The Eagles’ secondary has a new focal point.
After having a defensive backfield built around Malcolm Jenkins for the last four seasons, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz now has the task of putting together a group that complements cornerback Darius Slay.
With several new faces and a few key departures, there’s a lot of change coming to the team’s defense. Here’s what to expect.
For the first time in Schwartz’s five-year tenure with the Eagles, he’s accounting for a cornerback who is not only capable but determined to shadow an opposing team’s best receiver.
Schwartz has seldom asked a corner to follow a specific player, perhaps because he hasn’t had one adept enough to do so. By sending two mid-round 2019 draft picks to the Detroit Lions in exchange for the 29-year-old corner earlier this offseason, the Eagles now have one. Slay leads the league in forced incompletions since 2014, although he struggled at times last season.
In a Friday news conference, Schwartz said he expects to use Slay the way he was so often used with the Lions, but was vague on how often he’d do so.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a 100%-all-the-time thing,” Schwartz said. “Maybe it’s a particular game, maybe it’s 50% of the games, maybe it’s 75% of the games that Slay is matching a particular receiver, but you will see that from our defense.”
Having a No. 1 corner is a luxury, but there are ripple effects that come with it. Under Schwartz, the Eagles have typically found a balance between man and zone coverage instead of heavily favoring one scheme. Starting in the 2017 season, Schwartz said he and his staff realized the uptick of opposing offenses running concepts to exploit man coverage. To counteract the trend, he emphasized the importance of making their coverages less predictable based on pre-snap alignment.
How do you disguise tendencies while having a corner shadow a certain player, especially if that player is lined up as a slot receiver?
“It’s going to put all of your corners, your safeties and your nickels, they have to be a little more multidimensional,” Schwartz said. “If Slay lines up at the nickel, the nickel needs to be able to line up at the outside corner and you need to be able to play man and zone and blitz from that same look. It’s something we’ll get ready for in training camp.”
The cornerback spot opposite Slay is up for grabs, Schwartz said.
“There will be an open competition in there,” Schwartz said. “We’ll have a lot of different guys. One of the things that’s happened to us over the last few years is we’ve had a lot of different guys play because of injuries in the secondary. That’s tough during the season, but what it’s done is given us a lot of different options.”
Those options consist of Avonte Maddox, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas. Both Maddox and Douglas have played significant snaps, with most of Douglas’ time being spent on the outside while Maddox has played both outside and inside, and even some safety. At 6-foot-2, Douglas has the size advantage over LeBlanc and Maddox, who are both more prototypical slot corners, although Douglas has struggled to keep up with faster receivers.
Even though they’re smaller, Schwartz emphasized versatility when asked if LeBlanc or Maddox could earn the outside spot.
“We like the flexibility of guys that can go inside and outside,” Schwartz said. “[Maddox] has got some of that background that helps him play all of those different spots. [LeBlanc] has sort of been an inside player for the most part for us, but he’s played outside.”
The Eagles doubled down on their prioritization of interior pass rushers in free agency, adding a third high-priced defensive tackle in Javon Hargrave.
When asked whether Hargrave would rotate with Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson or share the field with them at times, Schwartz said both options are on the table.
“You never have enough defensive linemen,” Schwartz said. “It’s one of those positions that you truly do rotate players through. ... We don’t want to say we’re definitely doing it right now, but we’re going to look at different ways to have three defensive tackles on the field at certain times.”
Schwartz’s linebacker group this season is the most inexperienced during his time with the Eagles. Nathan Gerry is the “veteran” of the group with one season of significant playing time under his belt.
The Eagles will give someone their first starting opportunity, whether it’s holdovers like T.J. Edwards, Alex Singleton, or Duke Riley, free-agent signing Jatavis Brown, or draft picks like Davion Taylor or Shaun Bradley. Schwartz said he feels good about the group, though.