Another year, another shakeup in the Eagles’ secondary. The good news is the biggest difference – a serious investment in cornerback on draft day, using second- and third-round picks on Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, respectively. Still, 2017 marks yet another offseason where both starters needed to be replaced, with Leodis McKelvin (released) and Nolan Carroll (free agent) departing.
There’s some stability, with Jalen Mills sticking at cornerback, and especially at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are holding down the fort. Ron Brooks returns from injury, and veteran Patrick Robinson is added to the mix as well. So after once again reshuffling the deck, can the Eagles find a combination of defensive backs that will mark an improvement over the 2016 squad?
As rookie seasons go, Mills’ was not bad. You can read more on that here, but the basic gist is a seventh-round pick held his own. The thing that stood out about Mills is he was seldom out of a play, meaning even if the catch was made, he was usually right there to contest the pass or make the tackle. Mills kept receivers out of the end zone as well, limiting his assignments to a lone touchdown in 2016.
Again, this was a seventh-round rookie who was thrown into the fire. Can’t stress that enough. Even if Mills was merely adequate last season, imagine how improved he could be with a year of NFL experience. Maybe not No. 1 cornerback material – which Mills is by default – but there were signs he could become a nice player for the Eagles.
The Eagles have more intriguing prospects in their secondary, period. In addition to Mills, Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, cornerbacks Aaron Grymes and C.J. Smith and safety Terrence Books are all into their second year in the program, and all three have a legitimate shot at cracking the 53-man roster.
The average age of those six players on opening day will be 23.5 years.
Of course, the flip side to loading up on young talent is their collective inexperience. Of the six players listed above, only Mills and Brooks – two seasons with the Ravens and one with the Eagles – have seen much action in the NFL, and only Mills has started. The rest, it’s anybody’s guess how they would hold up if they take the field in 2017. Even Ron Brooks, although entering his sixth NFL season, has only eight career starts.
It’s not as if the Eagles lack any veterans in the defensive backfield. The unit is set as safety with Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, and Patrick Robinson brings with him seven years NFL experience at corner. Nonetheless, the unit could wind up looking a little green, particularly at corner.
An anonymous veteran just passing through
For the record, Robinson is upgrade over McKelvin, as long as he’s healthy, and is probably undistinguishable from Carroll, too. Nobody is complaining about the presence of a low-risk/high-reward veteran starter, especially in this inexperienced group.
Still, part of you has to roll your eyes and wonder how much longer the Eagles have to go through this. Robinson is also the latest in a long line of temporary fixes at corner, from McKelvin and Carroll, to Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, to Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Okay, those last two were supposed to be good. The point is, Robinson is another short-term solution, and that’s getting a little old.
Jenkins didn’t have quite the dominant campaign in 2016 that he did the previous season, but still managed a career high 3 interceptions, 2 of which he returned for touchdowns. McLeod got a bad rap for a perceived lack of effort late in the season, but also managed to set new personal bests with 83 tackles, 1.0 sack and 3 interceptions.
The nice thing about the Jenkins-McLeod tandem is the Eagles know what they are getting. Jenkins is a tremendous leader who is at his best when playing around the line of scrimmage and can fill in at cornerback in a pinch. McLeod is a hard-hitting centerfielder who won’t necessarily wow with extraordinary athleticism but knows his role in and out. Either player has the potential to go off on a Pro Bowl year, or, they may simply remain solid.
Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas
Both of the corners the Eagles picked up in the draft are intriguing for different reasons.
Of course, there’s no telling when Jones will even take the field, if he does at all in 2017. Achilles injuries are tricky, and the Eagles have rightfully promised they won’t try to rush a 21-year-old prospect back. Assuming Jones returns to 100 percent, he was supposed to be a top-10 pick in the draft, which means the club may have its No. 1 cornerback in waiting – but who knows.
Douglas has an opportunity to compete for playing time right away, and from the little we saw this spring, he’s a mixed bag. Listed at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, he’s not afraid to use his length to get physical with receivers, which is a huge positive. However, like most rookies, Douglas is prone to double moves and was getting beaten over the top.
It’s far too early to evaluate either player’s chances of contributing in 2017. Douglas is likely to see the field at least occasionally out of necessity. Beyond that, who knows how much or when Jones and Douglas are going to play – or more importantly, how good either one will be.
BETTER OR WORSE?
McKelvin was one of the worst corners in the league last year, so you can probably plug just about anybody into his place. Carroll wasn’t any better than Mills, and honestly, the seventh-rounder probably out-played him. Replace McKelvin with Robinson, add two highly touted rookies, and continue developing the prospects in the system, and suddenly the Eagles might been in okay shape at corner. There’s still a long way to go, but stability at safety helps, too. The difference overall might be marginal, but the changes seem like a step in the right direction. Better