While head coach Chip Kelly did wonders with the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense a year ago, defensive coordinator Billy Davis was every bit as impressive.
Davis inherited a unit that had rated 29th in 2012 in points allowed and dead-last by surrendering 33 touchdown passes. Veteran cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha had been replaced by lesser-talented players in Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, while the safety position continued its ever-revolving door since Brian Dawkins departed.
Davis’ job was made more difficult by the fact that he was implementing a new 3-4 defensive scheme with veteran players historically used to a four-man front. Connor Barwin was brought over as the experienced linebacker in a 3-4, but Trent Cole and Fletcher Cox made transitions from 4-3 end/tackle to outside linebacker/end.
Cornerbacks Williams and Fletcher each played well in 2013, helping the Eagles stay a respectable 17th in points allowed despite rating 29th in yardage. Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin was second at his position (to just Richard Sherman) with six interceptions, coming up with the division-clinching one in the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys.
In the mix also is newly signed Nolan Carroll of the Miami Dolphins, a fifth-year veteran who played extremely well a year ago. And the Eagles drafted Florida’s Jaylen Watkins, a fourth-round corner/safety who will compete for snaps as a rookie. The five players could all seemingly be in the running to start next season.
Training camp will be the prime opportunity for one to separate himself from the others. There’s also no guarantee that each of the veterans will make the 53-man roster, considering Williams and Fletcher do bring fairly high cap numbers. Here’s a rough look at how the cornerback competition could break down for 2014, starting by looking at how each veteran player affects the team financially.
|Name||Age||2013 Cap Hit|
|Cary Williams||29||$6.4 million|
|Bradley Fletcher||27||$3.6 million|
|Nolan Carroll||27||$2.3 million|
Boykin and Watkins are promising young players who aren’t making enough money to warrant any sort of a release. Williams and Fletcher could conceivably be released, especially since Carroll was brought aboard.
Cutting Fletcher would actually save Philadelphia more money than Williams due to Williams’ remaining guaranteed money.
Here’s a look at the production each player had a year ago, statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
|Cary Williams||1,167 snaps||80.6 passer rating allowed||-4.2 PFF rating|
|Bradley Fletcher||949 snaps||82.1 passer rating allowed||+2.4 PFF rating|
|Brandon Boykin||635 snaps||64.6 passer rating allowed||+9.1 PFF rating|
|Nolan Carroll||809 snaps||65.0 passer rating allowed||+0.4 PFF rating|
Pro Football Focus
Not all the numbers can be judged equally; Williams and Fletcher manned the outside cornerback spots, while Boykin played the inside. In Miami, Carroll mostly played the outside opposite Brent Grimes, seeing action in about 75 percent of the club’s snaps a year ago.
Williams was arguably the most effective outside corner, putting up surprisingly stout numbers against talented receivers. He held Pierre Garcon, the NFL’s leading receiver (113 receptions), to no receptions on three targets in Week 1 and then just three catches on four targets in the second matchup.
Williams shut down Calvin Johnson—Snow Bowl or not—to the tune of two catches for 42 yards. He held Dwayne Bowe without a catch. Williams limited Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd to just 18 combined yards, and then Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to just 13 yards.
That’s really solid production from Williams, and his cap hit and status as a former starter on a Super Bowl champion should make him a starting cornerback next season, barring an injury.
Boykin is another lock to see substantial playing time in 2014, although the organization has been reluctant to move him outside. Boykin is just 5'9", which is traditionally on the smaller side for a starting corner, but he was so productive a year ago that he may win a starting spot in camp.
Boykin recorded six interceptions in just 635 defensive snaps last season. He held opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating. Boykin came up with the game-winner against the Redskins and then the playoff-clinching grab in the final minute against the Cowboys in Week 17.
Boykin will be a free agent after 2015, which means he is due for a contract extension after this coming season (assuming the franchise is interested in retaining him). Davis has maintained he likes playing Boykin inside because of his prowess in covering slot receivers, and it’s expected that this trend will continue into this season.
So with Boykin as the nickel back, it’s likely that Fletcher or Carroll takes the other starting spot opposite Williams, especially since Watkins is just a fourth-round rookie.
The battle should come down to Fletcher or Carroll as the other starter. Carroll actually put up the better numbers as a cover corner last year. He allowed completions on just 47.8 percent of the passes his way, which was the fourth-best rate of any cornerback in the league. His 65.0 passer rating against was the ninth-best mark of 110 qualifying corners.
How will the cornerback competition end up?
Carroll may really win the job. He was an underrated corner in Miami, although he did receive just a modest offer in free agency. Carroll can be released without the Eagles having to pay more than his $750,000 base salary in 2014, but Fletcher can be cut at no penalty.
Watkins will have the most difficult task to see extensive playing time as a rookie. He will see snaps as a hybrid corner/safety in the same role of Tyrann Mathieu last year, although Watkins won't play as much early on.
Logic may suggest that the loser of the Fletcher-Carroll battle gets cut. That would put Williams and Fletcher/Carroll as the starters, with Boykin as the nickel defensive back and Watkins contributing as a dime corner or safety.