In the second half of Sunday's victory over Atlanta, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz found his cornerback depth tested. Starter Nolan Carroll left with a concussion. Leodis McKelvin, who usually starts, needed to play with an ailing hamstring.
All that remained were players in their first NFL seasons. The most experienced one was seventh-round pick Jalen Mills, so Mills drew the assignment of all-pro wide receiver Julio Jones.
"If you told me in May we'd take a seventh-round draft pick and be flipping sides with Julio Jones . . ." said Schwartz, indicating the unlikelihood of Mills' ascension.
Schwartz was complimenting Mills, whom Schwartz lauded for his competitiveness and ability to play immediately this season. But it also speaks to the state of the Eagles' cornerbacks.
A seventh-round pick is near the top of the depth chart because of roster decisions this season and failed draft picks in recent years.
Carroll recovered from his concussion and returned to practice Thursday. He will play Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, as will McKelvin, who has been a full participant in practice this week. After those two, the Eagles have Mills, C.J. Smith, and Aaron Grymes - three players who weren't in the NFL last year.
"Whoever's out there is going to have to show up and is going to have to play," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We're not going to change our entire defense to babysit anybody. We're going to, as much as we can, lean on them to compete and step up to the plate."
The Eagles went bargain-shopping in free agency to rework the position, re-signing Carroll after an injury-shortened 2015 campaign and bringing McKelvin and Ron Brooks from Buffalo.
That trio was supposed to join 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe this season, but he never made it to the regular season. Mills surpassed him in the eyes of the coaches, and the Eagles dealt Rowe to the New England Patriots before Week 1. With that trade, the Eagles had only two of the 14 defensive backs they drafted since 2010 - and one of them, Jaylen Watkins, was released before returning to the team.
Mills was among the top four cornerbacks in September, but McKelvin's Week 1 injury moved him up. When Brooks was lost for the season in Week 7, Mills' role became more important and Smith joined the roster. Grymes received a promotion from the practice squad last week, and the Eagles were forced to survive with limited experience.
"Regardless of experience, I think one of the things that's happened in our corner position is we've been very competitive," Schwartz said. "We haven't always played great, but we've played competitive. We've given up some plays, but we've made some plays, and in this league you're not going to make any plays if you don't contest some things."
Mills scores high on Schwartz's competitiveness scale. Schwartz said "there hasn't been very many situations that have been too big for him," and the Eagles had no hesitation about putting Mills on Jones last week. Mills' response was, "I've got him."
Schwartz said it also helps that Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, two veteran safeties, can pitch in. Plus, since Brooks' injury, the Eagles have often used Watkins as a fifth defensive back instead of going to a third cornerback. But even at full strength, the Eagles are comfortable with Mills on the field.
When Mills slipped to the seventh round of the draft, he never wavered in his belief he could play immediately. He pointed to other late-round cornerbacks who have thrived - Seattle's Richard Sherman among them - and he has been emboldened by assignments against some of the NFL's top wide receivers. If he does allow a big catch, Mills said, he has forgotten about it by the next play.
"I feel like if I was to get beat, it's nothing that the guy did - I feel like it may be on me," Mills said. "Maybe I took the wrong step . . . or I didn't turn around to high-point the ball at the right time."
Carroll said he and McKelvin have tried to help Mills, emphasizing that mistakes will be made. But the competitiveness that Schwartz raved about has been apparent to Carroll. He noted that there's "no glory" at cornerback and that Mills has since stopped beating himself up over a mistake.
"We need him out there," Carroll said.
If Carroll finds he hasn't fully recovered this week or if McKelvin's hamstring flares up, the Eagles might need Smith and Grymes, too. It's rare that 60 percent of the cornerbacks on a team lack any NFL experience, but the Eagles believe they can endure with this situation.