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September 21, 2023

What's the Eagles' plan at slot cornerback ahead of the Buccaneers game?

The Eagles are facing a talented and versatile wide receiver duo in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. How will defensive coordinator Sean Desai plan for that given the team's secondary injuries?

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James-Bradberry-Eagles-Vikings-2022 Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

Eagles CB James Bradberry could be called upon to play slot cornerback in Week 3 on Monday Night Football.

Over the course of this offseason, the Eagles' coaching staff harped on getting their "best 11" on the field, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. That is now being put to the test given the team's secondary woes. 

Reed Blankenship and James Bradberry missed Week 2 with injuries, but the early indications are that they'll be ready for Monday night in Tampa. Avonte Maddox, however, isn't so fortunate, as the rest of his season is in jeopardy after suffering a torn pec, leaving a huge hole at nickel cornerback. What's the Eagles' next move for the increasingly important slot corner spot?

Second-year undrafted DB Mario Goodrich filled that role in a pinch in last Thursday's Vikings game after Maddox was sidelined. It was the 23-year-old corner's first taste of NFL action. He was targeted seven times in coverage, allowing seven catches for 78 yards (via pro-football-reference), but those early warts are to be expected.  

"I thought he got better as the game progressed," defensive coordinator Sean Desai said of Goodrich on Tuesday. "There were some motion things like that early that he kind of just had to feel and settle in there a little bit and gain some confidence."

Bradberry's absence against the Vikings necessitated Josh Jobe, another second-year undrafted corner, to get his first start and real taste of the pro game. Jobe played just 12 defensive snaps his entire rookie season. He played 66 in that prime-time matchup with Minnesota. 

"He did a good job overall," Desai said of Jobe. 

"The big touchdown pass, I got it, and that's not just on him," Desai continued, referring to Vikings wideout Jordan Addison's 62-yard TD that Jobe was responsible for. "That's a rush and coverage thing. All 11 of us got to be better. I got to be better with the play call in that situation to help him out, and then we got to get there and not create a step-up lane for him, for Kirk [Cousins] to get to that read, and then Josh has to be better with his leverage and getting it down."

That begs the question: if the Eagles are maximizing their best 11 guys on D with this set of injuries, what's the best plan at nickel?

It might be kicking Bradberry, a Second-Team All-Pro selection last year, inside. Bradberry was great on the outside for the Eagles in 2022, but this type of situational switch has been in the making. Bradberry spent time playing slot corner during training camp, matching up with tight ends. When the team's schedule features the likes of Travis Kelce and George Kittle, having that flexibility with the Eagles' most physical corner to stick those guys is wise. 

"The one thing you talk about James, and really a lot of our — especially our older guys that have played a lot of football — is they're so smart," Desai said about Bradberry's time practicing as a nickel cornerback. "They're so football savvy and football smart that some of those transitions for him as we were doing some of that stuff with him, became a little bit simpler for him because he understands the game and what we're trying to get done with some of these coverages and techniques."

That move, however, could be coming sooner than expected in the regular season.

The Buccaneers on Monday night will feature a great wide receiver tandem in Mike Evans, who looks as good as ever and is coming off a 171-yard performance, and Chris Godwin, who has three 1,000-yard seasons over the last four years. Evans is a prototypical outside receiver, but did spend 23.5 percent of his offensive snaps lined up inside last year (per Pro Football Focus). Godwin was in the slot 65.9 percent of the time in 2022 (per Pro Football Focus). It'll be on mostly Darius Slay to slow down Evans, but the Eagles desperately need Bradberry back and recovered from concussion protocol against this dynamic duo. 

A few days out from that Monday night showdown in Tampa, I'm foreseeing Slay manning the outside and following around Evans while Bradberry gets snaps both outside and in the slot. That'll leave Jobe with a big role yet again and Goodrich will likely see the field, too. 

However it shakes out, this game against the 2-0 Buccaneers feels a bit tougher than it was just a few weeks ago. Bucs QB Baker Mayfield is playing better than ever and the Eagles are currently 31st in the league in pass defense. Desai hasn't endeared himself to Eagles fans yet two games into his time with the Birds. Schematic creativity mixed with a big comeback performance from Bradberry could do a lot to change that.

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