Injuries happen in the NFL. The good teams anticipate them and prepare for them and have the resources to compensate when a player goes down. The Eagles lost a promising rookie when cornerback JaCorey Shepherd was injured in Sunday's Training Camp session and now they go with the popular "next man up" theory.
"The way we do it, everybody is ready to play," cornerback Nolan Carroll said. "Coach Cory (Undlin) has done a good job making sure everybody knows everybody's position on defense. The safeties know what the corners are doing, the corners know what the nickel is doing, the nickel knows what the safeties are doing. We're all interchangeable back there.
"When one guy goes down, we can plug another guy in."
It isn't that easy when a team lacks talent, of course, but the Eagles feel they have a well-equipped group at cornerback to compensate for the loss of Shepherd, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee and is likely out for the season. It's the same reason they felt they could trade a player like veteran cornerback Brandon Boykin, who went to Pittsburgh in return for a fifth-round draft pick in 2016 that becomes a fourth-round selection should Boykin play 60 percent of the snaps for the Steelers this season.
Anyway, the focus is on how the Eagles play it at the nickel cornerback position. And the possibilities are many, as the Eagles develop rookies like Eric Rowe and Randall Evans and Denzel Rice, and how they fit veteran pieces like Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond and E.J. Biggers into the secondary mix.
Key words here: Develop. Fit. Secondary mix.
Key men here: Secondary coaches Cory Undlin and Matthew Harper.
"I think Cory Undlin is the most important addition we've made to the secondary," safety Malcolm Jenkins said in the spring. "We've changed our philosophy in what we're doing. We're going to be more physical and press and we're going to rely on technique to do it the right way. And the only way you can perfect your technique is to work at it. Coach makes us work at it. We're working on our fundamentals, where we put our hands and how we use our eyes. Not a day goes by that we aren't trying to be better than we were the day before."
Undlin became available after coaching in Denver for three seasons when the Broncos blew up their coaching staff following the 2014 season and Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis moved quickly to get Undlin to Philadelphia. The 2014 Denver secondary sent cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, along with safety T.J. Ward, to the Pro Bowl in Arizona. Denver finished third in the NFL in total yards allowed and ninth in passing yards permitted.
Undlin is a teacher and a technician. He's a no-nonsense guy who shoots his players straight. Undlin is demanding and he's relentless. Talk to him and he speaks of the "open gate," an in-game breakdown that too often happened to the Eagles in previous seasons. Cornerbacks lined up to press at the line of scrimmage, but instead of getting their hands on receivers and re-routing them or slowing them down, the cornerbacks too often "opened the gate" and allowed receivers a free release.
Those breakdowns contributed heavily to a defense that allowed a league-high (worst) 72 passing plays of 20-plus yards.
"We played a lot of press last year and that's always what we've really wanted to do," Jenkins said. "I just think we're better at it right now. Offense is all about spacing and timing and press throws off spacing and timing. When we have a front (seven) like we do, we know we don't have to cover long. We have faith in the guys we have and the technique we're using. It's a more aggressive style, but when you have the talent and the technique, it's really not that much of a risk.
"It's all we talk about. We're going to get up and press. We don't want to be 'imposters,' where we go to the line of scrimmage and then let you have a free run. We're going to move up. We want to put our hands on you and disrupt you at the line of scrimmage and get some hands on you and that's something that we didn't do well last year. We tried to play a lot of press, but with bad technique, we had a lot of guys running down the sideline and that's where those big plays came from."
Harper helped special teams coordinator Dave Fipp in 2014 as the Eagles ranked first in the NFL in cumulative kicking-game rankings. Harper is an up-and-coming coach along with Undlin and together they are enforcing technique and confidence and aggressiveness.
So how do the Eagles fill the nickel spot? There are options here. Jaylen Watkins, a second-year man from Florida, will get his reps. Carroll can move inside. Biggers has experience inside. The Eagles will continue to move pieces around, see what they have. The preseason games will, of course, be telling.
In the meantime, the day-to-day emphasis on doing it the right way with eyes and hands and feet continues. Those lessons are the vital ones that will, the Eagles are confident, pay off when the regular season begins.