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July 24, 2020

Eagles 2020 training camp preview: Cornerback

Eagles NFL
790922_Eagles_Lions_Avonte_Maddox_Kate_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox.

As we lead up to 2020 Philadelphia Eagles training camp, we've been taking a look at every player on the roster, and how they fit with the team, assuming, you know, there is a camp and a season. 

Training camp previews


Today we'll look at the cornerbacks, a position the Eagles feel they have upgraded this offseason.

 CBDarius Slay Sidney JonesPrince Smith Michael Jacquet 
 CBAvonte Maddox Rasul Douglas Tremon Smith  
 Slot CBNickell Robey-Coleman Cre'Von LeBlanc Grayland Arnold  

Darius Slay

Back in May, we took a detailed look at Slay's 2019 season with the Lions, in which we found every time he was targeted. This required watching every defensive snap in 14 Lions games, which, was time consuming and not super fun, ha.

We cut up those targets into a video, and gave analysis of each game. In case you missed that, I think it's worth checking out.

The most important takeaway from that exercise was that if Slay doesn't experience some sort of falloff, he's going to be the best cover corner the team has had since Asante Samuel.

In 2019, Slay almost always followed the best receiver on the opposing offense. He was tasked with covering receivers who are big, small, fast, strong, and everything in between, and he did so both outside and from the slot. In our analysis, we differentiated between the targets when he was in zone coverage and the ones when he was in man. Obviously, zone coverage is part of the game, but the corners who separate themselves from the rest of the pack are the guys who can man up and take away a receiver. Here's how he fared:

 Darius SlayComp-Att Yards TD-INT Rating 
Zone 10-12 (83.3%) 121 0-0 108.9 
Man 29-65 (44.6%) 462 3-2 71.4 
TOTAL 39-77 (50.6%)583 3-2 78.0 

Some sites have Slay with as many as 90 or so targets faced on the season. The guess here is that they counted anything near him in zone coverage. Obviously, a lot of that is subjective, but I was not as quick to call some passes in the vicinity of Slay "targets."

What is not nearly as subjective were his targets when in man coverage. How did he fare against each individual receiver when in man coverage? Here are those numbers, sorted by QB rating:

 Darius SlayComp-Att Yards TD-INT Rating 
 Allen Lazard2-2 46 1-0 158.3 
 Adam Thielen1-2 25 1-0 135.4 
 Stefon Diggs5-7 100 0-0 113.7 
 Davante Adams4-7 63 0-0 87.2 
 Allen Robinson3-7 49 1-1 67.0 
 Courtland Sutton3-7 23 0-0 51.5 
 Amari Cooper2-6 31 0-0 51.4 
 Terry McLaurin3-10 42 0-0 44.6 
 Keenan Allen 6-1183 0-1 41.1 
 Damiere Byrd 0-10-0 39.6 
 Larry Fitzgerald 0-10-0 39.6 
 Geronimo Allison 0-10-0 39.6 
 Jake Kumerow 0-10-0 39.6 
 Tavon Austin 0-10-0 39.6 
 Marquez Valdez-Scantling 0-10-0 39.6 
TOTAL  29-65462 3-2 71.4 

Again, for more context on each of the above matchups, go check out the deeper analysis in the post from May, but I guess the point to be made here is that allowing a passer rating of just 71.4 when you're trailing the opposing offense's best receiver all day (and he faced a lot of really good ones), while playing behind one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL, is pretty impressive.

Compare No. 1 receivers vs. Slay, and No. 1 receivers vs. Eagles corners last season, and it's no contest. In 2019, No. 1 receivers abused the Eagles' secondary. A sampling

 PlayerCatches Yards YPC TD 
 Terry McLaurin, Washington125 25.0 
 Julio Jones, Falcons106 21.2 
 Marvin Jones, Lions101 16.8 
 Devante Adams, Packers10 180 18.0 
 Stefon Diggs, Vikings167 23.9 
 Amari Cooper, Cowboys106 21.2 
 DaVante Parker, Dolphins159 22.7 
 Darius Slayton, Giants154 30.8 
 Terry McLaurin, Washington130 26.1 
 DK Metcalf, Seahawks160 22.9 

Slay will improve on that awfulness drastically, as long as he can stay healthy, and assuming Jim Schwartz will allow him to shadow the opposing offense's best receiver.

Overall, Slay is at his best when he's playing tight man coverage, as his mirroring and matching skills are some of the best in the NFL. He does not give up much separation, and his ball skills are excellent. In fact, he has more pass breakups than any player in the NFL since 2015.

 PlayerPass breakups (2015-2019) 
 Darius Slay82 
 Stephon Gilmore79 
 Marcus Peters77 
 Janoris Jenkins73 
 Johnathan Joseph66 

If there's one thing to knock about Slay's game, it's his abysmal tackling, or perhaps better stated, his abysmal effort when tackling. It should be noted that Slay was made aware that the Lions were not going to pay him, which perhaps contributed to that season-long lack of effort when tackling. That's certainly not a great excuse, but the Eagles believe that a happy Slay, on a more competitive team, will be a more interested tackler.

Ultimately, Slay was brought to Philadelphia to cover receivers, something Eagles corners have not done well for years, and the Eagles were able to get him to sign a reasonable contract extension after parting with third- and fifth-round picks to get him.

Avonte Maddox

Howie Roseman's comments from back in March show that the Eagles are high on Maddox, and they believe that he can be a full-time outside corner. He's likely to start on the outside, opposite Darius Slay, over Sidney Jones.

As such, like with Slay above, we looked at all of Maddox's targets, specifically in games he started at outside corner. Those games were as follows:

  1. Eagles at Rams, Week 15, 2018
  2. Texans at Eagles, Week 16, 2018
  3. Eagles at Washington, Week 17, 2018
  4. Eagles at Bears, Wildcard round of the playoffs, 2018
  5. Eagles at Saints, Divisional round of the playoffs, 2018
  6. Eagles at Giants, Week 17, 2019
  7. Seahawks at Eagles, Wildcard round of the playoffs, 2019

Results were mixed, and he had performances at both extremes. For example, he was outstanding against the Rams, but he got lit up like a Christmas tree in the playoffs against the Bears.

A Twitter thread of his play in the above games can be found here: 

Maddox is a very athletic player, but the challenge for him at outside corner will be his lack of length. Not only is he only 5'9, but he also has very short 29 1/2" arms. A look at his athleticism and size measurables:

Maddox has proven to be a versatile defender for the Eagles in his first two seasons in the NFL, starting games at outside corner, slot corner, and safety. In my view, his profile / skill set fit those positions best in the following order:

  1. Slot corner
  2. Safety
  3. Outside corner

However, the team has two slot corners in Nickell Robey-Coleman and Cre'Von LeBlanc. They also have a pair of starters in Jalen Mills and Rodney McLeod at safety, to go along with offseason acquisitions such as rookie fourth-round pick K'Von Wallace and free agent Will Parks.

As such, an argument could be made that Maddox's versatility is going to waste if he's solely going to be an outside corner. I'll respectfully disagree there, to some degree. Get used to the term "positionless," as it applies to Eagles defensive backs, as the Eagles want their secondary to be comprised of players who can play every position. Maddox certainly fits that profile, but I would expect opposing offenses to attempt to create matchups against him with big receivers.

Nickell Robey-Coleman

Robey-Coleman, who is still only 28 years old, has been in the league for seven seasons, over which time he has played in 111 games (only one game missed), starting 23, mostly as a slot corner. He has 290 career tackles, 6 INTs (two pick sixes), 48 pass breakups, and five forced fumbles.

This offseason, the Eagles signed him to a cheap deal worth $1,350,000, and surprise(!), he formerly played for Schwartz in Buffalo. He is currently the projected starting slot corner.

I regret not finding time to take a deep look at Robey-Coleman's targets in 2019, the same way I did with Slay, Maddox, and Sidney Jones, but from what I have seen from him so far, Robey-Coleman is a twitched-up athlete with good toughness for a 5'8, 180-pound slot corner. We still may do a deep dive on him yet.

Either way, he's one of the players I'm most looking forward to seeing in training camp.

Sidney Jones

Like we did with Slay and Maddox above, we looked at all of Jones' targets on the 2019 season. While he had a couple of clutch pass breakups in wins over the Giants and Cowboys, his season otherwise was shaky, at best, both in terms of his play on the field, and continued durability concerns.

Jones obviously missed almost the entirety of the 2017 season while recovering from an Achilles tear. That was expected, of course, but he has also missed games both in 2018 and 2019 because of soft tissue injuries. He has not been able to do whatever has been necessary to stay on the field.

In the Eagles' loss to the Seahawks in the playoffs, a healthy Jones did not play a single defensive snap, despite his late-game, late-season heroics. Why?

What really likely got Maddox in Schwartz's doghouse was the Eagles' game against the Vikings, in which a struggling Jones took himself out of the game for a crucial series, and his replacement gave up a touchdown. By contrast, in the Packers game, Maddox was laying on the field after taking a shot from Andrew Sendejo that could have paralyzed him, and it's shown in "All or Nothing" that he was lobbying to trainers to let him continue playing. 

The week after the Vikings game, the starters in Dallas were Mills (returned from PUP), Rasul Douglas (who was destroyed worse than Jones in Minny), and Orlando Scandrick (signed off the street a few weeks prior).

Schwartz at times can live with poor play on the field, as we have seen, but he has shown that if he does not trust your mentality, you won't play, right or wrong.

Still, while Jones' career has been disappointing given his second round draft position, he's still a potentially useful player in 2020, likely as the primary backup corner on the outside, with some additional slot versatility. Because he has played both inside and outside for the Eagles, he fits in to some degree with the team's "positionless" mindset going forward.

The flashes of talent are there. However, it feels like a "do or die" season for Jones, who must be more consistent both with his play and his availability.

Cre'Von LeBlanc

LeBlanc started at slot corner against the Seahawks in the playoffs, and while he didn't have a good game, it revealed that Schwartz preferred him on the field over Jones and Douglas.

LeBlanc is a scrappy, confident corner who has the mental makeup Schwartz likes, and he has mostly filled in ably when his number has been called. However, on the Eagles' roster in 2020, he is probably just a backup slot corner to Robey-Coleman.

Rasul Douglas

Because Douglas received a "Proven Performance Escalator" bonus (for accumulating playing time benchmarks), he was scheduled to count for $2,309,572 against the cap in 2020. There was no way the Eagles were going to keep a sixth cornerback on their roster at that number, so a trade or release of Douglas felt like a strong possibility. Instead, Douglas agreed to lower his salary to $825,000 to stay in Philly.

Douglas does have some traits. He has great size, he's a physical tackler, and he has some ball skills, but he simply can't run with fast receivers, as he was exposed repeatedly on deep balls in 2019. Maybe his size might make him appealing to teams running schemes that can mask his speed deficiencies, and he could still be had in a player-for-player trade?

I wouldn't rule that possibility out.

Grayland Arnold

The Eagles had a draftable grade on Arnold, but they were able to scoop him up as an undrafted free agent. Arnold had six INTs for Baylor in 2019, most of which were in big games, and he offers some added value as a punt returner. He has a fun highlight reel.

Arnold felt like a decent bet to crack the 53-man roster, at least compared to the other Eagles UDFAs, but a shortened offseason will hurt his chances. He's a smaller DB at 5'10, 187, who projects to either slot corner or safety in the pros. 

Tremon Smith

Smith was a sixth-round draft pick of the Chiefs in 2018, where he played in 14 games as a rookie, starting one. He was also the Chiefs' primary kick returner, and the Chiefs even tinkered with him at running back. They cut him the following season, and he was on and off the Packers' roster throughout the season in 2019, before the Eagles signed him to their practice squad in December.

Here he is returning a kick 97 yards against the Patriots his rookie season:

Smith is a longshot to have a role in the Eagles' defense, but he has a chance to stick if he can prove to be valuable as a returner. 

Prince Smith

UDFA longshot. He does have intriguing strength, and was a four-year starter at New Hampshire. BLG did some legwork on him.

Michael Jacquet

Another UDFA longshot. Jacquet has good size, and he converted from wide receiver to corner at ULL, but with little time to impress the staff, his best bet is the practice squad. Again, BLG did some legwork on him.

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