead of Marsh or Hughes – relatively quickly, which would put him right in the mix for playing time. I really expect to see him on the field in meaningful games and situations this season.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint during a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds in the second period.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 5-foot-10, 184-pounder deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front off a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a real problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more enjoyment is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.