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July 15, 2023

Eagles 2023 training camp preview: Cornerback

The Eagles had one of the NFL's strongest cornerback groups in 2022. Will that continue into 2023?

Over the last few weeks (basically whenever there wasn't other news to cover), we've been taking a look at every player on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster and how they fit with the team heading into training camp. Today we'll look at the cornerbacks.

Previous training camp previews

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver
Tight end | Offensive tackle | Interior offensive line
Edge rusher | Interior defensive line | Off-ball linebacker

The Eagles have used a lot of resources to build a strong cornerback group, both at the starting spots and their depth. First, the depth chart:

CB Darius Slay Josh Jobe
Greedy WilliamsEli Ricks 
CB James Bradberry Kelee Ringo Mekhi Garner 
SCB Avonte Maddox Zech McPhearsonJosiah Scott Mario Goodrich 

Darius Slay

After struggling against some bigger receivers like Davante Adams and DK Metcalf in his first season in Philly in 2020, Slay was a steady cover corner all season long in 2021, having no such obviously bad games, even when trailing the opposing team's best receiver for most of the year. He also made the Pro Bowl as a result of a number of splash plays that were integral in wins against the Panthers, Broncos, and Saints. He was arguably the Eagles' best defensive player in 2021.

In 2022, Slay started off hot. He had one of the best games that I've ever seen an Eagles cornerback have in Week 2 against the Vikings, when he had two interceptions and five pass breakups while (mostly) working against the best wide receiver in the NFL in Justin Jefferson. He also had a big game against the Cowboys in Week 6, when he picked off Cooper Rush once and put himself in position to make a number of big plays (but just didn't finish).

However, in the Eagles' final 14 games, Slay had no interceptions and 8 pass breakups. He made the Pro Bowl once again, but he did not sustain his All-Pro level of play from the first couple of months throughout the entirety of the season.

Slay is now 32 years old (he'll turn 33 during the season) and he had a weird offseason. He was due a base salary of $17 million in 2023, which at the time was the final year of his contract, and the Eagles shopped him on the trade market. Finding no takers, they were poised to release him to avoid paying that $17 million base salary. Ultimately, Slay and the Eagles got back to the negotiating table and reworked a three-year contract worth $42 million.

Nationally, Slay is still regarded as one of the top corners in the NFL. Locally, there are concerns that his play fell off last season, and he could be facing a decline in 2023 and beyond. 

James Bradberry

Bradberry was fantastic for the Eagles during the 2022 season. According to PFF, opposing quarterbacks completed just 40 of 87 targets (46.0%) against him for 429 yards (4.9 yards per target), 2 TDs, and 3 INTs, for a combined passer rating of just 54.2. He finished with 3 INTs and 17 pass breakups.

The Eagles signed Bradberry at a severely discounted rate of $7.25 million on a one-year contract after the Giants unceremoniously cut him in a salary cut dump last May, two months after the start of free agency. In his two seasons with the Giants before signing with the Eagles, Bradberry had an impressive 35 pass breakups and 7 INTs. The decision by the Giants to release him was a curious one, given that (a) Bradberry was arguably their best defender the two seasons he played there, and (b) their cornerback depth was among the worst in the NFL. The Giants pretty much did the Eagles a huge favor by making him available once other teams around the league had already signed and/or drafted other cornerbacks.

It was expected that Bradberry would garner a contract offer the Eagles could not afford this offseason, but the market proved to be disappointing for cornerbacks. When the Eagles' negotiations with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson fell apart, the Eagles refocused their attention on retaining Bradberry, and they were able to work out a three-year deal worth $38 million, once again a bargain for a player who was a second-team All-Pro.

According to Bradberry (via Josina Anderson), he had better offers on the table, but decided to return to Philly for less money.

He'll have the opportunity to torment the Giants a little longer for their mistake.

Avonte Maddox

Maddox is one of the league's best slot corners. He has the speed and change of direction skills to stick with shifty slot receivers, and he's feisty both in run support and as a blitzer. However, there have been times when he has struggled against bigger receivers (a good defensive coordinator should be able to scheme around that), and he has had difficulty staying on the field at times throughout his five NFL seasons.

In 2022, Maddox missed games at three different junctures during the season: 

  1. He missed the Eagles' Week 4 and 5 games vs. the Jaguars and Cardinals.
  2. He missed the Eagles' Week 10, 11, 12, and 13 games vs. the Commanders, Colts, Packers, and Titans.
  3. He missed the Eagles' Week 17, 18, and divisional round games against the Saints, Giants, and the Giants again.

In 2022, despite missing those nine games, Maddox had 43 tackles, an INT, and 3 forced fumbles, while usually slowing down opposing slot receivers.

Maddox had surgery shortly after the Super Bowl. He attended OTAs but did not participate. He should be good to go for training camp.

Zech McPhearson

McPhearson's outlook heading into 2023 looks similar to what it looked like this time a year ago. In 2021, he was the first outside cornerback off the bench, but Slay and Steven Nelson started every game (the meaningless Week 18 game vs. Dallas aside), and we only got some clues as to what McPhearson might look like in the regular defense. 

In 2022, once again, the Eagles' starting cornerbacks — this time Slay and Bradberry — started every game. The only game in which McPhearson got meaningful playing time in a non-blowout was against the Jaguars Week 4 after Slay got hurt in the first quarter.

While he has waited for his opportunity in the regular defense, McPhearson has become one of the Eagles' best special teams players, which is a good sign for his work ethic/desire to be a good NFL player. 

With Maddox recovering from surgery this offseason, McPhearson was the first-team slot corner in OTAs. Guys like Kelee Ringo and Josh Jobe and Greedy Williams are probably outside corners only, so adding backup slot corner duties to McPhearson's plate this offseason makes sense and should give him more opportunities to get on the field in the regular defense in 2023.

Kelee Ringo

The Eagles traded a 2024 third-round pick for the third pick in the fourth round of the 2023 draft to select Ringo. Personally, I thought Ringo was going to be a late first-round pick, on the basic premise that he's 6'2", 207, he's tough, and he runs a 4.36. But he's not just "a traits guy." He's a good player. He uses his size to his advantage, both in press coverage, on contested catches, and as a tackler. He also has good awareness in zone coverage.

Over the last two seasons, Ringo had 76 tackles, 4 INTs, 15 pass breakups, and a forced fumble. On the downside, while Ringo is gifted with size and athleticism, the knock on him on the field is that he gives up too much separation at times in man coverage. But overall, as a player, there's just no way this guy should have still been available on Day 3. 

He reportedly slid due to character concerns.

We'll see in time if Ringo's ambiguous "makeup questions" ever amount to anything, but as a player the tools are certainly there, and the Eagles will have plenty of time to groom him for an eventual starting role behind Slay and Bradberry.

Josh Jobe

As a prospect before entering the NFL, Jobe was a well-known player from a major program at Alabama who was being projected as a possible Day 2 pick after a strong junior season in 2020 when he had 55 tackles, 11 pass breakups, and 2 forced fumbles. However, after a down season in 2021 partly due to injuries (he played most of the season with turf toe), Jobe went undrafted.

He's 6'0, but he has good length with 32 5/8" arms, and he was thought of in college as a physical tackler with some appealing zone coverage traits.

Jobe had a solid showing in training camp, but he probably made the team because of a really good preseason game against the Browns. He appeared in 11 games for the Eagles during the regular season, mostly on special teams as a gunner. He saw action in the regular defense in three games — the Eagles' Week 14 drubbing of the Giants (12 snaps), and both blowout playoff wins against the Giants (5 snaps) and 49ers (4 snaps). We broke down Jobe's rookie season in greater detail in July, with the conclusion being that I like his chances of making the team once again in 2023.

Greedy Williams

Howie Roseman and the Eagles' front office signed a bunch of outside free agent players this offseason, many of whom share similar backgrounds, in that they were mostly high draft picks who had injuries slow their careers, eventually landing in Philly this offseason on cheap, one-year deals. Williams fit all of those criteria.

Williams was originally a second-round pick of the Browns. In four years in Cleveland, he played in 39 games, starting 21. He has 99 career tackles and 2 INTs, with his best season coming in 2021, when he had 41 tackles, 2 INTs, and 10 pass breakups while playing in 16 games (8 starts).

The early part of Williams' pro career was slowed by injuries. He played in 12 games in 2019 as a rookie, but missed four games with a hamstring injury. In 2020, he suffered career-threatening nerve damage in his shoulder during an offseason practice, detailed by Mary Kay Cabot of here, costing him the entirety of the 2020 season. 

He had his good season in 2021, as noted above, but in 2022, he was buried on the depth chart behind Denzel Ward and 2021 first-round pick Greg Newsome, and played just 105 defensive snaps, 77 of which were coverage snaps. 

PFF had Williams down for 7 receptions allowed for 134 yards and 2 TDs on 8 targets, for an opposing passer rating of 158.3 last season. Yikes. I was curious what those targets looked like, so I found all of them. This is a quick watch:

Somehow, the film is even worse than the stats would suggest. 

Williams has some intriguing traits. He's 6'2 and he ran a 4.37 40 at the Combine, which is a nice start for a cornerback. However, after cutting up his 2022 targets, it is easy to see why the Browns seemingly showed no interest in trying to bring him back. Williams will have a chance to impress in training camp, but heading into the summer he can't be viewed as any higher than seventh on the Eagles' cornerback totem pole, and will probably have to decisively outplay McPhearson and/or Jobe to make the roster.

Josiah Scott

During 2022 training camp, the Eagles put more on Scott's plate, giving him reps at safety in addition to his usual spot in the slot, hoping that he could be a valuable, versatile backup. He played meaningful snaps in eight games during the regular season, usually filling in whenever Maddox was sidelined with injuries. In those games, opposing offenses often moved their best receivers into the slot specifically to attack Scott, usually with success.

It's worth noting that when Chauncey Gardner-Johnson returned from injured reserve (with Maddox still on the shelf), the Eagles felt more comfortable moving Gardner-Johnson into the slot in nickel, and having Reed Blankenship come off the bench to play safety rather than have Scott just fill in directly for Maddox. In other words, it appeared that the Eagles lost confidence in Scott as the backup slot near the end of the 2022 regular season.

In OTAs, as noted above, McPhearson got work in the slot, which does not bode well for Scott's chances of making the 2023 team.

Mekhi Garner

Garner is a big corner at 6'2, 212. He played his first three collegiate seasons at Louisiana before transferring to LSU as a senior. He consistently got his hands on footballs, as he had 7 PBUs in 2020, 8 in 2021, and 8 in 2022. 

Garner ran a slow 40 at the Combine, but has pretty good athleticism otherwise.

A scouting report from Lance Zierlein

Garner is a big, long corner with a jarring press. However, he’s missing the footwork and body control to phase and match NFL routes that force him to change direction. He’s a handful when he’s in position to challenge the throw, but teams might need to plug him into a Cover 2 scheme or try him at safety, where he can help support the run and cover tight ends.

The Eagles have more of a need for bodies at safety than they do at corner, and Garner has some thump in his game:

A move to the back end would make some sense, but for now he's at corner.

In media-attended OTAs, Garner had a standout moment when he picked off Jalen Hurts while covering Olamide Zaccheaus. Garner emphatically celebrated post-INT by punting the ball, lol. The coaching staff and some offensive players did not like that.

Eli Ricks

Ricks signed with the Eagles as an undrafted rookie free agent this offseason. He was the 6th-ranked high school player in the country in 2020 by, and 39th by ESPN recruiting, and he was a playmaker out of the gate as a true freshman for LSU in 2020, when he had 4 INTs, including 2 pick-sixes. He has good length, and uses it to his advantage in press coverage. Early in his college career, he was always on the lookout for opportunities to make big plays on the ball. A look at his freshman season: 

This time last year, Ricks was appearing in the first round of "way too early" 2023 mock drafts, like Todd McShay's, for example, who had him in the top 10. His stock has since plummeted. 

Ricks transferred to Bama after the 2021 season, and it did not go as he had hoped. To begin, he was arrested during the 2022 offseason, and during the season he found himself on the bench under Nick Saban. Unhappy with his role, he posted a picture of himself in his old LSU uniform on Instagram. 

Ricks would eventually get into the starting lineup and play well. For example, against Mississippi State:

Ricks has talent, but his personality was no doubt under the microscope during the draft process, and there's obviously a reason he did not get drafted. He'll get a fresh start in Philly. To be determined if he can make the most of it.

Mario Goodrich

Goodrich was an undrafted rookie corner a season ago, and he managed to stick on the practice squad for the entirety of the season. Like Ricks and Garner above, he came from a major college football program (Clemson). He did not get much playing time early in his college career, sitting behind a number of corners who are now in the NFL. As a senior in 2021, Goodrich had 42 tackles, 2 INTs (including a pick 6), 9 pass breakups, and a forced fumble

An obvious knock is that Goodrich is pretty small. The Eagles list him at 186 pounds, but that's probably a little generous. He'll have an opportunity to compete in the slot.

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