Leading up to training camp on July 25, we’ll have a position-by-position preview of the Eagles’ roster. We have already covered the defensive line, quarterbacks, outside linebackers, running backs and inside linebackers. Now it’s on to the cornerbacks.
The pressing question: Can Nolan Carroll II push for a starting job?
The best bet for the Eagles' defense going into 2014 is that this unit will return 10 of 11 starters from a year ago - the only exception being new safety Malcolm Jenkins.
But if you want a position battle to watch on that side of the ball, it's at cornerback. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were the starters last year, but the team signed Carroll from the Dolphins in the offseason. The 27-year-old started 12 games in Miami last year and 10 more in 2012. He has adequate size, plays with great effort and only missed seven tackles the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
In the spring, Carroll was the Eagles' most active cornerback, breaking up passes on a regular basis. But that was in shorts. The intensity gets ratcheted up when training camp begins later this week. Chip Kelly constantly harps on competition determining roles and roster spots.
With a strong summer, Carroll could push one of the starters (most likely Fletcher) for playing time.
We just covered the main one, but it's worth examining the depth at this spot.
Williams, Fletcher, Carroll and Brandon Boykin are locks to make the roster, so there are not a lot of openings up for grabs here. The Eagles drafted defensive back Jaylen Watkins in the fourth round, and it would be a stunner if he didn't make the squad. That leaves at most one opening for someone like Roc Carmichael or Curtis Marsh.
One idea we've thrown around in this space is that the Eagles could play some more dime in 2014. They have more options on the back end and were not able to add inside linebacker depth in the offseason. Maybe the move is to go with a sub package that features six defensive backs and just one inside LB.
I threw this thought out to some of the coaches in the spring, and the sense I got was that the Eagles will have a dime package, but it's unlikely that they utilize it with regularity in 2014. In other words, it could make sense against certain teams and in certain third-and-long situations, but don't expect it to become a staple.
Things could change in the summer, depending on personnel, but that's where things stand right now.
One thing I think
At some point, frustration could seep in for Boykin. So far, he Eagles' play-making cornerback has done an admirable job of speaking honestly while not rocking the boat. He wants to play more snaps and be a starting corner, but he's also a team-first player who has excelled as the nickel and on special teams.
The Boykin situation is fascinating because it pits a couple of Kelly's philosophies against one another. On one hand, he wants to emphasize competition as the determining factor in playing time. On the other hand, he has specific measurables that he's outlined at each position.
At cornerback, it seems safe to assume that the coaches are not willing to bend the rules and start someone under 5-10 on the outside. If they were, Boykin, who clearly outplayed the competition last summer, would have started in 2013.
Boykin is mature enough to handle his role with the Eagles. But at some point, he may start thinking about money. The Eagles can redo his contract after the 2014 season, but will Boykin be open to that? More likely, he'll want to test free agency after 2015 and see if can get an opportunity to start somewhere on the outside.
We're obviously getting way ahead of ourselves, but Boykin is one of the most talented and productive players on this defense. His situation is worth monitoring going forward.