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Cornered Into Competition

26 July 2019 Eagles News Opinion


Finally! Eagles training camp has officially started as players reported to the Nova Care Complex on Wednesday, July 24th. Faithful fans are excited to start a new chapter. Eager to rinse out the foul taste that has lingered since the dream of back to back Lombardi’s slipped away on January 13th in New
Orleans.

There are plenty of reasons to be excited for the 2019 Philadelphia Eagles. Howie Roseman ran his typical winter clinic on the rest of the NFL by accumulating a mass arsenal of weapons for Carson Wentz. All while extending the 2017 MVP candidate to a record-setting contract and drafting his future bodyguard in LT Andre Dillard. No stone has been left unturned. The Eagles added depth in the interior
defensive line and improved the linebacking corp by swapping out Jordan Hicks for Zach Brown.

Team Run it Back 

The Eagles cornerback room is filled with familiar faces. Some returning from injury, some continuing to develop under the tutelage of 16-year coaching veteran, Cory Undlin. Alshon dropped it. We all watched in disbelief, but as every coach will tell you. The game is never decided on one play. The real story of the Eagles excruciating playoff loss to Saints last season was the secondary.

The Eagles defense could not get off the field in the third quarter. The Saints were 6-8 on 3rd down conversions in the second half while WR Michael Thomas muscled away key receptions whenever the Eagles needed a stop. The Eagles injury-riddled secondary battled all season and managed to rank in the top half of the league in many advanced defensive metrics.  When the season was on the line, they just fell short of making that one play. Now with a clean bill of health, it’s up to those familiar faces to take it upon themselves to improve.

“The ultimate victory in competition is derived from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you have
done your best and that you have gotten the most out of what you had to give.” – Howard Cosell

Competition is the fuel to development. It’s one of those principles that transcends sports. The little brother becomes the better version of the big brother. Mainly because he spent his whole youth trying relentlessly to defeat him. It fosters motivation and a desire to achieve your best. Competition is the most organic form of self-improvement and it’s exactly what the Eagles secondary needs the most.

The Eagles tactical decision not to look outside of the organization for answers in the secondary doubles down on their confidence as talent evaluators and in player development. The Iron sharpens Iron environment at the Nova Care will only bring out the best in this young group of corners thirsty for an opportunity to take their careers to the next level. Let’s take a look at the top 6 cornerbacks that are prepared to go to war with each other over the next 6 weeks to secure an opportunity to start for a
Super Bowl contender.

Ronald Darby – Darby is the only corner on the roster who seems entrenched as a starter. Signing a one-year deal for 8.5M shows the Eagles commitment to the 25-year-old, despite coming off an ACL injury. Darby only allowed an 86.5 Passer Rating when targeted in his injury-shortened 2018 campaign. Pencil in Darby as a starter.

Avonte Maddox – Maddox was one of the best surprises of 2018. The 4th round pick exceeded expectations by not only his performance but also his versatility. Maddox allowed a stingy 59.9 Passer Rating when targeted while playing the outside, slot, and safety positions. I see Maddox as the lead dog in the race for one of the other open cornerback roles. It will be interesting to see how Maddox is utilized.

Here is where it gets really interesting.

Jalen Mills – The Jim Schwartz favorite has developed into a vocal leader of the secondary. Tackling at the third level was a staple of the Eagles championship defense in 2017 and has become increasingly more important in the NFL as coordinators scheme to get backs in space. This is where Mills excels and his aggression wins. His aggression must be controlled, as we have seen Mills bite way too often in the passing game putting his outlook as a starter in jeopardy. The fact that Mills is starting training camp on the PUP list only opens the door wider for the other competitors.

Sidney Jones – Eagles management would love to see Jones seize the opportunity and grab the starting corner position opposite of Darby. There are concerns about not only his durability but his lack of physicality in coverage. There is no player on the roster that has more to prove this training camp than Sidney Jones.

Rasul Douglas – Douglas is a fan favorite who continues to improve year after year. Physicality is not a concern with Douglas. He is an above-average tackler with good ball awareness, evidenced by his 3 picks in 2018. He was the recipient of the overtime bad bounce in Big D but showed the fortitude to put those types of plays behind him and learn from them. That type of mental toughness is a required skill for a corner that can’t be taught.

Cre’von LeBlanc – LeBlanc is an undrafted underdog who stepped up and showed improvement last season down the stretch. His goal will be to win the backup slot role and force the Eagles to keep all 6 corners.

“In sports, speed kills and those who learn to express skills under pressure usually come out on top.”
– Clance Laylor, Professional Athletic Strength Trainer

The pressure will be high for the cornerbacks from the jump. There is no doubt in my mind it will accelerate the development of the Eagles young secondary. The more familiar they become with pressure, the more confidence they will have in each other’s ability to perform when it matters most in January. That is how you build the Next Man Up culture that was prevalent during the Eagles Super Bowl run in 2017.

The decisions ahead that loom for Jim Schwartz are critical ones. I expect fireworks from our cornerback group this camp with so much on the line. Sidney Jones has the draft status and collegiate pedigree.
Jalen Mills has the experience and leadership. If I had to handicap this before it started, I would not be surprised if Rasul Douglas earns his way to into the starting lineup this August. When looking at the
Eagles biggest threats, I think Douglas could be poised to make a leap that puts the Eagles in the best position compete with the rest of the NFC this season.

It starts in the NFC East

The Dallas Cowboys are Philadelphia’s biggest threat in the division. Amari Cooper gets all the headlines,
but the emergence of Michael Gallup can not be overlooked. At 6’1″ 205 lbs, Gallup has enough size to overwhelm smaller DB’s. Gallup broke out during the second half of the season, where he racked up most of his 507 yards receiving. His 6 reception, 119-yard performance in the Divisional Round loss to the Rams, shows he can deliver when defenses corral Cooper. I would be much more comfortable
having a 6’2″ 209 lb corner like Douglas in my toolbox to go into battle against Big D’s tandem of Cooper & Gallup.

Douglas gives the Eagles secondary the size and physicality to match up with the bigger wideouts around the league as well. The Eagles had no answer for Michael Thomas in their playoff loss last season.
Granted, nobody in the entire NFL is covering Thomas these days. He hauled in 89% of his targets in 2018 with an 82.2 success rate against man coverage according to Matt Harmon’s reception perception.

However, if Douglas can continue to develop, his improvement this season could be just enough to give the secondary the boost they need. One third down stop last January could have made all the difference. The Eagles defensive backs are one year older. One year hungrier. Let the battle begin. This is where careers are made and jobs are earned. While I can’t predict with certainty how this unit will perform this season. I am positive they will be ready to compete. #FlyEaglesFly

 

Photo credit: YONG KIM / Philadelphia Inquirer


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