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Eagles' Nolan Carroll has his corner covered

The cornerback earned a starting spot this season and is playing well in an improved secondary.

Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll.
Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

TIMING IS EVERYTHING, and Byron Maxwell's was perfect last March.

After giving up 30 touchdown passes and a league-high 72 pass plays of 20-plus yards last season, the Eagles desperately needed a difference-making cornerback, and Maxwell, despite just 17 career starts, happened to be the best of a fairly thin free-agent crop.

The Eagles knew they were overpaying him in a big way when they handed him a six-year, $63 million deal with $22 million in guarantees. But in the NFL, desperation almost always trumps rational thinking.

A year earlier, Nolan Carroll also was a free-agent corner. Even though he had nine more career starts on his resume than Maxwell, teams weren't lusting after the ex-Dolphin like they did Maxwell. Carroll ended up signing a modest - by NFL standards - two-year, $5.25 million deal with the Eagles to mainly play special teams, and maybe - maybe - get some snaps as a backup corner.

"We didn't know exactly what he was," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said of Carroll. "We knew he was an outstanding special-teams player and we thought he had an opportunity to be a corner for us, and we would see how he developed. The credit really goes to him in terms of how hard he's worked to take the step to becoming a starting corner."

After playing just 369 snaps last season, almost all of them as the "dime" linebacker in their six-DB subpackage, Carroll won the starting corner job this summer opposite Maxwell and has played well so far for a rebuilt secondary that isn't ready for a nickname yet, but has played considerably better than a season ago.

The Eagles are tied for sixth in interceptions (six), eighth in opponent yards per attempt (6.9) and 10th in opponent passer rating (85.7).

There still is a lot of room for improvement. Third down, for instance. In the last two games, the Saints and Redskins converted a disturbing 12 of 23 third downs of 5 or more yards. Kirk Cousins completed 10 of 13 third-down passes in the Redskins' 23-20 win.

In Sunday's 39-17 win over the Saints, Drew Brees completed eight of 15 third-down passes for 154 yards.

The Eagles gave up a season-high seven X-plays - pass plays of 20 yards or more - to the Saints. Five of them came on third down.

After giving up five X-plays to Atlanta in Week 1, the Eagles gave up just six in the next three games.

"It's a shame," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "After the first four games, we finally went into the top five in the league in the positive of not giving up X-plays. So we were excited about that. We'll fix it. We'll keep working on them."

Carroll has played all but four snaps in the first five games. With one exception, he did a good job against Brees. Gave up a 59-yard completion to Willie Snead in the fourth quarter. Was targeted 10 other times and gave up just five completions for 54 yards.

"He kind of pushed off a little bit (to get separation), but it is what it is," Carroll said of the completion to Snead. "They're usually not going to call it."

Last season was frustrating for Carroll. He signed with the Eagles thinking he'd be given an opportunity to compete for a starting job. But that never materialized.

Davis eventually asked him to be the dime linebacker, a position he had never played before. He ended up doing a good job.

"What I envisioned coming in wasn't really the role they had intended for me, which is fine," Carroll said. "I did what they asked me to do. I took it as a growing experience for me. It was another chance for me to understand the defense from a different perspective."

They made him no promises this season. They got rid of both of their starting corners - Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher - but signed Maxwell and selected another corner, Eric Rowe, in the second round of the draft. They also signed another corner, Walter Thurmond, who played for Kelly at Oregon.

Carroll was determined to do everything he could to maximize his chances of winning a starting job.

"I took about a week-and-a-half off (after the season ended) just to get my mind clear and then focused on what I needed to do in January, February and March before I came back here," he said.

Carroll turned coaches' heads during the team's offseason conditioning workouts. Continually hit personal bests in the weight room in the bench press, the squat and every other lift the Eagles' players do. Same thing with speed and conditioning runs.

"When I came back here, I just wanted to beat everybody in everything," Carroll said. "Whatever the competition might've been. I just put it in my mind that if I want to be what I want to be for this team, I needed to win every competition we had. And then, when we go out on the field, make that transition to the field as well.

"Bring all of the stuff we did in the weight room out onto the field and continually work on my technique and understanding the scheme a lot better so that we as a group could get better."

Early on, Kelly and Davis made the decision to move Thurmond to safety. That opened the door for Carroll at corner. But he still had to convince the coaches he could handle it.

"We talked to those guys (the cornerbacks) that were coming back and told them (the competition) was wide-open," Kelly said. "He stepped up and earned the starting corner job."

Carroll said he didn't pay a lot of attention to any of the team's offseason personnel moves, including the additions of Maxwell, Thurmond and Rowe.

"I didn't think about them," he said. "I just knew that if I just worked, worked my hardest, things would work out somehow, some way. If they didn't, then I would know that at least I gave it everything I had. I focused on what I could control."

The Eagles' secondary is unique in that both of the safeties - Thurmond and Malcolm Jenkins - have been cornerbacks. Carroll said it's been beneficial from a communications standpoint on the back end.

"They understand what me and Byron are doing on the outside," Carroll said. "They've had their eyes in that position before. They understand the scheme as far as what the corners are supposed to do and what's asked of us.

"We're all on the same page as far as formations, routes and all of those things. We're a cohesive group. We're always all together. On the practice field, in the meeting room, at lunch. We kind of know what everybody's thinking back there. We trust one another back there."

Carroll is in the final year of his contract. He will again be a free agent after the season.

If the secondary continues to improve and if Carroll continues to play well, he'll be in line for a considerable raise, either from the Eagles or someone else.

Timing is everything.