Last year, the Eagles shifted cornerback Avonte Maddox back into the slot, which left an opening at outside cornerback on the opposite side of Darius Slay. The team didn’t identify Slay’s running mate until the final moment when it signed veteran free agent Steven Nelson at the beginning of training camp.
Nelson performed admirably in his lone season with the Eagles and earned himself another payday in free agency with the Texans. Nelson’s departure left another hole at outside cornerback. That spot is still considered vacant as the Eagles didn’t address the secondary during the recent NFL draft.
Should the team be concerned? Coach Nick Sirianni insists there are several in-house candidates who’ll have an opportunity to claim the role.
“I think we have a lot of good young corners that showed us a lot in practice that maybe didn’t get the time to get out on the field last year to play that we’re excited about it,” Sirianni said in April. “I don’t want to miss anyone, but you have Zech McPhearson, you have Tay Gowan, Mac McCain, Kary Vincent Jr.”
Of those names listed by Sirianni, only McPhearson was drafted by the Eagles (2021 fourth round, No. 123 pick). McCain, 24, was signed off waivers, while Gowan, 24, and Vincent, 23, were acquired in trades. It’s possible one of these young defensive backs steps up during training camp, but the Eagles are left without a proven option.
Slay, a three-time Pro Bowler, detailed the current group and his teammates’ willingness to ask for advice.
“There’s always competition,” he said. “Shoot, there’s competition with me also. Everybody is out here competing for a position, so I’m just trying to do my best job helping everybody prepare and making sure everybody ready to go.
“All of ‘em are athletic...What people don’t understand is, the hardest thing is to ask another man how to do something. I told ‘em, ‘I’m an open book. I have to do whatever to get you wherever you need to go.’ Because, I ain’t gonna play for long. I need somebody to fill my shoes.’”
As it stands, McPhearson would be the de-facto starting outside cornerback on the opposite side of Slay based on his limited experience and draft pedigree. McPhearson logged 179 defensive snaps with 16 tackles across 16 games during his rookie season.
Slay said of McPhearson: “Oh, he’s ready. We’ve got a lot of trust in that room. There’s a lot of belief.”
In addition to cornerback, the team has also neglected to address depth at safety following the departure of veteran starter Rodney McLeod, who left for the Colts in free agency. The Eagles entered the draft with 10 total picks, but wound up conducting several trades and making just five selections (defensive line, offensive line, two linebackers, tight end). The current safety depth chart features: Anthony Harris, Marcus Epps, K’Von Wallace, Jared Mayden, and Andre Chachere.
“He’s always been ready,” Slay said of Epps. “He’s always been waiting for his time to come, and this is his time. I know the work he put in.”
Rookie minicamp is scheduled to begin Friday. While the team didn’t draft defensive backs, several prospects are expected to join the Eagles as undrafted free agents, including Clemson’s Mario Goodrich, Alabama’s Josh Jobe, Duke’s Josh Blackwell and Middle Tennessee State’s Reed Blankenship. A handful of names to join the current group, but it’s widely still viewed as young, unproven talent.
It’s only the first week of May, but could the Eagles really stay pat with two glaring needs lingering across the secondary? If history repeats itself, we might be waiting until the start of training camp.
“We have between now until September,” general Howie Roseman said last Friday.