The paint is not even close to being dry on the makeover that is the Eagles secondary. There are "taller, longer guys," at the cornerback position, as head coach Chip Kelly explained during draft weekend, and there are a lot of possibilities for the newfangled DBs.
New coaches (Cory Undlin and Matthew Harper), a new approach (look for the Eagles to play a lot of press coverage, jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage) and a fistful of new players (six players added during free agency and the draft) and, viola!, the Eagles have overhauled the secondary. It's a topic that has been discussed for months and now the positions begin to take shape.
The Eagles want their cornerbacks to be physical and sound in their technique as they play aggressively at the line of scrimmage. The cornerbacks have long arms and are strong and long. In a division that features great wide receivers in every corner, the Eagles have to match up much better than they did a year ago when the coverage breakdowns led to 72 passing plays of 20-plus yards.
So we are in the information-gathering stage. That's really what these Organized Team Activities are all about. The players are giving a lot of information to process and they are then expected to execute on the field. Walter Thurmond, for example, is now playing safety, and has been for a couple of weeks after playing cornerback with Seattle and New York. He's got a ton to think about as he views the field from an entirely new perspective -- full field vs. the partial look from the cornerback position -- and that takes time to assimilate. Thurmond is going to be vastly improved in August. How can the coaching staff judge him now, then?
They don't. They teach now and they see how much improvement a player makes day to day, week to week.
The secondary might be the most volatile group on this roster, from a who-is-playing-where? perspective. Byron Maxwell, signed in free agency to come in and establish a presence at cornerback, and Malcolm Jenkins, a staple at safety in only his second year here, are the only inked-in starters. And the truth is, even those positions are subject to the idea of "open competition," which head coach Chip Kelly espouses profusely and encourages daily.
The other two starting jobs and the depth chart that follows, are decidedly undetermined. And truly, it's an exciting time with all of these new faces and the youthful talent. Way back when -- a joke, kind of -- the Eagles made a fairly seamless transition from the cornerback tandem of Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. One draft, the 2002 killer, solved the secondary with Sheppard, Brown and safety Michael Lewis. They joined stalwart Brian Dawkins and the Eagles were in good shape until Lewis' lack of coverage skills and the changing NFL game rendered an in-the-box safety obsolete. From then, really, the Eagles have had their ups and downs at safety. Since Sheppard and Brown's games faded, the cornerback positions have been uneven as well.
Maybe this offseason solves all of that, just as it did in 2002. Maybe Jenkins is the stalwart holdover -- not in the class of Dawkins, but very solid and a great leader who should improve in his second season in the system -- and gets help from the rejuevenated Nolan Carroll (who is running with the starters at cornerback in these OTAs) and Brandon Boykin along with second-year man Jaylen Watkins, and the likes of Maxwell and Thurmond and E.J. Biggers and Eric Rowe and JaCorey Shephard and Randall Evans are the next generation of coverage players in the secondary.
There are some options in the secondary, and that's the exciting part for Undlin and Matthew Harper. There is a lot of young talent here, players who have the skillsets the coaches desire. When will the pecking order become more established? It won't happen until the preseason games begin and the players work against offenses and receivers that present different, unexpected looks.
It didn't happen as dramatically in 2002, of course. Neither Sheppard nor Brown became full-time starters until 2004 (to be fair, Sheppard started 9 games in 2003) as they eased their way into the lineup. It's possible here that Rowe or Shephard or Evans will make the immediiate leap into the lineup. As the Eagles had in 2002 with Vincent and Taylor at corner and free agent Blaine Bishop at safety, there are veterans here to steady the secondary as the rookies learn and mature and prepare to earn playing time.
Does history repeat itself for the Eagles in the secondary? Again, it's not an exact repeat snapshot. But it's close enough to appreciate the conversation. The Eagles have overhauled the secondary and hope the pieces here now will provide great stability and support for seasons ahead.