During red-zone drills Wednesday, Jalen Hurts spotted DeVonta Smith flashing through the end zone toward the left sideline.
He lobbed the football toward Smith, who leaped high in the air with a cornerback draped all over him and tried to make a spectacular one-handed catch.
If he comes down with the football, it’s by far the play of the day.
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But he couldn’t quite control the ball, and it went into the books as an incomplete pass.
And once you got past what a remarkable effort Smith made on that rep, you couldn’t help notice who was covering him.
Not Darius Slay. Not James Bradberry. Not Avonte Maddox.
It was Zech McPhearson, the second-year 4th-round pick out of Texas Tech.
There are nine cornerbacks in camp battling for playing time and roster spots, but plays like that make coaches take notice.
“We’ve been working together this whole offseason and I’ve got a lot of high hopes for him,” Slay said of McPhearson after practice. “He’s just grinding, working hard.
“I’m trying to teach him everything I know because one of these days he’ll be taking my position. That’s the goal for me as a veteran guy. I want a younger guy to be the next me or even better. So my goal is to keep working him.”
McPhearson only played two defensive snaps the first half of last year, but he played 177 snaps the second half, mostly at the end of blowout wins and losses.
When training camp opened Wednesday, McPhearson and Mac McCain, an undrafted second-year pro from North Carolina A&T, were the second-team corners behind Slay and Bradberry, and Josiah Scott was running with the twos in the slot.
With Slay, Bradberry and Maddox locks to make the roster, that probably leaves three spots up for grabs.
As a mid-round draft pick, McPhearson is going to get an honest look this preseason, and Slay believes he has what it takes to be that third outside corner.
“He was advanced when he came in,” Slay said. “He was a smart kid coming in and one thing about Zech. He’s not scared to ask questions. He listens.
“And that’s one thing I was when I was young. I listened. And I listened to my vets and I asked questions and that’s what he’s doing. He’s starting on the right path for sure, man. Sky’s the limit and I can’t wait to see him (continue progressing).”
The Eagles have a long history of veteran players helping groom their eventual successor. That's been the culture around here since Andy Reid.
Twenty years ago, Troy Vincent sat down for an hour in the NovaCare Complex locker room with wide-eyed rookies Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown after an OTA practice mentoring them on life as a professional football player.
“Giving them the keys to the kingdom,” Vincent said that day.
That meant teaching them how to be pros and sharing every imaginable tip that could help them on their journey.
Slay was the Eagles’ defensive MVP last year and made his fourth Pro Bowl, but he’s 31 and not signed beyond 2023.
He knows how this works.
At some point he won’t be here anymore and he wants to make sure McPhearson is ready when he gets his opportunity.
Slay said there were a bunch of veteran corners who gave him the same guidance and mentorship early in his career that he’s now giving McPhearson.
“Be a sponge,” he said. “I had a lot of things to choose from what kind of player I wanted to be, but I saw the guys that I looked up to do it this way and I did it how they did it and they were successful players and now I’m Year 10.
“I wouldn’t be in Year 10 without guys like Rashean Mathis, Glover Quin, Chris Houston, Louis Delmas, guys that played a long time in this league. I would not be in Year 10 without those guys because they showed me how to take care of my body and be a professional.”
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