Eagles haven't fully addressed cornerback needs | Jeff McLane
They could be worse at the position than they were last season.
On paper, the Eagles might have a worse set of cornerbacks than they did last season. While the departed Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll were at best a pair of No. 2's, it would be a stretch to describe Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson as even starting-caliber cornerbacks.
Both Mills and Robinson have potential upside. Football isn't played on a slab of wood, after all. But the similarly held belief that the Eagles weren't strong enough at corner before most recent years - including last offseason following the McKelvin and Carroll free-agent signings - played out as written.
The difference this offseason, of course, is that the Eagles expended significant draft resources on the position - more than they have in 15 years. They selected Sidney Jones in the second round and Rasul Douglas in the third round in what was considered to be one of the deepest cornerback classes in recent memory.
But Jones, who is recovering from an Achilles tendon rupture in March, may not even play this season, and Douglas, who was competing at the junior-college level only three years ago, can't be expected to make the leap to NFL starter in just a matter of months.
The Eagles are rightfully building for the long haul, but did they shortchange the immediate future in both their reluctance to spend in free agency and in drafting prospects, particularly Jones, who won't likely make major contributions this season?
Asked if there were spots that Eagles fans might think weren't adequately addressed in the draft, Howie Roseman quickly identified cornerback and then running back.
"We understood that those were positions of incredible depth in this draft and we wanted to address those, and we did, but by the same token we also didn't want to force one too early," Roseman said on philadelphiaeagles.com. "We wanted to stick to our board, be patient with the process, understand that we're trying to build this thing the right way and not take any short cuts."
Pushing to fill needs has burned the Eagles in the past. But veterans like safety Malcolm Jenkins, who openly campaigned for his team to draft starting-caliber corners, may not have the luxury of patience. Jenkins and fellow safety Rodney McLeod may have an even more difficult job this season, as improbable as that may have seemed at the end of 2016.
"That's been kind of one of the hot topics over the last couple of seasons, is consistency at the corner position," Jenkins said several days before the draft. "We're asking them to do a lot. It's a tough place to be at in this defense. And I know we're searching for a true No. 1 corner to really hold up."
Jones may project as a No. 1 corner, but it could be years before he reaches that level. Jenkins said that he thought Mills would take a dramatic step forward, and by history alone, he should improve upon his rookie year. But does he have the long speed to consistently run with top receivers on the outside?
Jenkins knows Robinson, as well. They played together with the Saints for four seasons. But Robinson has struggled with various injuries and has only one season in which he started all 16 games. Perhaps the Eagles will tap into the potential that made the 29-year-old a first-round pick, but three other teams have already failed trying.
The remaining options on the roster aren't appealing. Veteran Ron Brooks bounced between the slot and outside last season, and is a Jim Schwartz pet. But he was uneven and suffered a season-ending quadriceps tendon rupture in October. His readiness for 2017 is unclear.
C.J. Smith had flashes as an undrafted rookie, but he lacks experience. Dwayne Gratz was a late-year addition, but the fifth-year veteran was on the street for a reason. And Aaron Grymes, formerly of the CFL, is a bottom-of-the-roster filler.
Roseman has time to pull off a trade, and there is always the waiver wire, but first-team-quality corners just aren't hanging from non-first-round trees. The Eagles have learned this lesson all too well over the last decade.
"We haven't put as many resources in the cornerback position. We haven't taken a lot of high picks," Roseman said after Jones and Douglas were drafted. "When you look at the position, they're hard to find."
Since 2002, when they took Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown in the first and second rounds, the Eagles have tried almost every other method to find effective starting corners. For the most part, they have been unsuccessful.
They have spent exorbitantly in free agency (e.g. Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha, Byron Maxwell) and inexpensively in free agency (Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, McKelvin). They have attempted trades (Ellis Hobbs, Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie). And they have devoted countless mid-to-late-round draft picks in the hope that a few might strike (Jack Ikegwuonu, Trevard Lindley, Curtis Marsh).
The Eagles did select Eric Rowe in the second round of the 2015 draft, but that was a Chip Kelly decision, and Roseman and Schwartz decided he wasn't suited to the defensive scheme and traded him after just one season.
Schwartz wants supremely confident corners who can press at the line, play man-to-man defense the majority of the time, and make plays on the ball down the field. In other words, he wants everything. But his scheme is still built around getting pressure from a four-man front.
Even though eventual first-round cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Adoree' Jackson, Gareon Conley - despite a sexual assault allegation - and Tre'Davious White were on the board at No. 14, the Eagles went with defensive end Derek Barnett. They did so despite already having Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Chris Long.
If the Eagles can generate enough pressure on quarterbacks this season, then the lack of ready-made talent at corner might not matter as much. But even the best pass rush defenses need lock-down corners. It's a yin and yang dynamic.
Roseman believes that he got one in Jones - it's just going to take time before the Eagles know for certain.
"We're going to take it slow," Roseman said. "We're just going to make sure we get 100 percent of Sidney going forward because this is an extremely talented guy at an important, hard-to-find position."
Patience is a virtue the Eagles may not be able to afford.