For a good chunk of the 2009 season, the Eagles boasted an enviable picture at cornerback. The starters, Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown, had their hands on footballs and deservedly claimed Pro Bowl mention. Nickel cornerback Joselio Hanson was in a perfect role and his versatility allowed the Eagles to blitz and expand their creativity in coverage. Ellis Hobbs was a veteran who was certainly as accomplished, if not more, than any player in the league as a dime corner.
The fifth cornerback was Dimitri Patterson, who didn't see much time within the defense, but who was a top special teams player in coverage.
For half a season, it was a great situation. And then it came apart, piece by piece. Hobbs was injured in the first game against Dallas and missed the remainder of the season. At the same time, Hanson was suspended for four games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, and suddenly the Eagles were down two key pieces heading into the second half of the season. One week later, Brown suffered a strained hamstring in San Diego and battled the injury the rest of the year.
The cornerback picture was never again the same.
Hanson returned from his suspension, but he wasn't the same player and he struggled in the final four regular season games and in the playoff loss to Dallas. Brown was on the field every week, but the hamstring injury clearly took something away from his game. Samuel continued to get his hands on the football and make big plays, but teams challenged him and won too often by throwing bubble screens to his side and gaining big yards that way. Samuel made the Pro Bowl and recorded nine interceptions, but his critics went after him for missing tackles and lacking aggressiveness at the line of scrimmage.
Patterson played in 11 games, but quadriceps and hand injuries stunted his productivity and his growth.
After entering the season with one of the very best cornerback situations in any NFL city, the Eagles ended it with a bunch of questions. And since the year ended with that playoff loss to the Cowboys the Eagles have discussed the position -- every position, for that matter -- and we'll find out if they think the cornerback need is as dire as some of you believe it is.
It certainly isn't out of the realm of possibility that the Eagles will add a piece or two to the position. New defensive backs coach Dick Jauron has the expertise of his many years in the league and he has had success working with a whole lot less than a Pro Bowl player in Samuel and a player who deserves more consideration for the league's all-star game in Brown. Both have plenty of great football in front of them.
Hanson was a disappointment last year, particularly in light of the contract extension he signed, and Hanson has to rebound. Hobbs is expected to make a full recovery from his cervical injury, but he is scheduled to be a restricted free agent in March and, thus, his future is uncertain. Patterson and Geoffrey Pope, a relative unknown who was on the roster late in the season, will compete for roster spots in training camp.
So what is the state of the cornerbacks here? They need to be better, each and every one of them. Samuel, whose big-moment interceptions have earned him the rep as one of the best in the business, must be more physical and commit himself more to the art of tackling. Nobody expects him to become one of the game's nastiest corners, but Samuel has to be better in that phase of his game.
Brown is about as solid as they come, but he needs to improve as well. Both he and Samuel were beaten on some double moves last year, so they need to get better in that area. An improved pass rush helps, but that is a story for another day. There are questions about the depth here, and those are fair questions. Hanson just did not step up last year after really coming on in previous seasons.
Hey, maybe the coaches and personnel department -- who are the ones that matter, by the way -- have a totally different view. They are far more educated, for sure. They are the experts. I'm just here, writing an opinion with free agency three weeks away.
Cornerback is always a position the Eagles want to upgrade. It is probably not the highest item on the team's list, but they will never turn a blind eye to a good player who can help on the island. This, though, is a position where the real improvement could come from within the current roster -- and not just among the cornerbacks. A new coach could pay huge dividends. An improved pass rush could make a significant difference. Another year with Sean McDermott as the coordinator is going to aid everyone.
It was a startling jolt to the cornerback positions in a season's time in 2009, and the Eagles have to recognize all that went into the picture. Injuries, a suspension, some problems unforeseen. The cornerbacks here are still good enough to win it all, with or without some help in free agency and the draft.