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The area of the Eagles’ defense that most needed an overhaul this offseason was the secondary.
This was a unit plagued for two straight years by blown coverages, assignment confusion, communication breakdowns, timid tackling and a clash of egos that created glaring chemistry problems in the defensive backfield.
The team parted ways with its disappointing Pro Bowl corner tandem of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and made four mid-level free-agent signings in corners Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and safeties Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung.
During the three-day draft, the Eagles made modest additions by drafting North Carolina State safety Earl Wolff in the fifth round and Oregon State corner Jordan Poyer in the seventh.
With the major player acquisition period over, coach Chip Kelly was asked if the Eagles are better in the secondary now than when last season ended. Kelly, whose candor throughout the process has been distinctive, responded with a very revealing answer.
“I don’t know,” he said Saturday night. “But we’re bound by the rules we have, so it’s not like I can say, ‘Hey, let’s go grab that guy.’ He’s probably under contract. We’re going to go with the guys we have.”
As endorsements go, that sounded more like a sputtering hum than a ring.
Kelly mentioned the six major acquisitions and seemed to suggest that the Eagles had, at very least, filled personnel holes left by Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie and brought in honest competition for Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman at safety.
But he repeated that the Eagles could overhaul the secondary only within the parameters of the salary cap and the team’s draft guidelines of taking the best prospect on their board in each round instead of reaching to address specific positions.
“These are the rules we’re bound by,” he said. “We used free agency, I thought we did a really good job in our approach to that. I thought we did a good job in the draft and now we have to get on the field and coach them up and go play.”
As the NFL gravitates further each year toward Arena League-style aerial attacks, the emphasis for teams to procure Pro Bowl-level defensive backs is second only to the push for elite pass rushers.
The Eagles thought they had assembled the paradigm Super Bowl-caliber secondary two years ago coming out of the lockout, when they threw money bags at Asomugha, who was then considered the game’s best or second-best corner, and traded for the superbly athletic Rodgers-Cromartie.
But team brass had badly miscalculated the Pro Bowl duo’s fit into an entirely unfamiliar defensive scheme along with misjudging the ability of safeties Allen and Coleman to adapt into new roles brought upon by the wide-nine defensive alignment scheme.
The Eagles allowed 27 passing touchdowns in 2011, the NFL’s ninth-most. In 2012, with a new defensive coordinator for 10 of the 16 games, the Eagles allowed an NFL-most 33 touchdown passes. The Eagles have allowed 30 or more touchdowns through the air in two of their past three seasons.
This offseason, general manager Howie Roseman put an emphasis on bringing in strong, physical corners with good tackling acumen, traits that new defensive coordinator Bill Davis has touted since being hired by Kelly.
But Fletcher and Williams were not considered among the top corners on the open market and both signed team-friendly contracts, which gives the Eagles cap flexibility after the 2013 season.
Fletcher, a Rams third-round pick in 2009, has started just 26 career games and lost his nickelback job this past season to rookie Trumaine Johnson. Williams started in the Super Bowl for the champion Ravens but opened the season as the No. 3 corner and moved into a starting role only after starter Lardarius Webb suffered a season-ending injury.
The new safeties were both high draft picks and once considered to have tremendous potential, but each had their careers hampered by injuries and both were let go by teams that historically draft well and have won multiple Super Bowls in the past decade.
Asked for his overall view of the secondary, Roseman seemed to echo Kelly’s sentiment that the team did everything in its power to improve without straying from its offseason strategy.
“If you go into it saying that you’re going to fix every single part of something, it’s going to be impossible,” Roseman said. “If you come out of the draft saying, ‘We filled every need,’ it’s probably not going to be a good draft.
“I don’t think that was our goal and our intention, to make sure we had a perfect team in one year. It was to start the process of building back a team that’s going to compete every year.”