Full Breakdown of Philadelphia Eagles' Secondary Ahead of Training Camp
Despite a defense that rated 32nd in passing yards allowed in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles didn’t make any major attempts to upgrade this unit. They passed on Pro Bowlers like Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward in the open market, and didn't address the secondary until the fourth round.
General manager Howie Roseman brought in veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins to take over for free-agent bust Patrick Chung. Cornerback Nolan Carroll was added for depth, and the NFL draft yielded role players in cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins (fourth round) and safety Ed Reynolds (fifth round).
That means defensive coordinator Billy Davis will again need to coax his secondary to overachieve, as many of the players did a year ago. The unit did finish last in passing yards allowed, but the Eagles also saw more passing attempts than any other team. They finished 14th-best in passing touchdowns allowed, and the team actually cracked the top 10 in interceptions.
On multiple occasions, the Eagles made a game-saving play in the final minutes. Brandon Boykin was frequently the hero, leading the club with six interceptions and coming up with the winners against the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys.
The team will be putting forth roughly the same secondary in ’14 that it did in ’13. Last year, the team won the division, so an argument could be made that it was good enough to get Philly to 10 wins and a home playoff game. But the Eagles were exposed in the playoffs, particularly when dime cornerback Roc Carmichael had to fill in for Cary Williams for a play.
Here’s a look at what can be expected from Philadelphia’s secondary in 2014, beginning with a look at the projected starters at cornerback and then safety.
Projected Cornerback Starters
In 2013, new free-agent additions Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher started all 16 games at cornerback, with second-year nickelback Brandon Boykin playing a vital role against slot receivers.
The same scenario could present itself in 2014. For now, Williams and Fletcher are slotted as the starters, with Boykin as the nickelback, although Nolan Carroll could push for a starting spot.
Williams was a pleasant surprise a year ago, recording three interceptions and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 80.6 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Williams held Pierre Garcon to just three catches in two games, he contained Calvin Johnson in the Snow Bowl game and he shut down Dwayne Bowe in Week 3.
Williams is 29 years old and likely in his final season in Philadelphia, considering he’s set to make $6.4 million against the cap in 2014, per Spotrac. That figure rises to $8.1 million in ’15, which is too much money to pay for a cornerback who isn’t one of the elite in the business.
Fletcher went from being primarily a nickelback in St. Louis to a starter in Philly; he played well for 13 games, allowing an 82.1 passer rating and ranking as one of the better run-stoppers in the game at his position, per PFF.
Boykin was a Pro Bowl-caliber player as a nickelback. He saw action on only about half of the defensive snaps, but expect that to increase in 2014. He’s too talented in pass coverage for Davis to continue to sit Boykin on the early downs.
Projected Safety Starters
Patrick Chung was arguably the worst safety in the league a year ago, and he was mercifully released this offseason. In his place, the Philadelphia Eagles brought in former first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins from the New Orleans Saints.
Jenkins has had an up-and-down career, and the Saints elected to let him walk and grabbed $54 million safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. Still, there’s reason to believe Jenkins can have success in Philly. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis brought out the best in a number of defensive players a year ago, notably Baltimore Ravens castoff Cary Williams.
Jenkins is still just 26 years old. He’s versatile enough to play both corner and safety, which was one of the aspects that attracted the Eagles to him. Jenkins signed a three-year deal, which should at least guarantee him the 2014 and 2015 seasons with the club. He’s a solid cover man who misses too many tackles but blitzes exceptionally well.
Opposite Jenkins will be fifth-year safety Nate Allen, a former second-round pick of the Eagles. Allen put up his best season in 2013, and the organization re-signed him to a one-year deal.
Allen will have to hold off Earl Wolff to be the starter next to Jenkins, but that’s likely considering Allen has more experience and held his own in pass coverage a year ago. Allen was also one of the more durable safeties, seeing action in 1,124 snaps, which rated as the fourth-highest total for his positional group, per PFF.
Projected Cornerback/Safety Depth
Assuming Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin win the first three cornerback positions again, that leaves a number of players fighting for the final depth spots.
Former Miami Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll is a near lock to make the 53-man roster, and he played well enough a year ago that he has a chance to overtake Fletcher for a starting spot. Per PFF, Carroll allowed just a 47.8 completion percentage and 65.0 passer rating a year ago, and he recorded three interceptions.
Rookie fourth-rounder Jaylen Watkins from Florida State is also a lock to make the roster. He’s the half-brother of Sammy Watkins, and this Watkins has the ability to play both corner and safety, which will make him very appealing to Billy Davis.
Former third-round pick Curtis Marsh has managed to hang on to practice squad spots for four years, but it doesn’t appear likely he will make the ’14 club. He’s a former collegiate running back who was drafted as high as he was because of his long-term potential, but at this point in his career, he’s played just 75 defensive snaps at the National Football League level.
Roc Carmichael is a fringe cornerback who could steal a fifth spot with a strong camp, although he may need an injury to a starter to make the team.
At safety, second-year player Earl Wolff will make a training camp run at Allen’s starting spot. He will be pushed by fifth-round rookie Ed Reynolds, the second fifth-round safety the Eagles have picked in as many years. That assures four safeties on the roster, and Watkins’ versatility likely makes it so he’s a fifth option if necessary.
Chris Maragos was brought over from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks to add depth to the safety position, but he’s more of a special teams player. Expect him to make the 53-man roster, although he will likely play exclusively on the kick- and punt-return coverage units.
Realistically, Keelan Johnson is the only other safety with an outside shot to make the team. What he would need is a strong camp, excellent performances in the preseason contests and probably an injury to a player above him.
Can Jaylen Watkins and Ed Reynolds Contribute as Rookies?
There’s a good chance the Philadelphia Eagles will get immediate contributions from both their rookie defensive backs. Both Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher have high 2014 cap hits; Fletcher would be the likely release if one is a cap cut because the team can release him at no dead money cost, per Spotrac.
That could elevate Jaylen Watkins into a bigger role as a rookie. Watkins can play corner and safety, and if Malcolm Jenkins gets injured, Watkins may be the logical choice to replace him. After all, he’s an extremely similar player to Jenkins, and when he’s on the field, he can be used as both a corner and a safety.
Ed Reynolds is a fifth-round rookie who will push Nate Allen and Earl Wolff for playing time. Jenkins is the assumed starting safety, with Allen and Wolff likely splitting reps opposite him. Reynolds is the fourth safety as of now, but he’s an injury away from seeing significant playing time.
Which Players Are Fighting for Roster Spots?
At cornerback, there are five players who are clearly in the lead for roster spots—Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, Nolan Carroll and Jaylen Watkins. There’s an outside chance Williams or Fletcher could be released due to salary-cap reasons, but that doesn’t seem likely with the Philadelphia Eagles $20 million under the cap, per Over the Cap.
Curtis Marsh and Roc Carmichael are the likely candidates to get the final cornerback spot, but they would probably need an injury or the release of one of the top five to make the 53-man roster.
At safety, there’s a pretty good chance Chip Kelly goes with the following five—Malcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen, Earl Wolff, Ed Reynolds and Chris Maragos. Keelan Johnson would be the only other player in the mix, unless Daytawion Lowe or Davon Morgan turns in a miraculous training camp and preseason.