Eagles: Is cornerback now a strength for Gannon’s defense?

The Eagles secondary has been arguably the weakest unit in the NFL over the past five years. They’ve fluctuated between below average to downright terrible.

Heading into 2021, it appeared this iteration of the Eagles secondary was destined to be a disaster as well. But once Howie Roseman acquired free agent cornerback Steven Nelson the Sunday prior to training camp, the biggest need on the team was adequately filled.

With Nelson and Darius Slay slated to start at the outside cornerback positions, along with Avonte Maddox in the slot, this Eagles cornerback group is the best it’s been in a decade. That may seem like an exaggeration, but just take a look at some of the starting duos over the years:

  • 2013-’14 — Cary Williams/Bradley Fletcher
  • 2015 — Byron Maxwell/Nolan Carroll
  • 2016 — Leodis McKelvin/Nolan Carroll
  • 2017-’19 — Jalen Mills/Ronald Darby
  • 2020 — Darius Slay/Avonte Maddox

Since 2016, the Eagles defense has routinely ranked in the bottom half of the league in passing yards allowed. They peaked in 2016, allowing a total of 3,832 passing yards, 13th-least in the league. That was the only time they finished in the top half of the NFL during that time.

There are reasons to believe the Eagles pass defense is vastly improved entering 2021. Not only because they have two competent corners on the outside in Slay and Nelson — both of whom ranked inside the top-25 cornerback rankings from Pro Football Focus — but Jonathan Gannon’s new defense scheme should be more cornerback friendly than his predecessor’s, Jim Schwartz.

Schwartz ran a lot of single high safety looks, placing his outside corners on an island with opposing receivers. This scheme can work with the right personnel, but the Eagles never had quality cornerback play during Schwartz’s tenure. In Gannon’s defense, instead of running single high looks, it will likely look more like a cover 2 scheme with two safeties over the top.

This will allow his corners to play more aggressively at the line of scrimmage, without the danger of getting beat over the top with no help on the backend.

With the the starters set in stone at cornerback, the question then redirects towards the depth at the position. It’s hard to say just how good that depth is at this point, but reports out of camp indicate that rookie fourth round pick Zech McPhearson and backup nickel corner Josiah Scott have shown out thus far.

McPhearson has made a number of head turning plays during his first training camp. Mike Kaye of nj.com writes, “McPhearson has been a standout through the first seven practices of his rookie training camp. With first-round wideout DeVonta Smith and second-round lineman Landon Dickerson sidelined with knee injuries, McPhearson, a fourth-round pick, has been the most impressive rookie this summer.”

The transition from college to the NFL for any rookie cornerback is difficult. McPhearson is already flashing some great potential during camp, but allowing him to sit behind guys like Slay and Nelson to learn and develop will only help the young corner.

Josiah Scott, an offseason acquisition from Jacksonville, has also been flashing during camp, nabbing a handful of interceptions and playing aggressively in each rep. He figures to be Maddox’s primary backup for the slot position.

Not only does this defense have quality starters at cornerback for the first time in five years, they also have depth pieces that are capable of carrying the load if a starter misses some time. It’s really a night and day difference from year’s past.

For the first time in what feels like forever, Eagles fans have reasons to be excited about the cornerback group. It’s no longer the liability of the defense, it’s arguably one of its strengths.

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