Over the last couple of years we've seen an exodus in the Eagles defensive backfield. Brian Dawkins, Lito Sheppard, Sheldon Brown, and now (presumably) Quintin Mikell. There's a completely new starting unit now — but the way the Eagles have gone about replacing all the departing All-Stars has been interesting. While there have been long-term holes at both cornerback and safety, the team has invested high draft picks only in safety.
Cornerback has long been considered a key position for the Eagles and other defenses. Today's pass happy NFL regularly exposes mediocre corners (see Patterson, Dimitri). So one would think that in addition to signing Asante Samuel, the Eagles front office would be committed to finding more starters who can lock down opposing wide receivers for years to come. But they haven't. Instead we've seen a string of low round picks, projects with upside rather than instant contributors: Jack Ikegwuonu (4th round), Trevard Lindley (4th), Curtis Marsh (3rd). They also drafted another fourth round corner, Macho Harris, only to convert him to safety and cut him after a year. Veterans Patterson, Ellis Hobbs, and Joselio Hanson haven't been the answer.
Meanwhile, the team has now invested in two second round safeties who were considered NFL-ready by many scouts. Nate Allen started most of the 2010 at free safety, and Jaiquawn Jarrett, this year's draft pick, should compete with Kurt Coleman for the starting strong safety spot right away. You can see the difference between a top second round pick like Allen and a fourth round player like Lindley, who barely saw the field last season and isn't seriously being considered to start next year either.
So why the split? Why not draft a top cornerback to try to replicate the success of Allen and immediately upgrade the position, rather than roll the dice on another project? The opportunities, both this year and last year, were there. And no one can argue that cornerback is less of a need.
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There's no easy answer. Perhaps the Eagles thought that safety was where the value was, especially if they're planning to pick up a cornerback in free agency, although that doesn't necessarily answer the long-term question for a team that likes to draft for the future. Maybe the increase in importance of the safety position requires a renewed commitment. Or perhaps there's more optimism about the team's current corners than we thought.
Whatever the reason, the Eagles clearly put safety ahead of cornerback in the last two drafts. Free agency will tell us whether that preference is conditional and temporary, or if it's part of a larger trend.