The Eagles returned to practice Tuesday without their two top cornerbacks on the field. Both Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe exited in the second quarter of the 40-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, and their status remains in question for Saturday against the Washington Redskins.
Maxwell has a sprain of the SC joint, which connects the collarbone to the sternum. He watched practice from the sideline in street clothes and appeared in discomfort in the locker room afterward. Maxwell is unsure whether he'll be able to play. He is undergoing treatment to try to improve his range of motion, but this injury is a first for him.
"I had an AC [joint sprain] before, but this is way more painful," Maxwell said. "You can play through that. I can't really move my shoulder. It's starting to feel a little better."
Rowe has a concussion and is in the league-mandated concussion protocol. He has not been cleared to practice, but he attended the session in uniform and endured the loud music for two hours. There was optimism in the locker room that he can be cleared in time for Saturday.
The Eagles have already lost Nolan Carroll for the season. Without Maxwell and Rowe, they're down to three cornerbacks: E.J. Biggers, Jaylen Watkins, and Denzel Rice. Facing Washington's passing offense this month is a challenge even with a healthy secondary. Without the top cornerbacks, the secondary would seem to be at a major disadvantage.
"Not panic mode," safety Walt Thurmond said. "We're expecting those guys to show up on Saturday. Even if they don't, we have confidence E.J. and Jaylen can go out there and handle it."
Biggers, 28, is a seven-year veteran who is the dime cornerback and the top reserve at the position. He has played 40 percent of the defensive snaps this season and has enough playing time to comfortably step into the scheme.
Biggers, who spent the last two seasons with Washington, can play all the cornerback spots even though his time this season has mostly been as an inside cornerback. If one of the starters is out, Biggers will likely be the first one on the outside in base formation.
"In my seven years, I've played outside plenty," Biggers said.
Watkins, 23, was the Eagles' fourth-round pick in 2014. He barely played on defense as a rookie and didn't make the 53-man roster after the preseason. Watkins spent time on Buffalo's practice squad before the Eagles signed him following Carroll's injury, and returned with a firm understanding of the defense and confident from his time defending stepbrother Sammy Watkins during Buffalo's practices.
A speedy cornerback, Watkins played 49 snaps on Sunday, the most of his career. The Eagles were encouraged by the way he played in coverage when Arizona tried going deep on him. If he's on the field Saturday, Watkins expects the same - especially against DeSean Jackson.
"I'm pretty sure Washington's going to come out with the same plan . . . to make sure I'm on my P's and Q's," said Watkins, who is preparing as if he's going to start.
The only other cornerback on the 53-man roster is rookie Denzel Rice, who made the team over Watkins. The Eagles have played Watkins over Rice during the last three weeks because of his versatility and his understanding of the scheme from a full year in the system.
"It's close right now, but Jaylen has the nod on the outside because of his experience," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "Jaylen covered well last night. When we asked E.J. and Jaylen to go outside, even Walter Thurmond had to go outside, and all of them played the corner position pretty well. They didn't get behind Jaylen. Jaylen ran with a lot of speed. The deep ball didn't get over the top of him. He had a chance to make two interceptions. In coverage, Jaylen and E.J. and Walter out at corner did a nice job the other night."
The Eagles have versatility with Thurmond and Jenkins both converted cornerbacks, but neither player is a primary option as an outside cornerback. Thurmond can play there in a pinch, but he's not practicing at that spot this week. Jenkins is expected to remain the slot cornerback when the Eagles are in their nickel and dime packages.
Jenkins said there's "no uncertainty" because the Eagles are confident in whoever plays. But the best-case scenario for the Eagles is to have Maxwell and Rowe recover by Saturday.
Washington passes for 247 yards per game, but quarterback Kirk Cousins has topped 300 yards in three of the last four. He completed 31 of 46 passes for 290 yards and one touchdown against a healthy Eagles secondary in Week 4, and the Redskins did not even have Jackson. So they're more dangerous now, and the Eagles are more vulnerable.
"I'm confident that we'll have" Rowe and Maxwell, Davis said. "I think we will. I'm a little bit hopeful probably. But I think we'll be all right. If we're not, like I said, we'll play the guys that are healthy."