When the ball goes up, it's easy to see the breathtaking speed that makes Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie stand out.

Seemingly beat, he opens up the throttle and closes down on receivers who looked open a moment earlier. Rodgers-Cromartie does this over and over in offseason practices.

His teammates, though, say there is more to the cornerback's game than freakish athletic ability.

"What people don't realize is he's a very smart corner," safety Kurt Coleman said. "He understands the different types of route concepts that teams try to throw at him. He understands being able to watch a wide receiver and know when he's about to break. Other than his God-given ability, he's able to make a lot of breaks on balls that normally people wouldn't see on time."

Rodgers-Cromartie, back in his familiar spot as a cornerback stationed on the outside of the field, instead of the slot role he awkwardly manned last year, has impressed his teammates through the first three weeks of offseason practices.

"He's done a phenomenal job," said wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. "Being able to read routes the way he does I think has helped him, and I think he looks good out there."

Rodgers-Cromartie largely struggled in 2011, his first season in Philadelphia. He was forced into the team's nickel role because of the presence of Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha at the outside corner spots. Rodgers-Cromartie flailed there, appeared uninterested in tackling, and missed three games when he sprained an ankle returning a kickoff.

With Samuel traded, Rodgers-Cromartie has moved back to the outside corner role where "it's like home," he said. Much more is now riding on his play, for both him and the Eagles. He is entering the final year of his contract and, given a mediocre 2010 in Arizona, has failed to live up to his billing the last two seasons.

Still, asked if he had something to prove, Rodgers-Cromartie had a brief answer: "Nah."

"I don't talk much," he said later. "I just go out there and just play ball, that's it."

Rodgers-Cromartie manages to be quiet and eccentric at the same time.

Surrounded by reporters Tuesday, he looked down, not making eye contact. On the sideline in practice he often kneels by himself, apart from his teammates. On the field he is a live wire, dancing to music only he can hear while stationed alone on the corner and awaiting the next snap.

"He just loves life," Coleman said. "I don't ever see him with a bad day. He always has a smile on his face."

Rodgers-Cromartie had a rocky path to the NFL, transferring each year of his high school career around Orlando and Bradenton, Fla. With so much moving, he never established himself and didn't play much until his senior year. Only Tennessee State offered him a scholarship, and, the story goes, that came only because Rodgers-Cromartie's father knew the defensive coordinator there.

Four strong years later, Rodgers-Cromartie put on an eye-popping show at the NFL scouting combine and was the 16th overall pick in the NFL draft.

Eagles coaches confirm that the physical gifts are as impressive as ever. Rodgers-Cromartie has blazing speed, soars in the air, and changes direction faster than a 6-foot-2 man should be capable of doing.

"He has the ability to do anything he wants," Coleman said.

In practice that can mean running step-for-step with DeSean Jackson or matching cuts with Maclin. At one point Tuesday he pressed Riley Cooper, one of the Eagles' biggest receivers.

Rodgers-Cromartie revels in the one-on-one receiving drills, even though they give receivers built-in advantages: They know where they are going, corners have no help, and quarterbacks throw without any pressure. But with no contact and no worry about running plays, Rodgers-Cromartie can show off his physical gifts and focus on what he does best: shadowing receivers.

Training camp and the preseason will bring a more complete test of his game. Can he play the run and make tackles? Last year those were problems for Eagles corners, but Rodgers-Cromartie sounded unconcerned.

"The main thing right now is just getting my feet back under me and just focusing on coverage right now," he said, noting that there's no hitting in these early practices. (Rodgers-Cromartie was back Tuesday after missing Monday; the team said rain had disrupted his flight to Philadelphia.)

Rodgers-Cromartie said he's working on keeping his eyes disciplined and not peeking into the backfield when he is in coverage.

"He's in his element," wide receiver Jason Avant said. "If you take a fish and put him on land, it doesn't work well. He's an outside guy."

An extraordinarily fast one, off to a fast start.

Extra points. Asomugha and linebacker Casey Matthews missed Tuesday's voluntary practice. Asomugha tended to a personal matter and might return Thursday, the team said. Matthews had a sore back.