Last year's big free agent signing was a washout, as Byron Maxwell was traded to Miami in the offseason, and the Eagles are starting over at the cornerback positions. That's not necessarily a bad thing, says defensive backs coach Cory Undlin.
"We're going to have great competition. We're going to play hard, physical football and we're going to play with technique and we're going to play fast," Undlin said. "I like this group a lot. I'm excited to see how it all shakes out when the pads go on and we see what we have. We're at ground zero with the depth chart right now. Everyone is going to get a shot to perform and everyone is going to get a shot to show us what he can do in the preseason games."
This is Jim Schwartz's defense and that was the theme of the second day of Training Camp for the 38 players at the NovaCare Complex, at least from the media's perspective as Schwartz addressed reporters and talked about his group. Schwartz's defense is an attacking one on the front end that relies on a four-man pass rush and judicious extra pressure. The Eagles are going to mix things up on the back end, but it won't be anything radically different than last year.
The keys to this defense are: pressure up front, good fits throughout and on-the-same-page communication on the back end. Undlin may not have a superstar at cornerback – and how has that concept worked for the Eagles in the recent past with bust free agent signings like Nnamdi Asomugha and Maxwell, anyway? – but he thinks he's got a competitive group, deep and talented, that is going to come together between now and September.
A pair of former Buffalo Bills who know Schwartz's defense, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, took most of the first-team reps in the spring and they imparted their wisdom on the entire defensive backs room in meetings and on the field. Veteran Nolan Carroll and second-year man (really, in his first season) JaCorey Shepherd are almost all the way back from 2015 injuries. Denzel Rice cut his NFL teeth in his rookie season last year and is ready to make his push. Eric Rowe was a starter late in '15 and is learning the defense and pushing for playing time. Aaron Grymes was a star in the CFL and he has made his share of plays through the spring and these early days of Training Camp.
And then there is rookie Jalen Mills, a seventh-round draft pick who has made a strong early impression.
"I like him. The guy is a very, very mature young man. He loves the game. He comes in every day and wants to get better," Undlin said. "He's got some violent upper body. When he gets his feet in the ground he can change direction, he's got a good nose for the ball. With all of that being said, he's still got a lot of work to be done. We feel like we got a great player there in the draft and I've enjoyed working with him. It worked out for us and I think it's going to end up working out for him."
Undlin wants his cornerbacks to challenge the line of scrimmage, get their hands on the football and make plays. He doesn't want any open-the-gate releases off the line of scrimmage, so technique and timing and attention to detail are beyond critical. They are essential.
And, let's be honest here: How a defensive player looks now can be dramatically different from when the pads go on. The game changes then. And the analysis does, too.
"The game will change when the pads go on and you start playing time. The tempo changes and emotions change," Undlin said. "I'm not discounting anything we've done. All of that comes into play, but the hard evaluation will come here as we keep going forward."
Do the Eagles have enough at cornerback? Is there enough "star" power here understanding the schedule includes matchups against great receivers every week, including an NFC East powerhouse slate that has the likes of Dez Bryant, DeSean Jackson and Odell Beckham, Jr. lining up on the other side of the football?
Hey, we'll see. Maybe McKelvin stays healthy and plays as well for Schwartz as he did when the two were together in Buffalo in 2014. Maybe Brooks can be a standout here either in the slot or on the outside, or both. Maybe Carroll bounces back from the nasty injury last November and Shepherd recovers from the torn ACL. Maybe Rowe takes that big step forward as many do in their second NFL season. Perhaps Mills is the real deal and becomes a seventh-round gem of a story.
"We're going to find out," Undlin said. "They're going to be here and they're going to compete and whoever plays the best is going to win playing time. We've got guys who are going to go at it hard. That's what I want."