BETHLEHEM — Fans often ask reporters who is looking good at Eagles training camp. Sometimes the answer depends on the day the question's asked. Not when it comes to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The corner taking over Asante Samuel's old spot opposite Nnamdi Asomugha has been a consistent standout in the first week of full-squad work.
If you've been up here, you've noticed DRC, not just when he takes his helmet off, revealing a lime green Mohawkish stripe down the middle of his head.
"It's hard to throw against him," quarterback Michael Vick lamented Thursday. "He's fast, man. He can jump routes, quick, smart. It's clear he should have been on the outside last year."
It wasn't Juan Castillo's fault the Eagles didn't trade Samuel during the hectic buildup to the 2011 season. But it was the first-year defensive coordinator's fault that he thought he could make his tangled cornerback setup work by playing in the slot a still-raw 25-year-old, with the tools and mindset of an outside corner. As veteran Joselio Hanson patiently explained to reporters when he took the nickel job back after Rodgers-Cromartie's Nov. 13 high ankle sprain, the slot is all about understanding angles and leverage, reading subtle hints, not so much being fast but taking the right step in the right direction at the right moment.
Castillo thought that because Rodgers-Cromartie was 6-2 and athletic, he could quickly learn to play inside. That was a huge miscalculation by a man whose biggest blind spot might be thinking that hard work magically erases all obstacles. It was almost as if Juan figured it could work if he started lining DRC up in the slot at 4 a.m. every day.
Eagles coach Andy Reid said recently he really appreciated the way Rodgers-Cromartie handled that situation. "You never heard a word out of him," Reid noted.
Rodgers-Cromartie talks freely now about what a relief it is to be back on the outside, but he doesn't belabor what happened last year, doesn't even suggest he was misused or abused.
"That ain't even in my personality. I'm just a laid-back, calm guy. Anything asked of me, I'm going to try to do," Rodgers-Cromartie said Thursday. He had just finished a 2-hour-plus practice, waited patiently in the sun through an NFL Network interview, then gone over to the stands and signed and posed for pictures with at least 50 fans. "Even though it was tough, it was hard, I wanted to be outside, I knew in time, things would change. I just sat, waited patiently for the opportunity, and they blessed me with one."
Fans fretted a bit when Samuel left because he took with him 39 interceptions since 2006, the most in the NFL in that time period. Reid said he thinks DRC can be a similar threat, even though he intercepted no passes last season, and only three the year before, his final go-round with the Arizona Cardinals, who drafted him 16th overall in 2008. Rodgers-Cromartie had six picks in 2009, when he made the Pro Bowl, plus another interception in the playoffs. He doesn't bait quarterbacks the way Samuel did, playing way off the receiver, but he does jump routes.
"I have good instincts like Asante," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I tend to jump routes like Asante. Even though he's gone, it's like he's still here, because we have similar playing styles."
In fact, in the Thursday afternoon practice, DRC flashed in front of a receiver as rookie quarterback Nick Foles threw the ball, nothing but the end zone and the low mountains of Lehigh in front of the cornerback. That ball clanked off Rodgers-Cromartie's hands, though.
"Sometimes it'll be like that. I got to look the ball in more," he said. "The main thing is to get better and have fun."
Rodgers-Cromartie takes the second part of that statement as seriously as the first part. He's usually moving between reps, dancing, playing.
"I'm a real hyper guy with a fun spirit," DRC said. "I love being around everybody. Every chance I get I just try to go out there and have fun."
Asomugha, 31, is a more cautious, restrained guy with a more cautious, restrained game. His idea is to cover the receiver, bump and disrupt him, so that the ball doesn't come his way. One of Rodgers-Cromartie's gifts is the speed that helps him erase mistakes. Asomugha doesn't quite have that speed, or that hang-loose mindset.
"His makeup speed is second-to-none, I think," Asomugha said early in camp, when asked about his new partner on the outside. "It allows him to make certain mistakes — I don't want to make the mistakes that he can make … I'm in it mentally so that isn't going on."
Asomugha emphasized that DRC is "working to get more of the mental side of the game. With that combined with his athleticism, it should be really special."
Asomugha is at least indirectly responsible for the lime green stripe, Rodgers-Cromartie said. He recounted a precamp discussion, which he said also led to Asomugha's current old-school-looking high-top fade.
"He said, 'We should do something with our hair, this feels like it's going to be a special year.' So he went with the box-top," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I told him I was going to go with the Mohawk. He said, 'Why don't you paint it green?' I said, 'Why not have fun with it?' I'm going to darken it up before the season starts."