’21 Training Camp Pre: Where Will Birds Most Be Exposed?
[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series from Andrew DiCecco and Geoff Mosher previewing the Philadelphia Eagles as they head into training camp July 27. This story answers the question: What is the team’s biggest positional weakness?]
We know where the Eagles are strongest, and we know the best moves they made in the offseason to improve upon last year’s 4-win disaster.
But which area needs the most work as the Eagles ready for the new season by reporting to training camp July 27?
Here’s how we see it:
Andrew DiCecco: Cornerback
When assessing the Eagles roster, it shouldn’t take long to pinpoint the cornerback position as the team’s most glaring deficiency.
Sure, Darius Slay returns for his second season in Midnight Green, but the three-time Pro Bowler struggled at times against big-bodied receivers. If the secondary is expected to fulfill expactations and provide resistance against opposing aerial attacks, it’ll need an improved Slay in 2021.
However, beyond Slay, it’s arguable that the Eagles field the worst collection of cornerbacks in football.
Last summer, the team parted ways with former draft picks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, essentially handing the No. 2 spot to an unequipped, overmatched Avonte Maddox, who lacks the desired measurables to man the perimeter in a full-time capacity.
Maddox struggled mightily in contested-catch situations, but also with eye discipline and showcased shoddy ball-tracking. In fact, it became painfully evident that teams approached each week with the intent of mercilessly attacking Maddox’s side of the field.
If it wasn’t previously evident that Maddox was miscast as an outside cornerback, it should be now. To make matters worse, Maddox’s season ended prematurely due to injury.
With Maddox on the mend, the Eagles turned to Michael Jacquet, Kevon Seymour, and Grayland Arnold to fill the void. Of the trio, Jacquet and Arnold were undrafted rookies who spent most of the 2020 season on the practice squad, while Seymour spent the entire 2019 season out of the NFL.
Training camp might be less than two weeks away, but the Eagles did little to address a seemingly perpetual conundrum. While Slay is locked into a starting job on one side, the contestants for the vacant No. 2 spot include Maddox, Jacquet, Seymour, Craig James, and fourth-round rookie Zech McPhearson.
While McPhearson has promise, his transition to the cornerback position at the pro level will be no small feat. Being thrown to the wolves too early could affect his confidence. Expect the rookie to be brought along gradually under defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson.
As for Maddox, surely the team can’t go back to the well a third time, right? The compactly built defensive back has his limitations but can provide value as a position-less backend piece.
Of the other contenders, Jacquet’s upside is highest due to his length, athleticism, and 82 1/8-inch wingspan, but the team is fooling itself if it believes any of the candidates should be a viable starting option.
Regardless of how good new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon might be, there isn’t a scheme that can mask the ineffectiveness of an entire side of the field for an extended period.
The Eagles should make a move at cornerback before final cut-downs. It would be malpractice if they didn’t.
Geoff Mosher: Linebacker
You almost have to admire the Eagles’ dogged determination to remain mediocre at linebacker from year to year for more than a decade, demonstrating that there’s no such concept as too much devaluation.
Even one of their most pivotal free-agent signings this offseason, linebacker Eric Wilson, is the epitome of Steady Eddie, an undrafted prospect from Cincinnati in 2017 who mainly played special teams for this first three seasons before cracking into the starting lineup last year, but only after injuries to Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr forced him into action.
Despite his inauspicious pedigree, 25 career starts, and that he secured just a one-year deal in free agency, Wilson is actually the only linebacker penciled in to start, which basically paints a fairly bleak picture at linebacker for the Eagles, who have invested little money and little draft capital at the position.
Their most aggressive investment, 2020 third-rounder Davion Taylor, was largely seen by other NFL teams as a highly athletic but incredibly raw prospect who profiled somewhere as a late Day 3 prospect. Reactions from several league sources after the Eagles took the former Colorado linebacker 103rd overall ranged from shock to genuine curiosity about what the Eagles saw that they and others didn’t.
The haphazard building of this linebacker corps has left new coordinator Jonathan Gannon with more questions than answers as the Eagles head to training camp later this month. It’s anyone’s guess who will line up alongside Wilson when the Eagles are in nickel, the formation they hope to deploy at least 55 to 60 percent of the time.
Alex Singleton, last year’s breakout performer, might be the team’s most talented overall linebacker, but his coverage is just OK and he might not be an ideal fit on the strong or weak side in Gannon’s scheme.
For all of his athletic traits, Taylor played just 32 snaps last year – justifying those league-wide suspicions about his readiness to compete right away – in what amounted to a freebie of a rookie season while the midsection of the Eagles’ defense suffered in the playmaking department.
Shaun Bradley, a try-hard and smart kid from Temple, logged some snaps as a rookie last year but isn’t a sure shot to make the 53. Neither are late-round rookies JaCoby Stevens and Patrick Johnson. Genard Avery and Ryan Kerrigan are projected to play some snaps at linebacker, but both are pass rushers by trade and can’t be asked to cover tight ends, slot receivers and running backs.
Wilson, considered an average tackler, is the group’s only pro known for coverage skills, unless Taylor makes a monumental leap from Year 1 to Year 2.
The lack of overall playmaking talent among this group only adds to Gannon’s pressure of finding ways to stop veteran quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, each of whom happen to be on the schedule during the first six weeks.
Gannon’s scheme is expected to feature more pre-snap and post-snap movement, along with more varied looks on the back end to create more guesswork for the quarterback than the prior regime did.
But unless he’s a miracle worker, Gannon will have a hard time masking the deficiencies of his linebacker group.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com and Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherNFL) is is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and Senior staff writer/editor for InsideTheBirds.com.
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