With training camp just days away, Howie Roseman was able to shore up the biggest hole remaining on the Eagles roster. With the acquisition of Steven Nelson, the second cornerback spot is all but solidified.
Now that Nelson is firmly slotted in as the starting corner opposite Darius Slay, a secondary that looked shaky at best heading into 2021 is now a formidable unit.
The cornerback group is drastically improved
Nelson should drastically improve the cornerback play in Philly. Since 2018, Nelson has snagged 6 interceptions, the same amount as Slay during that time. While 2020 could be labeled as a down year for Nelson, he still managed to snag 2 interceptions and allow a completion percentage of 58.2 when targeted. His 68.6 Pro Football Focus coverage grade ranked as the 35th-best coverage grade among corners in 2020, and still placed him in the top third in coverage grade among corners.
For what it’s worth, PFF ranked Nelson as the 13th-best outside corner in the NFL entering this year.
2019 was Nelson’s best season as a pro from a coverage standpoint. While he only tallied 1 interception, Nelson allowed a 50 percent completion percentage and a 65.8 passer rating when targeted. His 80.3 coverage grade on PFF ranked 11th-best in the league in 2019.
Placed in a defensive system that will likely ask him to get physical with wideouts at the line of scrimmage and play man coverage, Nelson should have a bounce back campaign in 2021. His one-year, $4 million deal is a bargain considering how dramatic his impact could be on the Eagles secondary.
Expect Slay to benefit from this acquisition as well. Having another corner who’s capable of holding his own on the opposite side of the field is always invaluable for a No. 1 corner.
While some fans have claimed Slay had a down year in 2020, he actually performed better than any corner the Eagles have had in recent memory. Slay did struggle against D.K. Metcalf and Davante Adams, but in every other matchup Slay had in 2020, he dominated.
He held Terry McLaurin to 28 yards, Jarvis Landry to 13, Michael Thomas to 33, and JuJu Smith-Schuster to 11. The only two receivers Slay allowed more than 50 yards to were Metcalf and Adams.
Slay and Nelson should be fine starting corners in Jonathan Gannon’s defense, and now Avonte Maddox will be able to sink his feet into his new role as the team’s nickel corner. He struggled as an outside corner in 2020, but this role change should play to Maddox’s skill set and stature.
The question of which unproven corner will be thrusted into action is now obsolete. Zech McPhearson, Craig James, and Michael Jacquet — the three corners who were most likely to win the CB2 job prior to Nelson’s signing — will now be solid depth pieces the team can develop.
What about safety?
After the team signed Anthony Harris earlier this offseason, the safety positions were solidified. It’s unclear whether Rodney McLeod will be healthy by Week 1, but we’ll learn pretty quickly during camp whether he will or won’t be.
The only true question mark at the position is who will occupy the third safety spot. At this point, all signs are pointing towards second year safety K’Von Wallace manning the box safety position.
In his limited playing time last season, Wallace did well in certain areas, while struggling on others. Although the stats don’t necessarily reflect it, Wallace was pretty solid in coverage as a rookie. He routinely stuck in the hip pocket of tight ends or running backs he was assigned to in coverage.
Where Wallace found some trouble was in his tackling. He tended to go low on runners and just torpedo himself into their legs. Sometimes this worked and the ball carrier went down, but more often than not, the runner bounced off Wallace and continued to truck down field.
If Wallace is to excel in the third safety role, his tackling will need to improve. As long as he’s able to wrap up and slow down the runner, he should be fine. We don’t need him to be Brian Dawkins — Wallace just needs to be serviceable in this area and he’ll do fine in his sophomore campaign.
How good can this secondary be in 2021?
If each starter in this Eagles secondary remains healthy and fills their role in Gannon’s defense, this group won’t be a liability in 2021. When’s the last time you could say that about an Eagles secondary?
We’re no longer banking on unknown talent to materialize on the field. Each starter in this secondary has a proven track record of success and high level play. While some of their stars are aging, like Slay and McLeod, they figure to still be solid starters in this league for the next few seasons at least.
As far as the depth is concerned, I like what I see there as well. I like McPhearson, James, and Jacquet as depth pieces much more than I do in the starting lineup. The same can be said for the safety position. Marcus Epps and Andrew Adams are more than capable of stepping in if one of the starting safeties gets injured.
The Eagles have had one of the worst secondaries in football over the past decade. It’s ranged from below average to downright awful during that time. For the first time since the likes of Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins roamed the backend of an Eagles defense, Philly has a crop of legitimate starters in their secondary.
I won’t go as far as saying this is now a strength, but it’s hard to pin the secondary as a clear weakness anymore. For as much slack as Howie Roseman has gotten during this offseason, he put together the best secondary he’s ever had in Philadelphia.
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