The first week of the regular season is a time of eternal optimism. Save the Giants and Cowboys, all players and teams are on level ground. But the beginning of this season might be most warmly welcomed by cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Rodgers-Cromartie had a whirlwind season in 2011. He was traded at the end of the lockout by the Cardinals, along with a second-round pick, for Kevin Kolb. But the signing of Nnamdi Asomugha only days later moved Rodgers-Cromartie from his natural position on the outside to the role of slot corner.
As one of the fastest and most physically gifted corners in the league, Rodgers-Cromartie never truly felt comfortable playing inside. But with Asomugha and Asante Samuel on the outside, Rodgers-Cromartie was a good soldier and held his own. Now, with Samuel gone and Rodgers-Cromartie back at home on the outside, he is looking to have his best season yet.
"You never know what's going to go on in the season," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "But I can tell you that I feel a lot more comfortable, and I feel like I'm where I belong, and I feel like I can play faster and play better."
Sunday's game against the Browns marks the first time that Rodgers-Cromartie will start the season as an outside corner for the Eagles. This means he'll be able to use his speed and physicality to not only press receivers at the line, but also to keep pace with even the swiftest downfield runners.
"I know what I have in my skillset ability," he said. "I just want to see it grow and become the pro that I think I can be. That's why I'm out there every day. When you see me out there, I'm out there competing, working hard and just trying to get better."
Helping Rodgers-Cromartie step his game up is new secondary coach Todd Bowles. After spending four years in Miami as the Dolphins' secondary coach — and part of last year as their interim head coach — Bowles joined the Eagles this past offseason. Rodgers-Cromartie sees in Bowles a brilliant football mind.
"I can tell you ... just as far as understanding and knowing the game, I think he's one of the smartest men I've been around," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "He comes in there; he'll get in that film room with you and will tell you, 'Look, this is what's going to come.' And when you get out there, you start noticing that that's really what's going to happen. So you tend to listen to him. I think he's a great addition to the team."
The acquisitions of Bowles and Rodgers-Cromartie, along with All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha, bring full circle a transformation in the way the Eagles think about cornerbacks. Unlike the shifty, sub 6-0 corners of the past, both he and Asomugha are 6-2 and physical. Add to this the Eagles' potent pass rush, and Rodgers-Cromartie believes you have the makings of a great defense.
"I think we can be really good," he said. "We have the guys. You can look at us on paper; we look real good. (The defense is) just coming together; (putting) that time in. going through this preseason, I think the 'D' understands that we have to come out, play fast and just play together."
Now, the challenge is to put it together and show the rest of the league what this defense is capable of. Rodgers-Cromartie thinks that will happen sooner than later.
"That first game always allows you to know where you stand as a defense," he said. "Even though we went through preseason, it's nothing like the regular season. This is for real now, so you're going to understand after this game what we have as a defense. Everybody is excited to get out there and do that."
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