For as much turnover as the Eagles have had in their secondary over the last decade, the moves already made this offseason may produce the most significant one-year alterations in recent team history.
Considering the performance of that group over the last few seasons, that is something likely to be praised. On paper, the Eagles have upgraded, specifically at cornerback.
But along with new faces such as Darius Slay, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Will Parks there will be several moving parts. Jalen Mills is being asked to move from cornerback to safety. And slot corner Avonte Maddox is projected to be the outside starter opposite Slay.
The Eagles could have as many as five of their six top defensive backs either new to the team or playing a position different from the one they had specialized in before. And missing will be the unit’s best player, its most consistent, and the leader who kept the secondary from being worse than it already was – safety Malcolm Jenkins.
General manager Howie Roseman knew that he had to improve the Eagles’ pass defense.
“It’s hard when you’re watching games,” he said Thursday, “and the ball is getting thrown over your head.”
Roseman, in his first public comments since the start of free agency last week, emphasized the Eagles’ long-time commitment to their line when acknowledging the defensive woes. The first-out-of-the-gate signing of defensive tackle Javon Hargrave supported that notion.
But he would follow that acquisition with a series of decisions designed to readjust and improve the back end. The 2020 option on Jenkins’ contract was declined. Safety Rodney McLeod and Mills were re-signed. Two draft picks were dealt for Slay, who agreed to a three-year extension. And Parks and Robey-Coleman arrived via one-year deals.
“It’s not a perfect process and we don’t want to start reaching based on position,” Roseman said during a conference call. “But when we look at the opportunity in free agency to get some of our guys back, and obviously we lost a very valuable guy in Malcolm, too, we felt that was the quickest way to address it.”
While Robey-Coleman may have seemed unnecessary considering the ample slot corner options already on the roster – Maddox, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Mills and Parks – his addition allows Maddox to bump outside, even if Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas are still on the team.
“This is a guy who has started on the outside for us in playoff games,” Roseman said of Maddox.
The Eagles are a far from the season opener. There are additional moves to be made, players added in free agency, trade or the draft, or even subtracted. But if the games were to be played today, Slay and Maddox would start outside, McLeod and Mills at safety, Robey-Coleman in the slot, and Parks in the big nickel/dime role.
Slay is a proven commodity and should be an improvement over predecessor Ronald Darby. The same could be said of Robey-Coleman. But how many times has the same been said of previous veteran additions? There is a risk, one the Eagles have paid dearly for in acquiring the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, Cary Williams, Byron Maxwell, Darby, et al.
But they are only the effect, not the cause.
“When you draft guys in the second and third round and you’re now in the fourth year, you obviously want them to contribute,” Roseman said. “If they don’t contribute, then you’re dealing with a situation where you have to go outside the organization.
“Let’s be honest. Let’s call a spade a spade.”
Jones, judging by Roseman’s words, will be given one more opportunity. The Eagles selected him in the second round of the 2017 draft even though he had just ruptured his Achilles. They allowed a redshirt year, but the last two seasons have been marred by injury, suspect play, and an apparent lack of confidence.
“It’s time for him to go prove it,” Roseman said.
Douglas, taken a round later, “has a body of work that’s kind of been put out there, and so for him he’s just got to keep continuing to work on it,” Roseman added. There have been reports that Douglas is available via trade.
Maddox and Mills were more successful draft picks.But the jury is still out on the former, and the latter, while serviceable, is making the move to safety for good reason. He had virtually no market at corner, an indictment of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s four-year insistence that Mills was not only just a corner but a starter.
“We feel like Jalen is a position-less player,” Roseman said.
But Mills hasn’t played safety since college, and he has big shoes to fill if he is to spend most of his time in the box like Jenkins. The Eagles believe that McLeod will step into the role as play-caller for the secondary, and that both will account for the loss of leadership. But if even Jenkins’ age and salary are factored, are they better at safety?
Schwartz’s involvement in player evaluation can’t be overstated. While Slay and Robey-Coleman’s history of playing in his scheme should flatten their learning curve, especially with the uncertainty surrounding offseason workouts and training camp, they are the latest examples of the Eagles’ bringing in “Schwartz guys.”
The less said of Leodis McKelvin and Ronald Brooks, for example, the better.
Schwartz places great emphasis upon confidence, understandably so, considering the constraints placed against defensive backs in today’s offense-favored NFL. But what about having guys who are skilled enough to not have to constantly fall back on mental recovery?
There aren’t many shutdown corners left in the NFL. Slay is the complete package, although at 29 and coming off a down year, there are questions about his career arc. The Eagles did a lot of predraft work on Slay in 2013, but they chose tight end Zach Ertz instead. They’re not relying solely on Schwartz.
“We feel like we know the player, that helps, kind of, when you’re doing this, as opposed to arranged marriages,” Roseman said.
Slay and Robey-Coleman would theoretically allow the Eagles to play more man-to-man coverage, which in turn would give Schwartz more flexibility to blitz rather than rush only four. Speed kills on offense and it can return fire on defense. Slay and Maddox would give the Eagles two sub-4.4 corners on the outside.
Maddox is three inches shorter than the 6-foot Slay, though.
“I grew up admiring the Darrell Greens and Aaron Glenns of the world,” Roseman said of two notable short corners. “And these guys, they’re explosive, twitched-up guys who had an incredible vertical, and it’s hard to get the ball on them.
“Avonte’s got a lot of those same characteristics.”
But Maddox has a way to go if he is to be compared to either. He’s had a few good performances on the outside, most notably against the Rams in 2018, but he struggled in all three playoff games over the last two seasons.
Maddox is just one of several defensive backs the Eagles have who can play multiple spots. The roles aren’t defined with the lines between safety and cornerback as blurred as ever. The Eagles’ acquisitions reflect this trend and give them versatility to cover skill-position players who come in a variety of shapes and with a variety of skill sets.
“You have to match up with these guys,” Roseman said. “Being able to get as many guys who can cover different body types is important to us as we try to put it together.”