Philadelphia Eagles positional reviews: Can CB Jalen Mills become a consistent starter?
Our 10-part series analyzing the team's depth chart continues with a look at the cornerbacks.
Philly.com has been looking at the Eagles' 90-man roster since last Monday, before they begin organized team activities on May 23. Here's the schedule:
May 8: Wide receivers
May 9: Running backs
May 10: Offensive linemen
May 11: Tight ends
May 12: Defensive ends
May 15: Defensive tackles
May 16: Linebackers
May 17: Cornerbacks
May 18: Safeties
May 19: Quarterbacks
Spotlight on: Jalen Mills
As a 2016 seventh-round pick, Mills was a revelation during his first summer with the Eagles. He ascended on the depth chart, moved past 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe, and was a contributor by Week 2. But even the most optimistic of Mills supporters wouldn't have thought he'd be slotted as the team's top cornerback entering his second NFL season. That's what is likely to happen for Mills in 2017 – even though he started only two games and did not record an interception.
Mills played 65 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie. He saw time against some of the NFL's top receivers. And he had a confidence that endeared him to coaches and teammates. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, the leader of the Eagles secondary, predicted a "breakout" season for Mills.
"I'm more impressed by his mentality and his approach to the game," Jenkins said. "At the corner position, that's probably 90 percent of what it is. And he also has the athletic gifts. But his competitiveness and his willingness to work and get better day in and day out has been impressive since he got there. It hasn't changed. As we kind of push a little bit more load onto him, I think he's built to handle it."
Mills does not have top size or speed, but he's a smooth athlete with good instincts who has certainly established himself as an NFL player. The question is, how good will he become? Will he be a regular starter? Is he a rotational player who is best in the slot? Could he develop into a No. 1 cornerback? Was his playing time last year merely the product of a bad depth chart? There are no definitive answers for those questions yet. However, the Eagles will give him the chance to show more this year. There is an undistinguished group of cornerbacks on the depth chart, and no one is a clear-cut favorite to be slotted ahead of him. But Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas were drafted for a reason, so there's going to be competition in the coming years. By this time next year, there should be a better sense of how Mills fits in the future. For 2017, he appears to be a big part of the defense.
On the 53-man roster bubble: Ron Brooks, Patrick Robinson, C.J. Smith, Dwayne Gratz, Aaron Grymes, Mitchell White
All the non-rookie cornerbacks were placed on this list for a reason – there should not be any "locks" at the position.
Robinson will likely be on the team. The journeyman is on his fourth team in four years, but he has 49 career starts in seven years with 10 interceptions. Injuries have been an issue in recent years – Robinson has played 16 games just twice in his career – and he's entering his age-29 season. But he's a former first-round pick who can play outside and in the slot, has been exposed to different schemes, and would be a veteran among a young group. The Eagles did not make a significant financial commitment, and the Rueben Randle/Chris Givens contracts last year showed that those veterans on one-year, low-guaranteed deals must earn their way onto the roster. But Robinson also doesn't have much ahead of him.
Brooks is another veteran. The Eagles liked Brooks as their slot cornerback last season before he suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in October. He played at least 62 percent of the defensive snaps in every game he was healthy, and the Eagles defense performed at its best during that period. Brooks must return to form, but his versatility and special-teams experience are valuable.
Gratz also offers starting experience. The Eagles added him late last season to get him under contract for this offseason. The 2013 third-round pick started 25 games in his first three seasons with Jacksonville. He could not stay on as a slot cornerback last season, and he fits best competing for an outside spot at 5-11 and 199 pounds. But he is only 26 and has legitimate experience, and he'll benefit from a full offseason with the team. So Gratz could be a surprise candidate for playing time with a good summer.
Smith was an undrafted rookie from North Dakota State in 2016 who impressed during training camp and preseason and earned a spot on the roster after beginning the season on the practice squad. The Eagles like his potential, and he'll also be in the mix.
Grymes was a CFL import who was playing his way onto the roster last year before a preseason injury. The team brought him back when he was healthy and he bounced between the practice squad and roster. White is a CFL import this year who will try to follow Grymes' path.
Draft picks: Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas
The Eagles invested their second- and third-round picks in Jones and Douglas, and the two could become a starting combination for years to come. The team must wait with Jones, who won't be on the 53-man roster to start the season and will likely be on the non-football injury (NFI) list or physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Either status will sideline Jones for at least the first six weeks of the season, but it's possible Jones won't play this season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. Long-term, he has the best chance of anyone on this list of becoming a top cornerback.
Douglas, who is 6-2 and 209 pounds, will compete for early playing time. He lacks speed, but his size and ball skills are appealing. You can see that the Eagles don't have definitive starters, so it wouldn't surprise if Douglas earns a spot early in the season, if not in Week 1. It will be an important summer for him, but he has the most size at the position and his draft standing should put him in contention to be a contributor this year.
Undrafted rookies: Jomal Wiltz, Randall Goforth
The Eagles signed Wiltz and Goforth after the draft, and both found an appealing roster to join. Goforth is converting from safety – usually it's the other way around – and he started parts of five seasons for UCLA. He lacks size and speed, but his college experience and production (10 interceptions) could help him. Wiltz was a junior-college transfer at Iowa State who played two years for the Cyclones and will try to catch the Eagles' attention this summer.