Sad as it is to say of a defense that ranked dead last against the pass, but the Eagles probably fielded their best cornerback tandem in years in 2015. Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll were an upgrade over Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, which is nothing to hang their hats on, although they weren't as bad as the numbers suggest either. Second-round draft pick Eric Rowe showed a lot of promise down the stretch as well.
Still, for the fourth time in six years, the Eagles may once again start the season with a brand new pairing at corner. Maxwell and his absurd contract were shipped out, and while Carroll and Rowe both return, they face stiff competition. The club signed Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, both of whom played under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz with the Bills and seem to be penciled in at the top of the depth chart. And while Brooks' spot might be up for grabs, McKelvin might have his locked down.
All of which indicates there's at least one new face at corner this year, and that's before we touch on the slot. Change probably isn't a bad thing considering the Eagles' ranking through the air has nowhere to go but up. Competition is certainly welcome as well. That being said, Maxwell may have been an overpriced diva, but did the Eagles effectively replace his talent?
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This is definitely debatable, as Malcolm Jenkins turned out to be exceptional in the slot for the Eagles last season. The problem is he's actually a safety, and the result of moving him to corner was Chris Maragos or Ed Reynolds entering the game behind him. The trade-off was worth it at the time, but far from ideal.
For 2016, it appears a third cornerback will play on the nickel package instead. As of right now, the smart money is on seventh-round rookie Jalen Mills, who was getting a lot of reps and really impressed during OTAs, although the Eagles have other options. It looks like Leodis McKelvin will earn one of the starting jobs, but could move inside in passing situations. Fellow free-agent addition Ron Brooks knows the system and could get a shot at the role as well. Even Nolan Carroll, while he's not seen much action in the slot, he probably has to play somewhere if he's going to make the team.
Are any of these alternatives to Jenkins going to be an upgrade? That might be going out on a limb. But is slight decline at nickel corner worth the significant drop-off the Eagles suffered at safety as a result? On balance, this looks like a better situation overall.
Say what you want about Maxwell, but what the Eagles are getting in scheme fit with McKelvin, they are sacrificing in size. Part of Maxwell's appeal was his 6'3" frame in a league where the wide receivers increasingly resemble NBA basketball players, and while he disappointed with his attitude and lack of physicality, he matched up well when healthy and in the right mind frame.
McKelvin is no slouch. Selected 11th overall in 2008, he's an impressive athlete with a nose for the football. He's also 5'10", will be 31 on opening day and has had trouble keeping a starting job for much of his career. Maxwell didn't live up to the huge contract he signed last offseason, but wasn't as bad as his press either. None of which to say the Eagles won't be better off with McKelvin when everything is said and done, and for a fraction of the cost. When he's giving up five inches to Dez Bryant, on the other hand, we'll find out a lot.
Eric Rowe, Nolan Carroll
Ron Brooks has started all of three games in four NFL seasons, so as much as he may know the scheme, it would still be an upset if he beat out either Carroll or Rowe for a starting job. And while Carroll and Rowe may not be the same as players, they're the closest thing the Eagles have to a known quantity beyond McKelvin.
Carroll is coming off of a devastating ankle injury that might help explain why there weren't many offers in free agency this offseason. Even the Eagles only gave him a one-year, non-guaranteed contract, so the seventh-year veteran must prove he's healthy. To his credit, Carroll was actually having a very solid year in 2015 prior to getting hurt, and you couldn't blame him for feeling as though this is his job to lose.
After a strong finish to last season, the assumption coming into camp was Rowe would be one of the starters. Last year's second-round pick was a bit of an afterthought during OTAs though, so there's some question what his role will be with the Eagles going forward. Then again, the simple fact is Rowe may be the most talented corner on the roster at this point, so you have to assume he has a good shot to not only earn the job in training camp, but improve upon his quality play last year. The name on the back of the jersey may be the same, but the hope remains he's still getting better.
Pretty much everything
This is the position we know the absolute least about for the Eagles coming into camp. Aside from McKelvin, we don't know who the other starter is, let alone the front-runner. We can't say for sure who will be in the slot, only that he'll probably be a cornerback. We don't know who the primary backups will be. We don't even know if Carroll will be on the roster until everything is said and done. As to how it all goes down, your guess is as good as ours.
BETTER OR WORSE?
With so much uncertainty, typically it might be difficult to declare whether the unit is any better or worse. When it's a last-place secondary you're talking about, that's a little different. Maxwell honestly isn't a bad corner, but McKelvin probably isn't a dramatic downgrade. Beyond that, all the Eagles did was add and retain talent. Mills could contribute immediately, Brooks is an experienced backup, Carroll can play as long as he's healthy and Rowe is another year older. If they can't piece together a dependable duo and trio out of this group, they might never get this thing right. BETTER