As we near the end of our position-by-position preview of the available free agents on this year’s market, we come to what will be one of the most closely watched positions for the Eagles this offseason. With the chance that both of last year’s starters won’t return for the Eagles, the opportunity to remake what has been a disappointing secondary over the past two seasons is ripe. This year’s NFL Draft is likely to play a factor, but what will the Eagles do to fortify the position through free agency? Here’s a look at some of their options, as ranked by Adam Caplan of TheSidelineView.com …
1. Sean Smith, Miami – Ht: 6-3, Wt: 218, Age: 25, Exp: 4
Career: A second-round pick by the Dolphins in 2009, Smith earned a starting role immediately as a rookie. The book on Smith is that he’s physical and certainly has good size for a cornerback. Smith is good in coverage, though he’s not exactly a ballhawk with only five interceptions to his career credit.
Fit: The Dolphins surprised some by not placing the franchise tag on Smith, which means that he’ll likely hit the free agent market. Only 25, Smith will likely command a fairly high salary because of the premium nature of his position, but the Eagles very well could be interested as they look to re-form the secondary.
2. Keenan Lewis, Pittsburgh - Ht: 6-0, Wt: 208, Age: 26, Exp: 4
Career: The former third-round pick took over as the starting left cornerback in 2012 and thrived in his expanded role with 23 pass breakups, ranking second only to Seattle All-Pro Richard Sherman. Lewis has played in every game over the past two seasons and 45 total for his career.
Fit: There's a lot to like about Lewis. He has ideal size and despite being the third-most targeted cornerback in the NFL in 2012, per Stats Inc., Lewis allowed fewer than half of his targets to be completed for a passer rating of 71.9. He's young and is a true starting-caliber cornerback. The biggest question mark on Lewis may be a lack of ball skills. Lewis failed to record any interceptions in 2012 despite the 107 targets and he only has one career pick. Note that the Cleveland Browns have reportedly shown interest in Lewis as their new defensive coordinator Ray Horton was once Lewis' defensive backs coach.
3. Chris Gamble, Carolina - Ht: 6-1, Wt: 205, Age: 29, Exp: 9
Career: The former first-round pick spent his entire nine-year career with the Panthers before being released on Friday to get Carolina under the salary cap. Gamble had an outstanding 2011 season as he allowed opposing quarterbacks throwing in his direction to have a passer rating of only 55.4. His 2012 season was cut short after just four games due to a shoulder injury.
Fit: Gamble has good size and cover skills but he does turn 30 on Monday and is coming off the injury. There are a number of quality cornerbacks on the market, so it could be a potential fit based on Gamble's shoulder checking out and, obviously, price. Gamble will probably be able to command a solid payday and based on age that could mean the Eagles will likely look elsewhere.
4. Brent Grimes, Atlanta – Ht: 5-10, Wt: 183, Age: 29, Exp: 6
Career: A Philadelphia native, Grimes worked his way onto the Falcons roster after going undrafted in 2006 out of Shippensburg and spending a year in NFL Europe. Grimes persevered, eventually earning a starting role with the Falcons during the 2009 season and going to the Pro Bowl in 2010.
Fit: Grimes is an interesting case because he plays at a high level when he’s on the field, but he’s coming off a torn Achilles which ended his 2012 season back in Week 1. That could mean he’s likely to sign a one- or two-year deal to prove his health before seeking a larger contract down the road, though he is on the verge of turning 30.
Career: The 16th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft by the Cardinals, the super-athletic Rodgers-Cromartie got on the field right away at cornerback and earned Pro Bowl honors in his second season in 2009. Then, of course, he was traded to the Eagles along with a second-round pick in exchange for Kevin Kolb. After a year out of position as a nickel cornerback, Rodgers-Cromartie started all 16 games for the Eagles in 2012.
Fit: The Eagles chose not to place the franchise tag on Rodgers-Cromartie after an up-and-down 2012 season, his first as a starter on the outside for the team. A return can’t be ruled out depending on what the market ends up being for Rodgers-Cromartie, but it appears less than likely at the moment.
6. Antoine Cason, San Diego – Ht: 6-1, Wt: 195, Age: 26, Exp: 5
Career: The 27th overall pick in 2008, Cason finally earned a full-time starting role on the outside in San Diego in 2010 and he’s started 45 games over the last three seasons, recording eight interceptions over that time. He also served as the Chargers’ punt return for a spell in 2010, averaging 16.5 yards per return.
Fit: Talented as he may be, Cason didn’t fare too well in 2012, a down year for the Chargers overall. He finished 108th out of 113 cornerbacks according to ProFootballFocus for the season, two years after finishing 11th by their rankings. But he does appear to have the size the Eagles will reportedly covet in the position.
7. Aqib Talib, New England – Ht: 6-1, Wt: 205, Age: 27, Exp: 5
Career: The talented Talib turned his reputation as a player around somewhat after a midseason trade to the New England Patriots in 2012, after which he helped improve the team’s secondary dramatically. Still, the stigma from a troubled time in Tampa Bay remains for the 2008 first-round pick.
Fit: Teams will do their due diligence on Talib on and off the field in free agency to help determine whether they think the tail end of 2012 was an outlier or whether the 27-year-old has truly turned a corner. The Patriots appear to be interested in bringing him back for the right price.
8. Cary Williams, Baltimore – Ht: 6-1, Wt: 190, Age: 28, Exp: 4
Career: Williams is another player who worked hard to etch out a career for himself at a starting cornerback. A seventh-round pick of the Tennessee Titans in 2008 out of Washburn, Williams landed in Baltimore in 2009 and spent time primarily as a special teamer until 2011. But he’s started all 32 over the last two seasons and was a major factor in the team’s Super Bowl championship
Fit: The Ravens reportedly will allow Williams to test the market and may not be big players when it comes to retaining the cornerback. It’s possible the Eagles see him as an option, depending, of course, on the price.
9. Quentin Jammer, San Diego – Ht: 6-0, Wt: 204, Age: 33, Exp: 11
Career: The Chargers fixture has been a mainstay at cornerback in southern California since he was the fifth overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. But he’ll be 34 next season and he’s on the decline of a long, impressive career.
Fit: It certainly doesn’t appear as if Jammer is the type of player the Eagles will covet.
10. Chris Houston, Detroit – Ht: 5-11, Wt: 178, Age: 28, Exp: 6
Career: A second-round pick by the Falcons in 2007, Houston has started 78 career games in six seasons split evenly between the Falcons and Lions. Though the Lions’ pass defense has been notoriously leaky over the past couple years, Houston has ranked as above average among cornerback each of the past two seasons according to ProFootballFocus.
Fit: Houston could fit the mold for the Eagles if the price is right, though he doesn’t necessarily have the size the Eagles are said to covet at the position.
Cornerback is one of the deepest positions in terms of free agent talent and the pool seems to keep getting stronger as Tuesday approaches. Elsewhere on the market is a pair of 2009 draft picks from the AFC South: Jerraud Powers, 25, of the Colts and Derek Cox, 26, of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Powers has started most of four seasons for the Colts, and the team is reportedly aiming to re-sign the former Auburn Tiger. Cox, meanwhile, looks likely to hit the market and could intrigue the Eagles. At 6-1, 190, he has the requisite size and he’s played well when healthy. But therein lies the biggest hang-up for Cox, health concerns.
Finally, Sam Shields of the Packers is an interesting player who impressed immediately in his NFL career despite converting from wide receiver as a rookie. The 25-year-old Shields is a restricted free agent, so his market will depend on the Packers’ tender.
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