The 700 Level’s annual Philadelphia Eagles training camp preview is back for 2015. We’re breaking down the Birds position by position in an effort to answer the question: did the team get better or worse this offseason? Check out the introduction for a primer on the series.
Talent / Byron Maxwell
Neither Cary Williams nor Bradley Fletcher is as bad as Philly fans think. That being said, there was no upside to the tandem. They were average cornerbacks on their best days—free-agent stopgaps only ever intended to get the Eagles through a couple of seasons.
Signing Byron Maxwell was the first step toward changing that. Yes, the organization went back to the free-agent well, but this time sprung for an athlete with the potential to become a shutdown corner. Maxwell is 6’1”, 207 pounds with 4.4 speed and a championship pedigree coming over from the Seattle Seahawks. He has the size to challenge wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, yet is fast enough to limit big gains over the top—whereas Williams and Fletcher had to concede a lot of underneath routes for fear of getting beat deep.
Some legitimate questions have been raised about Maxwell. With just 22 starts in the regular season or playoffs, he’s not the most established talent. And will he be as effective without the support system of an all-time great defense and secondary like he enjoyed in Seattle? These are serious concerns for a fifth-year veteran who was awarded $25 million guaranteed this offseason—albeit, on a team-friendly contract the Eagles can get out from under in as little as two years.
However, the tape helps ease any fears, particularly his performance against the Dallas Cowboys last season. Maxwell was targeted four times in coverage against Dez Bryant, allowing one reception for 11 yards before exiting the game due to an injury. There was one play where Bryant had Maxwell beat going across the middle, but the corner recovered and broke up the pass. For much of the afternoon, Maxwell was on an island with Bryant, running stride for stride with one of the NFL’s most dominant receivers, as seen on this contested throw that falls incomplete.
Bryant hung three touchdowns on Philadelphia in Week 15 alone last season. Clearly, meltdowns such as those are far less likely to happen on Maxwell’s watch.
The Eagles also used three draft picks on cornerbacks. Whether any of them pans out remains to be seen, but one thing we know for sure is Williams and Fletcher weren’t getting any better. Overall, there’s a lot more talent and upside at the position.
If there’s one aspect we can nitpick, it’s the Eagles cornerbacks have become a relatively inexperienced bunch. Williams and Fletcher started a combined 118 regular-season games in the NFL. Maxwell, Nolan Carroll, Brandon Boykin, Jaylen Watkins and the three rookies have a total of 50 under their collective belts.
To Maxwell’s credit, he’s played in the past two Super Bowls, while Carroll and Boykin have seen plenty of action as well, so perhaps this isn’t truly an issue at all. However, if any of those three is unavailable, the next man up is going to be extremely green.
Nickel Cornerback / Brandon Boykin
Some have suggested Boykin’s performance dropped off last season from his stellar 2013 campaign, when the slot specialist finished tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure where that’s coming from.
Sure, momentum-altering plays were down sharply, with just the one pick, and only nine pass breakups in ’14 as opposed to 16 the previous year. Of course, Boykin was also targeted 23 fewer times in coverage, and played 150 fewer snaps overall, according to Pro Football Focus, as opponents opted for fewer three-receiver formations. Besides, statistics such as interceptions don’t necessarily hold up from one season to the next for various reasons, namely because the opportunities may not present.
Certain advanced statistics indicate Boykin’s ’14 campaign was actually better. Football Outsiders, for instance, showed a 61-percent stop rate in coverage for the fourth-year veteran—up nine percent from the previous season, and good for second among all defensive backs. A stop is not only an interception or incomplete pass, but also short completions that don’t meet FO’s baseline for a successful play for the offense.
Boykin is one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL, period. Count on that high level of play continuing from the 25-year-old.
No. 2 Cornerback
As of now, Carroll is running with the first-team defense opposite Maxwell, although the No. 2 cornerback job is open to competition. Second-round draft pick Eric Rowe out of Utah should be in the mix for the vacancy. Boykin’s hat was also thrown into the ring.
Regardless of who comes out on top, this is a huge unknown.
Carroll started one game for the Eagles in 2014, replacing Fletcher in Week 17, and didn’t look like the solution or much better at all really, allowing four receptions for 83 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Head coach Chip Kelly went out of his way to praise the sixth-year veteran for an excellent offseason, but it doesn’t count until the pads go on, and frankly we haven’t seen the results on the field. There’s a reason Carroll was available in free agency last year.
Obviously, there are high hopes for Rowe. At 6’1”, 205 pounds with 4.4 speed, he’s got everything the Eagles want in a cornerback. The potential issue here—aside from the fact Rowe is a rookie—is he only made the move to corner last season, spending his first three seasons of college ball at safety. Right now, it’s impossible to project whether he’s ready to start in the NFL, although he probably could contribute in Philly's dime package at the very least.
It’s also difficult to tell whether Boykin really has a shot at the opening or if that’s just lip service. Obviously, the Eagles like him in the slot, and it’s believed his height (5’10”) is holding him back from serious consideration for a larger role. Plus, even if he did win the job, again, there’s little physical evidence to indicate he would succeed, much less upgrade the position.
The good news is it would be difficult to do worse than Fletcher last season. That being said, we can’t exactly promise it’s going to get better, either.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Despite the questions over the No. 2 corner, there’s very little way to see the situation as a whole getting worse. Philadelphia’s secondary ranked 32nd and 31st through the air the past two seasons, and the state of the cornerbacks has been a mess going back further than that. Maxwell brings stability to the starting lineup, three draft picks add a ton of upside and Boykin and Carroll are quality veterans. Given all the additions that were made, there’s no reason why the Eagles can’t find a better configuration than one that featured Williams and Fletcher in prominent roles.