NO ONE IN the Eagles organization ever actually used the word "project" to describe Curtis Marsh last year after they selected him in the third round of the draft. But that's pretty much what he was.

Converted from running back to cornerback after his sophomore season at Utah State, Marsh was very talented but also very raw. The Eagles loved his size (6-1, 197) and speed (4.46) and physicality, but knew he probably was going to need a year in the shop before he'd be ready to make a meaningful contribution.

The NFL's 4 1/2-month lockout, which robbed Marsh of a needed offseason of learning, sealed the deal.

"It seemed like the lockout was never going to end," said Marsh, whose 2-0 Eagles play their third preseason game Friday night at Cleveland. "I mean, I got drafted and everybody knew I was on the Eagles. But I was sitting around waiting for months and months for them to get a [labor] deal done. Then they finally get it done and I get a call that day telling me to get on a plane and report to training camp."

Any hope Marsh had of getting some meaningful playing time as a rookie was quickly dashed when the Eagles brought in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, creating a Grand Central Station look to the cornerback position.

For the first nine games of his rookie season, aside from a few more dollars in his paycheck, there really was no difference between Marsh and the members of the Eagles' practice squad. He practiced with the team during the week, then would be one of the seven game-day deactivations.

It wasn't until Week 11 that he finally got a chance to suit up on game day. Marsh ended up playing in the final seven games, but most of his action was limited to special teams. He played just 13 defensive snaps as a rookie.

Marsh is hopeful of getting considerably more work this season. He likely will open the season as either the No. 4 or No. 5 corner, depending on how the nickel-corner battle between veteran Joselio Hanson and rookie Brandon Boykin shakes out.

If camp and the preseason are any indication, Marsh will be the main backup on the outside to starters Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie. With Asomugha expected to frequently move inside against two-tight-end formations, that should present a lot of playing opportunities for Marsh, since a growing number of teams favor two-tight-end sets.

With the Eagles' starters expected to play no more than a quarter Friday night against the Browns, Marsh probably will be on the field a lot.

"I'm not sure how they're rotating yet," he said. "But the more time I'm out there playing, the better for me."

The Eagles must get better play from their secondary than they did last year when they gave up a disturbing 27 touchdown passes despite a pass rush that notched a league-best 50 sacks.

Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie and Marsh all are big, fast corners who are suited for the press coverage the Eagles want to play a lot this season.

"I'm a competitor," Marsh said. "I play hard every play. I focus every single play. When I'm out there, it's my goal to shut down a receiver. It should be every corner's goal when they line up. You want to line up one-on-one and take every route away."

The Eagles' biggest problem in the secondary last season was a lack of communication. The team had a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive scheme and a lot of new players, including Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie.

Too many times, players weren't where they were supposed to be or were a step late in getting there or were confused about their assignment. The result: a disturbing number of busted plays.

"The main thing we need to work on in the secondary is communication," Marsh said. "These next two preseason games are huge for us in that respect. We've got to get our communication down because teams motion and shift. Those are the things that throw you off as a defense. You've got to react quickly."

Last year, more often than not, the Eagles didn't react quickly enough to what they were looking at. The defensive backs often looked like the Keystone Kops before the snap. Now that they have been in Juan Castillo's system for a year, things should be better.

"We've had a year to grow and we're more together as a unit and we're also more comfortable with the defenses," Marsh said. "We're sitting here a year later in the same defense, and that's the biggest difference."

Marsh wasn't the only early-round Eagles pick to struggle last season.

Guard Danny Watkins, the first-round pick, spent the first four games on the bench before the light finally went on and he was put in the starting lineup. It wasn't until the last four or five games that he really started to play well.

The light never went on for second-round safety Jaiquawn Jarrett. Unlike Marsh, the Eagles drafted Jarrett with the hope that he'd be able make an immediate impact as a rookie. Didn't happen.

Marsh said he benefited immensely from the offseason camps and OTAs.

"It was big," he said. "It was my time to focus. Coming here to the facility and getting better, faster, stronger. Not only showing my teammates and coaches that I'm willing to work hard, but just to get better in general.

"I worked on my game every week and I feel like it's made a world of difference. I feel like I'm a better football player now than I was a year ago. And I feel it always has to be like that. Every year you have to continue to get better."

Castillo has been pleased with Marsh's progress from his rookie season to now.

"He's got confidence, he understands the scheme and is just more comfortable with everything," the Eagles' defensive chief said. "He just feels more comfortable with some of the adjustments we are making and some of the things we are doing, where last year, it was easiest for him when we were in man-to-man.

"Just understanding some of the other schemes, he feels more comfortable and [has a better] understanding of the defense."