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Eagles Putting The Press On CBs

Posted Apr 25, 2012

Step one of what promises to be a weekend filled with sharp turns and unexpected moves turned out to be a bombshell: The Eagles traded cornerback Asante Samuel to Atlanta for a seventh-round draft pick ...

We suspected for many months that the Eagles might deal Samuel, the talented, playmaking cornerback who made his mark as an Eagle with 23 interceptions and 3 Pro Bowl appearances in his four seasons here.

Samuel deserves no criticism. He does what he does: As a left cornerback who plays in "off" coverage, there are few who can match Samuel's production. As he has said many times, the Eagles knew what they had in Samuel when they signed him to a lavish contract as a free agent prior to the 2008 season.

But times have changed, and so has the defensive scheme. And the Eagles deemed Samuel expendable after they acquired Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugh last summer and saw both of them as starters in late-season wins over Dallas and Washington.

In those two games, those eight sample quarters, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo played both of his cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage in press coverage. He was able to move Asomugha around more -- from right cornerback to the left side, even -- and he saw that Rodgers-Cromartie had the length and the athletic ability and the sheer size to match up with any wide receiver in the league.

And so a deal has been made. It is not necessarily one that is going to make Eagles fans do back flips. Samuel goes to the Falcons for a 2012 seventh-round draft pick and, well, that's it. Oh, the Eagles get some substantial salary-cap relief -- to the tune of $9-10 million -- that they will use in the next two years to extend the contracts of players like running back LeSean McCoy, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and, if it all works out, Rodgers-Cromartie. And, certainly, the Eagles can work the still-alive free-agent market as much as they want with the added cap relief in the days following the draft.

What the trade truly means is that the Eagles are going to play a changing, aggressive style at cornerback. Samuel, for all of his blessings, was limiting in that he only played left cornerback and he mostly played in his off-coverage style, working his way back to the ball with marvelous anticipation skills and a break on the pass. That's why he had so many interceptions. Samuel was willing to gamble, to jump routes, and it has served him well in his NFL career.

But a page has turned. Cornerbacks coach Todd Bowles said in an interview with me shortly after he was hired that he wanted his players to "mix it up" in terms of their coverages. Bowles is known as an aggressive coach who thrives on takeaways, who wants his players to be physical and who demands that they challenge receivers.

Now the Eagles can change their coverage looks. They can use Asomugha as he should be used -- up at the line of scrimmage on either side or in the slot. He should be the one to hunt down the No. 1 wide receiver on the other team and take that wide receiver out of the game. Asomugha should be the featured cornerback, not the guy playing out on the right side of the defense alone.

The Eagles thought they could make it work last year by keeping all three Pro Bowl-level cornerbacks, and it didn't. It just didn't. Rodgers-Cromartie tried to work in as the slot cornerback, with limited success. Samuel was too passive and forgiving in his coverage. Asomugha never found his comfort zone, at least not until the defense turned the lights out on the Cowboys and Redskins to end an 8-8 campaign.

It is fair to wonder why the Eagles are receiving such little compensation for a proven player like Samuel, but that's the market. The Eagles worked this thing with open minds for weeks and weeks. They just couldn't continue with three cornerbacks at this level, three players who want to start, three players who must start.

Samuel was the one to go. The Falcons acquired a Pro Bowl cornerback and the Eagles added another draft pick and created more cap space. They clearly have big plans in the draft, and you can almost guarantee that they are going to address cornerback in some way, somewhere.

Behind Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie, the Eagles are largely unproven. Joselio Hanson is a steady, solid veteran who specializes in the slot and who can also jump outside and start some games for you. Curtis Marsh was a third-round draft pick last year who is still learning the position. He's got a big-time body, flashed nicely in training camp and in a cameo against the Redskins, but how ready is he to contribute? Brandon Hughes played some last year and has some skills. Trevard Lindley, a former fourth-round draft pick, is best as a press corner, and D.J. Johnson is 6 feet 1 and is going to get a good look.

Would it shock you to see the Eagles address cornerback early in the draft? First round, even? We shall see.

At this moment, we're processing a deal that sent Samuel to the Falcons for a seventh-round draft pick. On the surface, hey, I know it isn't exciting. You want to know why the Eagles didn't trade Samuel last year if it is true that they had a deal on the table with Detroit for multiple draft picks. Fair enough.

But the Eagles wanted to give it a go. They wanted to see if talent would overcome all, and it didn't. In the end, it's about making the Eagles as good as they can be moving forward and not looking back.

Samuel was a fine player here, one of the best playmakers at the cornerback position the team has ever had. The Eagles want to change things up and re-invent the way they play cornerback. They want to be in receivers' faces. They want versatility.

For Asomugha, the move puts him in familiar territory. He is the focal point now. He is the one who is going to be asked to shut down receivers in one-on-one coverage. Rodgers-Cromartie, entering the final season of his contract, has a chance to establish himself once again as an elite cornerback in the NFL.

This story is far from complete, as is what is sure to be a fascinating next several days. The Eagles, known for their wheeling and dealing, opened draft weekend with a bang on Wednesday that changes the mentality of the cornerback position moving forward.

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