Is Eric Rowe ready to start for the Eagles?
It's unfortunate Rowe's first major exposure came on a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game against one of the most dominant wide receivers to ever walk the planet. Calvin Johnson hauled in two touchdown passes for Detroit against a rookie cornerback off the bench, the second of which in particular could not have been covered any better. If you were only watching between bites of turkey, however, it probably looked like the Eagles' second-round pick was getting torched in the 45-14 rout.
Something happened as the contest wore on though. Rowe may have conceded a few easy catches early - hey, who could blame him for being a intimated by Megatron? - but as his confidence grew, his play improved gradually as well. Despite a few early jitters, Rowe actually turned in a respectable performance that afternoon, one he would then build on.
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Rowe started the final five games in 2015. According to Pro Football Focus, the 23-year-old was targeted 35 times in coverage, allowing 16 completions (45.7%) for 196 yards and no touchdowns - a 63.5 opponents' passer rating. This wasn't against garbage competition, either. The Eagles faced some of the most potent offenses in the NFL down the stretch, including New England, Arizona, Washington and New York.
Last year's second-round draft pick may never be more ready. No doubt, there will be more bumps along the way, but Rowe showed enough at the end of last season for the Eagles to feel comfortable rolling with him as one of their starters. In fact, you could go so far as to say the future looks bright.
Who's the other starter at cornerback?
It appears we have a genuine battle on our hands here. Assuming Nolan Carroll is healthy, he didn't really do anything to lose his job last year except get injured. Then again, Leodis McKelvin may just be the favorite of the coaching staff.
Carroll was quietly playing some very sound football in 2015, perhaps the best of his career. The seventh-year veteran recorded 10 pass breakups and two interceptions - one of which he returned for a touchdown - over 11 games before sustaining a broken ankle on Thanksgiving. He was still far from what anybody would consider a shutdown corner, but he usually kept receivers honest, limiting yards after the catch and alertly defending against the deep ball.
Then again, the Eagles did go out and sign McKelvin to a three-year deal. The former first-overall pick of the Bills has experience in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme and should provide reasonably stiff competition. McKelvin has also had trouble holding down starting jobs in the past, is about to turn 31 and at 5'10" concedes three inches to Carroll on the outside, so it's far from a lock.
It's worth noting Carroll is on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, which would suggest his injury is of serious concern to the Eagles. If he can bounce back and make the 53-man roster, however, he might gain the inside track to start based in part on the answer to our next question.
Who's the nickel cornerback?
As long as the competition between Carroll and McKelvin is close, it might make more sense to deploy McKelvin in nickel packages. It's debatable whether Carroll is cut out for covering slot receivers - at least, he has almost no experience doing it in the NFL, and at 6'1" might be too stiff. Even if McKelvin were to win the starting job, one theoretical configuration could see him shifting inside and giving way to Carroll on the perimeter against three-wide sets.
That, of course, is assuming Carroll even makes the roster. Although honestly, if McKelvin isn't the slot, the remaining options are not great.
2015 sixth-round pick JaCorey Shepherd was believed to be vying for the nickel snaps last summer at training camp, but suffered a torn ACL early on. In addition to being unproven, there's no telling whether he'll be healthy enough to contribute this season. The Eagles also added another Schwartz disciple in veteran Ron Brooks, who himself has minimal NFL game experience despite four years in the league. 2014 fourth-rounder Jaylen Watkins is hanging around the roster as well.
Malcolm Jenkins could always reprise his role as nickel cornerback, a spot where he thrived last year. But as we'll delve into shortly, the depth chart at safety isn't exactly stacked, either, and it remains to be seen whether Scwhwartz is willing to play the same musical chairs as his predecessor. It seems the best case scenario is still Carroll outside, McKelvin in, if it could only somehow work out that way.
Could JaCorey Shepherd take on an even bigger role?
Despite lowering expectations only a moment ago, Shepherd is one of the real potential sleepers on this roster. The Eagles were ecstatic when a mid-round prospect plummeted to late in last year's draft, supposedly due to a slow 40-time that was apparently the result of a hamstring injury.
Speed aside, Shepherd demonstrated a real nose for the football in college, where he racked up 32 pass breakups and five interceptions over his final two seasons. Actually, he was difficult to throw at in general, allowing only 38.6 percent of passes thrown his way to go for a completion at Kansas, according to PFF. Sure, he only clocked a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day, but numbers and film suggest he can play.
Where might Shepherd fit in with this group of corners that, other than Rowe's spot, is completely unsettled? It would not be surprising to see him back in the mix for the nickel job right off the bat. And if neither Carroll or McKelvin impresses on the outside, is it possible Shepherd could even get a look on the outside? Why not?
The question is whether the new Eagles front office and coaching staff will hold the same high opinion of Shepherd as the previous regime. That, and how quickly can he recover from an ACL? He may not even be back to full speed this season, and just because Chip Kelly liked him doesn't mean Schwartz will. That said, with two of three cornerback jobs wide open, do not discount Shepherd to carve out his niche.
Do the Eagles have depth at safety?
Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod may well be the best safety tandem in the NFL. The concern is what if one of them is hurt, or what if the Eagles need Jenkins to cover the slot? Who's first off the bench?
The obvious answers are either Chris Maragos or Ed Reynolds, who both spent time subbing in for Jenkins last season. Maragos, a career special team, eventually ceded that role to Reynolds, a 2014 fifth-rounder who showed flashes but also made mistakes. At least Reynolds finally gained some experience, but there's no telling what the Eagles have if he were thrust into a full-time spot.
Realizing this is a potential problem, the Eagles did spend late-round picks on a pair of defensive backs in this year's draft, Blake Countess out of Auburn and Jalen Mills out of LSU. Of course, sixth- and seventh-round rookies hardly instill a lot of confidence. It would be less than ideal if either was called on to play significant snaps.
There's no great answer here. If Reynolds continues to progress, the Eagles should be fine, but that's a big if. Right now, it's all about developing from the pool of young players and hoping one turns into, at minimum, a solid backup.