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August 11, 2015

Watkins, Rowe among those competing for starting nickelback spot

Eagles NFL

When asked about the Eagles defensive line, Chip Kelly talked about how the coaching staff doesn’t spend too much time talking about the unit in personnel meetings. The talent level is high with that particular group, full of established young players.

As for the secondary, you would have to imagine Kelly and his coaches probably discuss the back end on the defense in greater detail. That seems especially true now, after the Eagles traded reliable nickelback Brandon Boykin to the Pittsburgh Steelers and a player who some thought had the inside track to replace him, sixth-round pick JaCorey Shepherd, went down for the season with a torn ACL.

Unsurprisingly, Kelly doesn’t regret trading Boykin after the unfortunate turn of events. He still likes what defensive coordinator Billy Davis has to work within the secondary compared to his first two years here.    

“We just felt like we're a lot deeper in the secondary than we've ever been,” Kelly said. “Then with what we were offered when [Pittsburgh] finally got it up to a fourth, we just felt like we couldn't pass up that opportunity.”

When it comes to the matter of who will replace Boykin (and perhaps Shepherd) in the slot, Kelly mentioned three names who worked into that spot at today’s practice: Jaylen Watkins, Eric Rowe, and E.J. Biggers. If Davis needs to get creative, both of the Eagles’ projected starting safeties, Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond, have the experience and versatility to play that position as well.

A fourth-round pick out of Florida last year, Watkins didn’t see much of the field in 2014. Kelly admitted that the 22-year-old defensive back simply wasn’t as good as either Boykin or Nolan Carroll, the two players who came onto the field in dime packages. Watkins finally got a chance in the last game of the year against the New York Giants, and while he made some decent plays, fellow rookie Odell Beckham burned him a few times. After that game, Watkins said that he was happy to get the opportunity to get his feet wet.

Heading into his sophomore year, Watkins has impressed both outside observers and Kelly in training camp. In particular, the head coach mentioned that he sees improvement in the young cornerback’s technique. During Tuesday’s practice, Watkins lined up with the first team in the slot.

“Jaylen has done a nice job,” Kelly said. “Since camp has started, I know Billy [Davis] and Cory [Undlin, defensive backs coach] have been happy with him. He's got some versatility. He's got nickel, he's got corner, he's got safety ability.”

Watkins is fully aware that he holds an advantage over most of his competition because he played the same position here last year. The backup slot corner in 2014, he understands the defense and knows what calls to make. According to Watkins, Undlin has been a major help one year after previous defensive backs coach John Lovett took a good bit of blame for the team's problems defending the pass.

"I think we all can speak for that," Watkins said. "We look a lot better than we did last year. Now we have a technique to go by. We have rules to go by, things that we believe in and bought into."

The Eagles selected Rowe in the second round out of Utah at least in part due to his ability to play multiple positions. The plan of attack from day one has been to let him initially learn at corner, where he’s competing with Carroll for a starting spot on the outside. Now, another way Rowe can earn playing time is in nickel packages.

“All of those guys have to be versatile,” Kelly said. “If they’re not going to end up being a starter, then they’ve got to be able to play everywhere.”

Rowe, who received a text from Undlin this morning about getting some reps in the slot, has to make an adjustment on the fly. For the first time since being drafted, he spent time working away from the outside as a cornerback. Rowe, who admitted he is more comfortable on the outside, said his initial expectation upon getting drafted was that he would have to play all over the defense.  

During Tuesday's practice, Rowe was thrown into the fire right away. He says that although a nickelback receives more help from safeties and linebackers, there is a lot more running involved with slot receivers often going in motion. There are also new route concepts to learn, as well.

"It is more mental than physical," Rowe said of the adjustment inside. "The physicality is always there, it's the same. Receivers are fast, they're real quick, and people are strong. So it's really all mental, whatever can get you that edge."

As for Shepherd, the injury seemed to be of the freak variety. According to Kelly the young corner’s foot planted awkwardly when he made contact with Darren Sproles during Sunday’s practice at The Linc. Here is some video:

Even though he was a late-round pick, Shepherd is a player the Eagles still seem pretty high on. Watkins (who had a serious injury his freshman year of college) and Rowe (who said Shepherd is in good spirits) have both spoken with him since the injury happened. Kelly said that Shepherd would be placed on injured reserve after he undergoes surgery, but he will still be part of the team in meetings.

"Hopefully, as we talked to him about, we won't use this as a rookie year ‑‑ rather next year won't be his rookie year, this will be it," Kelly said.  "He'll learn everything he needs to learn from a mental standpoint, and we'll start the rehab as soon as possible with him."

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann