The Eagles might just have one of the most impressive trios of cornerbacks in the NFL on paper. Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard were a highly-respected duo on their own, but injury concerns over the last three seasons with Sheppard initiated the Eagles front office to add depth to the position. Sheppard only played in 11 games last season. He has missed 14 regular season games since 2005, although he is a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
The Eagles also had difficulties forcing turnovers, so the management wanted a "playmaker." The Eagles had 11 interceptions and forced 16 fumbles, recovering just eight. The Steelers and the Texans were the only teams to have as few interceptions as the Eagles did in 2007. Missing Sheppard and his 17 career interceptions may have contributed to the team's inefficiency in the turnover department.
The team wanted a player that addressed all of those issues (health, depth and interceptions) - enter Asante Samuel.
Considered to be the best possible free agent, Samuel signed a deal on the first day of free agency that will keep him in Philadelphia for six years.
The 27-year-old has 19 picks over the last three seasons and has missed only two games.
"I think the cornerback position is very important," said head coach Andy Reid. "When you have an opportunity to get the best one in the business, then you need to look at that. I welcome him aboard and I know Jim Johnson has great plans for Asante …Asante is a great player and he'll make great plays for us."
Samuel had spent his entire five-year career with the New England Patriots, where he recorded 22 interceptions in 75 regular season games, and five more in 14 career postseason contests. A two-time Super Bowl Champion with New England, Samuel's 16 interceptions over the past two seasons topped the NFL, and his six career interception returns for a touchdown (including postseason) also led the league.
"When they first told me they were interested in Asante, I knew what kind of football player he was," Johnson said. "The more football players you have on the team, of course I was happy about it. There is no question. As soon as they said that, I said we'll have to put something together to get all three of those guys on the field, it's as simple as that."
With three Pro Bowl caliber corners, Johnson has the flexibility to mix up packages and rotate high quality players.
"Between Sheldon, Lito, and Asante, if they're not on the field at the same time, two of the three (will). It might be all sorts of combinations. It might be Sheldon and Asante, it might be Lito and Asante, it might be Sheldon and Lito - those kinds of combinations.
"The first year I was here, we opened with the Cardinals and started out in the nickel defense with Al Harris, Bobby Taylor, and Troy Vincent. There is always that possibility."
Brown has provided valuable stability and leadership to the secondary since earning a starting role in 2004. As a full-time starter, he has recorded three touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while providing many bone-jarring tackles - just ask Reggie Bush.
"He's a tough guy," said defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "He plays in pain, doesn't want to come out of the game. There are some guys that get a few nicks and can't handle it, but he's one of those guys that is just mentally tough."
A second-round draft choice in 2002, Brown has seen action in all 105 regular and postseason contests, and signed a lucrative, six-year contract extension in 2004 that will keep him in Philadelphia through 2012.
Johnson has said that Sheppard is a better fit outside and Brown is more effective playing the slot in the nickel package, but as long as they are on the field the defense will be in good shape.
If the team keeps five cornerbacks like last year then Kyle Arrington and Therrian Fontenot will have to beat out returning reserve corners Joselio Hanson and Nick Graham.
Hanson signed a restricted free agent tender to keep him in Philadelphia for one more year. The 5-9, 185-pound Hanson has worked his way from being a rookie free agent in San Francisco in 2003 to playing in every game for the Eagles over the last two seasons.
At 5-10, 196-pounds, Arrington recorded 53 tackles, one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovered during his senior year at Hofstra.
Fontenot has more experience than Arrington, entering his second season in Philadelphia after spending the second half of 2007 on the team's practice squad. The 5-11, 185-pound Fontenot was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by Buffalo in 2005. He has spent parts of two seasons on Green Bay's and Cleveland's roster, playing in each team's regular season finale in 2005 and 2006, respectively.
Johnson knows how beneficial it is to have quality depth with the fourth and fifth corners.
"Some of those younger guys like Nick Graham and guys like that come along and help us," he said.
Similar to Hanson, Graham signed as an undrafted rookie by the Eagles in 2007 and earned a roster spot after an impressive preseason. He went on to become a key special teams contributor, finishing third on the team in special teams tackles (16) and fifth in production points (169). Graham enters his second season in Philadelphia looking to provide quality depth to the defensive backfield.
Lastly, the Eagles drafted Jack Ikegwuonu in the fourth-round knowing that he would most likely be unable to play this season.
A three-year letterman at Wisconsin, decided to enter the NFL draft following his junior season after earning his second consecutive first-team All-Big Ten selection. He suffered a right knee injury while working out in preparation for the NFL combine.
JUST A YEAR AGO ...
The Eagles kept five cornerbacks – Sheppard, Brown, William James, Hanson and Graham. Sheppard battled injuries for most of the season, but proved that he is still an elite corner with his shutdown performance against Terrell Owens in the late-season matchup at Texas Stadium. William James was replaced by Hanson as the nickel corner after he simply wasn't fast enough to keep up with opposing receivers. Graham beat out draft pick Rashad Barksdale for the final corner spot in training camp.
BATTLE TO WATCH: Sheldon Brown vs. Lito Sheppard
They will be on the field together nearly two-thirds of the time according to defensive coordinator Jim Johnson but it will be interesting seeing the two who came into the league together in 2002 compete.