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April 13, 2021

Five free agent cornerbacks who still make sense for the Eagles

Eagles NFL
gareon-conley_041321_usat Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

Houston Texans cornerback Gareon Conley wraps up Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis.

The NFL Draft is rapidly approaching — it's just over two weeks away at this point — and with the Eagles holding double-digit picks this year, much of the attention surrounding the team has rightfully been focused on what Howie Roseman (and apparently owner Jeffrey Lurie) plan on doing with those 11 picks. 

Just this morning, our own Jimmy Kempski ranked the Eagles' 10 biggest needs heading into the draft, a continuation of a ranking he put together prior to the start of free agency. The Eagles, to this point, have been relatively quiet in free agency, so many of their top needs remained, with the biggest changes coming at the QB position (where they signed Joe Flacco to backup Jalen Hurts), at linebacker (where they recently added Eric Wilson, who will likely start this year) and at safety (where they signed Anthony Harris to a one-year deal after losing Jalen Mills to the Patriots).

But one of their biggest needs, cornerback, will warrant not just one, but a couple of upgrades between now and when camp opens. Some of that could be done in the draft, with the team seemingly in position to still grab either Patrick Surtain Jr. or Jaycee Horn after trading back from six to 12. And while both players would likely be considered Day 1 starters for the rebuilding Eagles, the Birds could opt to bring a rookie cornerback along slowly and in order to have that kind of luxury, they'll need to add at least one more corner in free agency. As you can see, their current depth chart at the position is wanting and in massive need of an upgrade.

Eagles CBs 1 2 3
CBDarius Slay Michael Jacquet Jameson Houston
CBCraig James? Kevon Seymour
Slot CBAvonte Maddox Lavert Hill Shakial Taylor

Obviously, using a top pick on a corner would hopefully bring that upgrade, but there are no guarantees that whichever player they'd take there would be a success, and with so many other needs up and down the roster, there's also no guarantee the Eagles even go with that position in the first round. Beyond that, with 11 other teams picking before the Eagles, both players could be gone before the Birds even go on the clock (although at least one, if not both are expected to be on the board for Philly). 

In other words, unless the Eagles want to open camp with Avonte Maddox starting opposite Darius Slay, they're going to need to add some cornerback depth. Let's take a look at five options who are still available to the Eagles late in the free agency game. 

[NOTE: These are hardly all the free agent cornerbacks still on the market, so if there's a player you've been tracking and you don't see him here, that doesn't mean he isn't a fit. We just stuck with five. Also, not all of these guys are starters, but if the Eagles indeed plan on taking a CB in the first round and starting him out of the gate, then they're still going to need some depth at the position.]

Gareon Conley

Let's start with a guy who could've already been an Eagle in Gareon Conley. The 25-year-old cornerback would make sense in Philly for several reasons:

• He's young enough that he can contribute for several years, which is likely how long it could take the Birds to be a contender again. 

• He plays outside and has been successful there, and that's really an area where the Eagles could use the help with Maddox already showing he can play in the slot.

• He's coming off a lost season in 2020, so he could potentially be signed on the cheap, especially if he's looking for a one-year prove-it deal. If he plays well, maybe the Eagles could re-sign him.

• The Eagles — and this is a big one — were already very interested in acquiring him in the 2017 NFL Draft. According to Jimmy Kempski, the Eagles were actually planning on taking him (and not Derek Barnett) with the 14th pick that year, but at the time Conley was being accused of sexual assault (of which he was later cleared) and that caused him to slide down draft boards, ultimately not going until the 24th pick. Had those allegations not been hanging over him, Kempski reports that the Eagles would have drafted him instead. Of course, if those allegations weren't hanging over his head, he also likely wouldn't have fallen to them at 14. 

If the Eagles can get Conley at the right price — and assuming he's healthy after a pair of ankle surgeries cost him the entire 2020 season — then he seems like a slam dunk option for the Eagles. 

Before free agency even started, Kempski identified Conley as one of the top free agents who made sense for the Eagles. Here's some of what he wrote at the time: 

In Oakland, Conley was a disappointment overall, but he flashed NFL talent, and was the Raiders' No. 1 CB heading into the 2019 season. After six games in 2019, the Raiders traded him to the Texans for a third-round pick. It should be noted that Jon Gruden didn't seem to have much use for any of the four Raiders' first-round picks prior to his arrival, as Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, Karl Joseph, and Conley are no longer on the team.

In Houston, Conley had a solid season in 2019, and he got his hands on a lot of passes. Including the playoffs, he had 14 PBUs in nine games. ... In 2020, Conley was poised to start for the Texans once again, but he had a pair of surgeries on his ankle, and missed the entire season. Obviously, that is why he could be a cheap option for the Eagles, who are in need of a starter on the outside opposite Darius Slay.  [MORE]

Now that he's still available, presumably with his asking price falling every day he remains unsigned, he should make even more sense for the Birds.

TJ Carrie

There's already a natural connection with T.J. Carrie, who played last season under new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who was the Colts' cornerbacks coach last season. (So far this offseason, connections to the new coaching staff have been key.) And, as it turns out, Carrie had the best season of his career under Gannon. Here's more from the Colts SB Nation site, Stampede Blue:

He was a revelation at cornerback for the Colts, having signed a 1-year, $1.05M deal.

Appearing in 15 games (2 starts), Carrie recorded 32 tackles (25 solo), a tackle for loss, 8 passes defensed, 2 interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown), and a fumble recovery this past season.

Per PFF (subscription), in 2020, Carrie was their 37th best graded cornerback with a +67.9 overall grade—including a +90.0 run defense grade.

In coverage, he was targeted 42 times for an allowed 24 receptions (57.1% completion rate), 347 receiving yards, 2 touchdown receptions, and 2 interceptions.  [stampedeblue.com]

And interestingly enough, perhaps because of that natural connection to Gannon combined with the Eagles desperately needing some cornerback help, Carrie is a guy who has already been linked to the team. Here's more from Adam Caplan and Geoff Mosher of Inside the Birds:

CAPLAN: "When you look at the Eagles situation at corner on the outside, it's just awful other than [Darius] Slay. [Avonte] Maddox has got to be their slot corner. So again, they need to enter training camp — they have to add three corners on the outside, whether it's two in the draft or two in free agency, one way or the other. T.J. Carrie is a guy I understand they have some interest in. He's a hybrid, he could play safety — he played safety with the Raiders — he could play corner. He's more of a dime/nickel [cornerback]. I think you had said you expect them to play a lot of nickel — you think they're going to be a heavy sub team."

MOSHER: "Heavy nickel and dime, as I understand it, which is kind of where everyone is going anyway, but yeah."

CAPLAN: "But he is experienced in the kind of defense they're going to run. He's a smart guy. You could move him around. But he's a sub-package guy. He's not going to cost them a lot of money, but I reported last week that the Saints brought him in for a visit. Look, man, other than Casey Hayward, there are only a couple good veteran corners and then that drop-off. Carrie would be in the second group. Again, he's not going to cost a lot — he's 30 now, so he's not going to cost a lot."  [Inside the Birds

He's a bit older than Conley — and perhaps a bit older than what the Eagles are looking for — but he'd likely come on the cheap, can play multiple positions, has experience in Gannon's system, and did we mention he'd come cheap? He wouldn't be a major addition, but the Eagles could certainly do worse. And with the team expected to play a lot of nickel and dime this season, as noted above, they're going to need more than just a couple of capable corners.

Steven Nelson

At 28 years old, the former Steelers and Chiefs cornerback is on the right side of 30 for an Eagles team playing the long game, but he might be one of the best corners still left on the market. He has been a full-time starter every year since his sophomore season and has played at least 88% of his team's defensive snaps four of the last five years with the lone exception coming in 2017 when he missed nearly half the season with an injury. 

In 82 career games (68 starts), Nelson has seven interceptions, a forced fumble and four fumble recoveries to go with 52 pass breakups and 291 tackles. He also helped the Steelers finish third in pass defense each of his two seasons lined up opposite Joe Haden in Pittsburgh. 

Earlier this offseason, the Steelers were looking to trade Nelson as they undergo a defensive makeover, but after not finding a partner they opted to release him and make him a free agent instead. He's yet to sign anywhere, but at the right price would certainly make a nice addition for the Eagles. That being said, it doesn't sound like he's willing to sign cheap. During a recent interview in which he discussed his departure from Pittsburgh, the now-free agent CB said there are about 10 teams interested in his services. 

“I know my value.” Nelson stated. “I know my worth. I just turned 28. Being a five-year starter, a proven starter. I’ve played over a thousand snaps, maybe the only corner who has played a thousand snaps in the last three years. If you’re talking durability and what teams want, you know what you’re going to get.”

According to Nelson, there are a number of teams who understand the value he brings enough to at least inquire about his services.

“I don’t what to put out the exact teams, but let’s just say about a third of the NFL, a lot of corner-needed teams, have reached out,” Nelson stated.  [behindthesteelcurtain.com]

Could the Eagles be one of them?

Brian Poole

While the Eagles really need help on the outside — and we've just identified a few names who make sense — they really just need bodies at this point. And just because Avonte Maddox seeming has the slot corner position locked up, that doesn't mean they shouldn't add another. 

That's what they'd be getting in Brian Poole, who was a slot corner with the Jets last season. But he has something that makes him an immediate name to watch: a connection to the Eagles coaching staff, as he played under new defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson during his time with the New York Jets. He may not be the sexiest signing, but the Eagles are a cash-strapped team and are in need of bodies. Furthermore, he could actually bring some value to the Birds. Here's more from Brad Gagnon at TheComeback.com, who recently ranked Poole as the ninth-best available free agent at any position — and the third best CB left on the market. 

9. CB Brian Poole: The 28-year-old is coming off a knee injury and has some Jets stink on him, but he’s given up fewer than 7.5 yards per target in each of his last three seasons. Opposing quarterbacks posted a passer rating of just 61.6 on throws into his coverage in a small sample in 2020.  [thecomeback.com]

Poole remains available and the Eagles seemingly have some inside info on him given they now employ his former position coach. If the Eagles are thinking about adding a starting outside cornerback in the draft, like a Surtain or Horn, perhaps they focus more on options like this, who would clearly add more depth than starting-level talent. 

Cre'Von LeBlanc 

Finally, a name all Eagles fans likely recognize — one you read it, it's hard to forget, even if his first stint with the Birds was more or less forgettable. The 26-year-old cornerback appeared in 21 games (six starts) over parts of three seasons with Philly after scooping him up off waivers from the Lions back in November 2018. 

So why are we including LeBlanc here? Well, for starters he would come cheap, likely not costing more than the veteran minimum. Beyond that, he'd also provide some depth at the slot corner position, not unlike Poole, and has also had success on special teams. He's not going to challenge for a starting job and would likely only be a secondary signing to complement a bigger name, a high draft or (more likely) both. The Eagles obviously need a lot of help at the position, but it's clear to see that signing any of these guys, even LeBlanc, would be a step in the right direction. Right? Or do we need to show you that depth chart again? 


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