With the loss of two pro bowl players in Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard compounded with the openly aired disgruntlement of Sheldon Brown, one might think that our defensive backfield would be utterly undone in 2009.
Although "Weapon X" is unquestionably not replaceable, the Eagles made moves over the last two seasons to impressively upgrade the defensive backfield with youth and talent.
Going back to the Buddy Ryan era, the Eagles have historically had an incredible defensive backfield and that tradition looks likely to continue this season.
Players like Andre Waters, Wes Hopkins, Brian Dawkins, Eric Allen, Troy Vincent, and Bobby Taylor among others have been overshadowed by the play in the trenches of the Gang Green defense of old and an impatience for a more consistent offensive unit.
Another notable loss in the secondary was safety Sean Consadine.
2008 Acquisitions and Draft Picks:
In 2008, the Eagles supplanted Lito Shephard with the ball hawking corner from New England, Assante Samuel. In his first year with the Eagles, Samuel provided instant gratification earning a pro bowl berth and produced electricity in the secondary during the playoffs.
Free Safety, Quntin Demps from Texas-El Paso was drafted in the fourth round and provided a much needed stimulus package to the kick-off return team.
With Brian Dawkins having just one year remaining on his contract and entering into his 13th NFL season, Demps looked the kind of player Jimmy Johnson could develop into a starter at that position.
Another 2008 draft choice was corner back Jack Ikeguano, a first round prospect, who slipped into the later rounds due to an injury suffered prior to the combine. Ikeguano spent the 2008 season on Injured Reserve, but figures to play a bigger role in the competition for a job this season if he can stay healthy.
As the only reported injury of mini-camp, Ikeguano missed time with a hamstring strain, not boding well for his 2009 status.
2009 Acquisitions and Draft Picks:
During free agency, the Eagles signed a pair of quality and experienced safeties to sure up the competition level in preseason. Sean Jones and Rashad Baker both have starting NFL experience for the Browns and Raiders respectively.
Sean Jones believes he can play both the free and strong safety positions, however, Jimmy Johnson has been firm on his intention to allow Jones to compete at strong safety as he holds questions as to his range in coverage at free.
Jones required arthroscopic surgery to repair cartilage damage in his knee missing several weeks of the 2008 season. Claiming to be at 100 percent for 2009, Jones is a proven ball hawk ranking third in the NFL in interceptions over the last three seasons with 14 picks.
He has also proven himself as a solid tackler recording 111 tackles in 2006 and 97 tackles in 2007.
Rashad Baker will be fighting for a roster spot, but he is largely unknown for his heroics in the Eagles run at the playoffs last season. One could easily say that without Rashad Baker we would not have seen the post season.
Baker was responsible for the drive killing interception of former Eagle Jeff Garcia in the Raiders week 16 upset over Tampa Bay that knocked the Buccaneers out of playoff contention and granted the Eagles the opportunity to earn their playoff appearance when they annihilated the Dallas Cowboys in the regular season finale.
On day two of the NFL Draft the Eagles backed up their short term and long term needs at cornerback. The Eagles acquired New England corner Ellis Hobbs via trade and drafted Virginia Tech standout Victor "Macho" Harris.
Reid traded the Eagles third and a fifth round draft pick with New England to reunite young veteran cornerback Ellis Hobbs with former teammate Assante Samuel. Despite being a league leader in touchdown receptions yielded in 2008, Hobbs is regarded as a quality corner with his best playing years still ahead of him.
Hobbs also brings great skill to the kick off return team, registering three for touchdowns, including the NFL return record of 108 yards.
In the fifth round of the draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Victor "Macho" Harris, a hard hitting and explosive game day corner back from Virginia Tech. Despite running a 4.68 forty at the combine, Harris is the kind of bone cracking, all-heart player that Eagles fans gravitate towards.
One look at his highlights and game tapes and fans will see that this guy shows up when the whistle blows. Affectionately dubbed, "Macho", Harris has faced adversity before. He bears the burn scars from a house fire in which he reentered his home to aid in the rescue of his family.
This is the kind of guy we need to see have great success at the NFL level.
The Eagles also added rookie free agent Reshard Langford from Vanderbilt. Langford looked like the real deal in mini-camp demonstrating range and all of the right instincts to compete for a position on this roster and find success at the NFL level. Having made an impression on the coaching staff, this guy could be a real sleeper value as a rookie free agent.
Competition Outlook for the 2009 Season:
With a healthy and deep look at the defensive backfield, competition for a roster spot and playing time will evidently be fierce. I would expect to see as many as 10 defensive backs on the active roster in 2009 and don't be surprised to see Jimmy Johnson put some creative defensive packages on the field that may include three safeties.
Many of the defensive backs including, Ellis Hobbs and Victor Harris have the versatility of contributing on kick returns and special teams. These guys will have an obvious edge in surviving roster cuts.
The Sure Things at Corner and Safety:
Pro bowler Asante Samuel, and second team All-Pro Quentin Mikell are all but assured a starting position. Mikell is flexible enough to play free safety if Sean Jones can excite the coaching staff in camp and they maintain their position that Jones is strictly a strong safety.
Vastly under rated corner Sheldon Brown is also nearly a lock at corner back. Having formally apologized to the fans and his team mates, Sheldon looked comfortable and happy to be in the Eagles mini-camp.
Ellis Hobbs and Joselio Hanson figure to be the only viable challengers to Sheldon for the second starting corner back position. If Brown is supplanted to a nickel role, expect him to do a superior job at that position as he has moved inside spreading Hanson to the wide position in 2008 nickel packages anyway.
Filling Dawkins Vacancy at Free Safety:
Quintin Demps is the preseason favorite at free safety, but Sean Jones is eager to prove his value and earn a starting job. As the only true vacancy on the Eagles defense, free safety is a position the birds need to address with the best possible talent.
There is no replacing Brian Dawkins, but I think we all look forward to seeing what improvements we might see in coverage from Demps, Mikell or Jones at that position.
The Nickel and Dime Backs:
The nickel and dime back positions will make for the most interesting competition in camp. Returning nickel corner, Joselio Hanson, did a great job in the secondary in 2008, but Ellis Hobbs and Jack Ikeguano should provide excellent competition and there is really no clarity as to Jimmy Johnson's intent or ultimate disposition with these spots.
Despite getting run in mini-camp as a corner, expect "Macho" Harris to play a very limited role at that position as he will likely transition to a safety position early in his career.
A Final Analysis of the Defensive Backfield Picture:
Without assigning final roles to these players, I can see the Eagles making room for 10 defensive backs on this roster. I expect to see, Mikkel, Demps, Jones and Langford listing as safeties.
I also expect Samuel, Brown, Hanson, Hobbs, and Ikeguano to earn corner back duties. At depth and as a flex player, I see "Macho" Harris making the 53 man roster and playing a reserve role, possibly returning punts.
There are some noteworthy cuts that will be made and figure to sign with other NFL franchises if they do not earn roster spots with the Eagles. Corner Trae Williams may be relinquished to the practice squad for a second season if he clears waivers and Dimitri Patterson has NFL experience so expect him to sign elsewhere.
My personal hero from last season, Rashad Baker, may very will find himself the odd safety out and relatively unknown Byron Parker will need to do something special to get off the practice squad with the depth of talent in the Eagles defensive backfield.
Expect great things from this deeply talented and youthful secondary. The competition from training camp should push more of these players to an elite level.