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Eagles rookie Rowe ready to tackle cornerback

By the time he was 13, Eric Rowe had lived in six cities in four states, moving from Ohio to Indiana to Kansas and finally to Texas.

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

By the time he was 13, Eric Rowe had lived in six cities in four states, moving from Ohio to Indiana to Kansas and finally to Texas.

It would be convenient if a transient childhood meant that Rowe was better equipped to handle the move from safety to cornerback. More than likely, it does not. He adeptly handled the same position change during his senior season at Utah, switching after three seasons.

But Rowe's latest stop will be the most difficult of his career and possibly of his short life. Aside from quarterback, there is arguably no other position in the NFL as stressful to play as cornerback.

And in Philadelphia there may not be players - again, other than quarterbacks - as scrutinized as the cornerbacks. It's a good thing the team hasn't yet placed undue expectations on its second-round draft pick.

"I strongly believe," Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said, "the kid can be a top-level corner in this league."

The Eagles won't press Rowe into starting immediately. If veteran Nolan Carroll plays as well as he did during the spring, the cornerback spot opposite Byron Maxwell will be his. But there seems to be something about Rowe that hasn't stopped Eagles coaches from raising his bar.

Undlin mentioned Rowe's mental approach, length, and ability to change directions as reasons the Eagles project him as a corner. But the coach focused on his intelligence and in particular a moment during the spring that he said suggested Rowe could succeed at either position.

"It was an example of his growth, not just because he plays corner, but because he knows how the defense works," Undlin said. He knew "what the coverage was, what the formation was, the split of the wideout . . . [and] he made a call, and they passed this thing. It was actually impressive."

Rowe has been consistent, saying since the Eagles traded up and drafted him 47th overall that he would rather play corner. There's more attention and potential for pay at the position, but Rowe's reasons reflect an individual with a growth mind-set (embraces challenges) over a fixed one (avoids them).

"It's nice to see another view of the game," Rowe said. "From a corner's perspective, you only see half the field. You're on a one-on-one battle around 80 percent of the time. It's a new challenge and I just want to get good at it."

There could be a learning curve. The Eagles haven't selected a corner who was a regular starter since the 2002 draft that brought Lito Shepperd and Sheldon Brown. The team's woeful track record at picking corners over the last decade-plus is exclusive of Rowe, especially now that a new group of evaluators is making the selections.

But it's tough to find corners who are able to step in right away and play in a pass-heavy league that increasingly has cornerbacks under a microscope. The Eagles also have a poor track record in free agency and haven't had a starter last more than two years since Asante Samuel four years ago.

Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were let go this offseason after two inconsistent seasons. Aside from Fletcher's play during the second half of last season, the duo wasn't nearly as bad as public opinion suggested. Around the league, the best corners are still getting beat regularly.

It took Maxwell - the prize free-agent acquisition of the Eagles' offseason - four seasons before he was an every-game starter. He'll be the first to admit he still doesn't have it figured out. But he appears to have the mental part down, and Rowe has wisely latched onto the veteran.

"I usually ask him about off-the-field stuff like, 'How do you recover if you get beat three times?' " Rowe said. "And he just said, 'Every receiver is good here. They get paid, too. They're going to catch some. All the great cornerbacks erase it from their head and just come back. You can't let it get you down.' "

As for the physical part of playing corner, Rowe has the sought-after attributes. He's rangy at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, but still quick. (He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds at the NFL combine.) Eagles coach Chip Kelly said that Rowe was proficient with his hands - getting them on receivers and disrupting routes, but also using them to break up passes.

Rowe said he sometimes regresses back into safety mode and plays corner as if he's still covering from center field.

"My eyes. Sometimes I tend to look at the quarterback during a route," Rowe said. "It's hard not to take a peek. But if you do, your man drifts off."

He could get away with an occasional peek in college. After three years at safety, Rowe agreed to switch positions when Utah coaches sought to ease the loss of the recently drafted Keith McGill. He broke up 13 passes that season - the most for a Utah defender in 14 years - and increased the likelihood that NFL teams would project him as a corner.

Rowe initially chose Utah over in-state schools such as Texas A&M because he could start at safety as a freshman. The 1,500-mile distance between home and college wasn't a deterrent, he said.

"It wasn't a big deal for me leaving home," Rowe said. "I've done it before, although probably going from Austin to Houston was hard for me to adapt. But I got over it."

Rowe's father, Nelson, moved the family throughout the Midwest as he finished his education and pursued a career. Nelson Rowe is a chief accounting officer for a Houston energy company, while Rowe's mother, Denise, is a real estate investor.

Rowe would like to work in one place for years, but he isn't in a rush to start.

"As a competitor you want to go out there and start," Rowe said. "But to be realistic about it now, I'm pretty far off from that. I still have a lot of work to put in before it happens. But I know what I need to get done now."