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September 05, 2017

Maybe the Eagles' secondary won't completely suck this season

Eagles NFL

Back in July, ProFootballFocus.com ranked the NFL's secondaries from 1-32, and guess who came in last?

That's right, the Philadelphia Eagles, with the following reasoning:

Patrick Robinson is the notable veteran addition to the secondary, but he is coming off a rough season in Indianapolis that saw him give up a passer rating when targeted of 111.7 in eight appearances. Jalen Mills (31.8 overall grade) and Ron Brooks (40.9 overall grade with Buffalo) failed to impress last season, and rookie Sidney Jones is likely to be limited or unavailable for much of the season with an Achilles injury. Third round pick Rasul Douglas should factor into the equation, as his eight interceptions and 18 total passes defended led FBS in 2016. The safety position features Rodney McLeod, who has 52 missed tackles in four seasons as a starter with the Eagles and Rams, and Malcolm Jenkins, who appears to be past his prime after giving up a combined 13 touchdowns the past two seasons.

While criticism of the Eagles' cornerbacks was certainly warranted, finding only negatives to say about one of the best safety tandems in the NFL was uneven analysis.

Since that piece was published, the Eagles added S Corey Graham, CB Ronald Darby, and CB Dexter McDougle. When comparing the Eagles' secondary heading into Week 1 with this last year's group, it looks something like this:

 Position2016 2017 
 CB1Leodis McKelvin Ronald Darby 
 CB2Nolan Carroll Jalen Mills 
 Slot CBRon Brooks Committee of Patrick Robinson, Malcolm Jenkins, Corey Graham, and Dexter McDougle 
 SMalcolm Jenkins Malcolm Jenkins 
 SRodney McLeod Rodney McLeod 
 3rd SJaylen Watkins Corey Graham 


There's a strong argument to be made that on paper, the Eagles will be improved at all three corner spots, as well as the third safety spot, with the two starting safeties remaining in the same defense for the second year. 

A look at the secondary personnel:

Malcolm Jenkins

Jenkins is a great player. In previous years with the Eagles, he did an outstanding job putting himself in position to make huge plays, and while he capitalized on some of those opportunities, he left some of the table. The difference between finishing those big plays – and not – was arguably the difference between Jenkins being a great safety and an Ed Reed-type of safety.

In 2016, Jenkins made the most of his big play opportunities, although there were far fewer of them because he was tasked with playing slot corner after Ron Brooks was lost for the season.

Jenkins can do everything. Need him to play single high? He can do that. Need him to slide down into the slot and cover receivers or tight ends man-to-man? He can do that. Need him to play in the box and be physical against the run? He can do that. Want to send him on a blitz? He can do that.

There are no obvious flaws to Jenkins' game, and he is, in my view, something close to a top-five safety in the NFL.

Rodney McLeod

McLeod started off the season hot, making big hits and producing turnovers, but as the season progressed, he became more passive. McLeod is at his best when he's flying around, unafraid of making mistakes. If he can get back to being that kind of player in 2017, the Eagles will once again have one of the best safety duos in the NFL.

Ronald Darby

Darby looked outstanding in his preseason debut with the Eagles when he had two targets come his way, one that he batted down, the other that he picked off. In his second preseason game, he gave up a long pass on a great play by Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker.

In watching Darby both in practice and a pair of preseason games, it is clear to me that he has better movement skills than any corner the Eagles have employed since the end of the Andy Reid era. He is a legitimate NFL starting corner with excellent speed. How he plays this season will be determined by how quickly he can learn the defense and get on the same page with the rest of the secondary.

Jalen Mills

Mills was a seventh-round rookie a season ago, and at times played like one, though he did have sporadic moments where he looked like an NFL corner. 

"I think I've told you before, I think Jalen Mills is one of the most improved players on our team," said Jim Schwartz. "He has really settled into the outside corner spot. Played the deep ball very well. He's that quintessential 'take a big jump the second year' guy, at least he's been so far.

"We're judging training camp and preseason games. Obviously, the proof is in the pudding over the course of the season."

Mills did indeed have a good camp and preseason showing. We'll see.

Corey Graham, Patrick Robinson, and Dexter McDougle

The above players will factor in when the Eagles go to their nickel set. After a long career at corner, Graham was a starter at safety in all 16 games in each of the last two seasons with Buffalo, and he brings a lot of versatility to the table.

"One of the things we like about him is that he's a multi-dimensional player," said Schwartz a month ago. "He's even played the nickel in the past. He's played corner. He has the ability to match up against wide receivers. I think that's one of his strong points. He made 100 tackles I think a couple years ago, so he's a reliable player. I think that's the bottom line. He's smart, he makes quick adjustments. I was only with him one year, but he played in the division when I was in Detroit, with Chicago. He's always been a good special teams player."

With the addition of Graham, the Eagles can more confidently slide Jenkins into the slot for matchups against detached tight ends and bigger receivers, while still having a solid, smart veteran on the back-end of the defense.

The slot corners the Eagles could use against smaller, shifty slot receivers, meanwhile, are Patrick Robinson and Dexter McDougle. Robinson had a bad start to camp, but played much better in the preseason games. Robinson had his best season in the pros playing mostly in the slot for the Chargers in 2015. McDougle is a little more of an unknown, but like Darby, he has good speed and quickness.

"We'll probably have six different personnel packages that we can play in this game, which is a little bit more than we carried last year," Schwartz said. "And I think a lot of it has to do with some of the flexibility the guys have in the secondary."

Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones

Douglas and Jones are more likely to help the team in 2018 and beyond, but we'll just note them quickly here as players who could also see the field in 2017. Douglas will only play if the Eagles suffer an injury or two at corner, while Jones will only participate if the Eagles believe he has recovered 100 percent from his Achilles injury.

Overall

Certainly, there would be less agita with more established, proven corners. But is the secondary as a whole really that bad?


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