Philadelphia Eagles News

Cornerback Picture: Work In Progress

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There are 11 cornerbacks listed on the 90-man Eagles roster and every single one of them comes with a "yeah, but …" attached to him. There are four rookies, two first-year players, and two second-year men among the group, which collectively fits the description "a work in progress."

The Eagles are keeping the big picture in mind here, and that's one of the reasons they were so eager and excited to use a second-round draft pick (No. 43 overall) on Sidney Jones, who is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury suffered in March and who is very much a question mark to play this season. And then the Eagles came right back in the third round and selected West Virginia's Rasul Douglas. After the draft ended, the Eagles added two more cornerbacks, UCLA's Randall Goforth and Iowa State's Jomal Wiltz.

In the short term, well, that's where the work-in-progress mindset comes into play. The Eagles have some veterans on hand – Ron Brooks, returning from a torn quadriceps injury that ended his 2016 season, figures to play a lot, whether he's competing for a starting role on the outside or as the team's primary nickel cornerback; Patrick Robinson, now in his eighth season in an injury-plagued career that began as a first-round draft pick in 2010 in New Orleans; and Dwayne Gratz, in his fifth season with 43 games, 25 starts, and three career interceptions under his belt.

Then there are the young veterans, headed by Jalen Mills, the second-year man who impressed last season, playing 65 percent of the snaps and keeping his composure, his confidence, and clearly improving as the year went along. C.J. Smith earned a spot on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie and then was promoted to the 53-man roster in October. He eventually played in 10 games, with just one defensive snap in the mix. Aaron Grymes looked so very good in the preseason before suffering a shoulder injury, and he returns hoping to take his next steps.

Mitchell White, like Grymes, plied his trade in the Canadian Football League and played very well there for three seasons. Now he's with the Eagles looking for success.

Eleven cornerbacks. Just as many questions. We'll see how it works out, both in the short term and in the future.

"All I know is that I have to keep my focus and work and get better. I'm not looking at numbers or the depth chart," said Smith, a star at North Dakota State who played very well in last summer's preseason. "I felt I got a lot better last year with my technique and understanding of the defense.

"It's a new year. I have a completely different perspective from last season."

Smith could emerge as a key player for 2017 with the jobs at cornerback pretty much up for grabs. When the Eagles lined up on Tuesday to open the Organized Team Activities, Mills and Robinson were with the first team. When the Eagles brought a third cornerback on the field, it was Douglas on the outside, as Mills slid inside to cover the slot receiver. Brooks did not participate in 11-on-11 drills and isn't likely to do so until Training Camp. The rest of the reps were divided evenly.

Everything is up in the air. The competition is wide open.

"It's all new for me. My focus is my job every day," Douglas said. "Even in this short time I think I've gotten a lot better, but I know I have a long, long way to go. I have a lot to improve on. I'm just starting my career.

"Going up against guys like Alshon (Jeffery) teaches me a lot. How to use my body, how to be physical, my footwork, my hands. Really, it's everything. Technique means so much. It's fast and it's precise. You have to be on top of it on every play."

Cornerback isn't a position likely to be resolved, set in stone, anytime soon for the Eagles. There are a lot of young and developing players. The ones who progress the furthest the fastest are the ones who are going to get game reps. The goal is to have cornerbacks one through five on the 53-man roster who have earned the trust of the coaching staff and who are going to compete and not back down against the great wide receiver challenges on the 2017 roster.

You can squint and see a day, in the not-far-off future, when Jones is healthy and a top cornerback, Douglas is developed and a tenacious competitor, and Mills is another season into his NFL experience and contributing in a big way to the defense. How far away that day is, we just don't know.

In the meantime, every day is crucial for the cornerbacks. Every practice rep means something. The coaching staff is watching, hoping to see some answers in a short time for the season to come.

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