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Eagles like group of rookie cornerbacks

Draft picks Eric Rowe, JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans, and undrafted free agent Denzel Rice have been impressive this spring.

Eagles rookie defensive back Eric Rowe. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Eagles rookie defensive back Eric Rowe. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more(Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

CURTIS MARSH, Trevard Lindley, Jack Ikegwuonu, Rashad Barksdale, Macho Harris.

The ongoing disaster at the safety position gets more attention, but Brandon Boykin, taken in the fourth round in 2012, is the only cornerback the Eagles have drafted since 2002 who has made a significant contribution to the team.

In 2002, the Birds drafted Lito Sheppard in the first round and Sheldon Brown in the second, so, that season, they had Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor as their starters, Al Harris for the nickel, and Sheppard and Brown just in case. Every one of those guys eventually was named to at least one Pro Bowl during his career (though Brown turned down his invitation).

It hasn't been like that much lately, which is how you end up signing a succession of free agents, from Asante Samuel to Nnamdi Asomugha to Bradley Fletcher to Cary Williams to Byron Maxwell.

Last month, though, in Chip Kelly's first draft with full control, Kelly took three corners with six selections. The Birds then signed Denzel Rice, an undrafted small-college corner from Coastal Carolina, who has been one of the spring work's most pleasant surprises.

Nobody has seen them in pads yet, let alone in any sort of NFL game, but suddenly the Eagles have four - yes, four - rookie corners they seem to really like.

The Eagles traded up to draft Eric Rowe in the second round, the highest corner they've drafted since Sheppard in 2002. It seemed he might be coming as a safety, given that the 6-1, 205-pound Rowe only made the switch to corner in his final year at Utah, but Rowe is only learning corner for now. The coaches seem to like him outside.

JaCorey Shepherd (5-11, 199) from Kansas and Randall Evans (6-feet, 195) from Kansas State arrived in the sixth round, Rice (6-feet, 185) in the hours after the draft.

"I think Eric Rowe has stood out, JaCorey Shepherd has stood out," Kelly said last week, when asked which rookies look good. "Denzel Rice and Randall Evans, those guys are fitting in really well . . . I think our depth has increased there, and I think it's going to be an interesting position to watch going forward."

In fact, it seems like Jaylen Watkins, drafted in the fourth round last year, when Howie Roseman still had final say, is pretty much an afterthought these days. Earlier in the offseason, Kelly talked of moving Watkins to safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins, but former Seahawks and Giants nickel corner Walter Thurmond made that jump instead.

"We all have our own special thing that got us here," Rowe said when asked about the rookie group, during OTAs last week. The Eagles reconvene tomorrow for mandatory minicamp. "My long arms and press skills. JaCorey and Denzel with their footwork. Randall, too."

The corners live in the same hotel and spend a lot of time together. They even went bowling together recently, but they probably aren't a threat to turn pro there - Rowe won with a 135.

"It makes it real competitive, having a lot of rookies out there," Evans said. "We're all cool with each other . . . we definitely are progressing. The older guys are helping out, too. We can ask them any type of question. They aren't selfish."

Boykin said Shepherd and Rice, especially, remind him of himself. Boykin played in all 16 games as a rookie, starting four. He also was the Eagles' top kick returner that year.

"The mental part of it, they've already got that," Boykin said. "I think the future looks bright for all of 'em."

Boykin emphasized Kelly's point about depth.

"Every year I've been here, we've had maybe four or five guys [total], somebody gets injured and it's a struggle," Boykin said. "We've got a lot of depth now. [The next step] is about them being game-ready, because they've got the ability."

Jenkins said the rookies "are out here doing everything we ask them to do, from the weight-room standpoint to coming out, playing with confidence and playing fast. We're throwing Eric out there with the 'ones' sometimes and he's playing well . . . Shepherd is really good in the slot, has really good feet. He understands different positions and is pretty versatile, and that's hard to get as a young player, especially only being in the system a couple months . . . They're not making the same mistakes [twice], which is what you ask out of rookies, and we'll see what happens when we get to training camp."

Rice said he didn't worry about signing with a team that had just drafted three corners; in the draft process, he'd felt he was comparable to Shepherd and Evans, they just happened to get that late-round shot he didn't get, maybe because of where he went to school, and because he played both safety and corner for the Chanticleers.

"It is what it is. I just came ready to work," said Rice, who estimated he heard from about 10 teams as the draft was ending.

Why did he choose the Eagles?

"Me and the scouts and the coaches built that relationship throughout the last couple months of the process," Rice said. "I just felt comfortable with the whole staff.

"I like the competition; it's real intense. It makes me up my game."

New defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said recently that he really appreciates the talent Kelly and player personnel vice president Ed Marynowitz gave him.

"I think Chip and Ed have done a great job of putting this thing together, getting the coaching and scouting staffs to work as one," Undlin said.


Evan Mathis, released last week by the Eagles, said he was en route to a free-agent visit yesterday evening, but Mathis said he had been asked not to say which team . . . In a related development, the Eagles are scheduled to work out offensive lineman Jared Wheeler, cut recently by the Seahawks. Wheeler's agent tweeted over the weekend that he would sign here if he passes his physical.