With 'luxury' of versatility, Eagles to use variety of slot corners this season

With 'luxury' of versatility, Eagles to use variety of slot corners this season

Who's the Eagles' slot corner this year?

Simple answer: Patrick Robinson.

More accurate answer: A whole bunch of people. Depending on a whole bunch of factors.

In Year 2 under Jim Schwartz, things are changing. Getting more complex. And one major change comes at nickel, where Schwartz said the fifth defensive back in clear passing downs could change several times within a game.

"Last year, it was (whoever) played the nickel was more of a game decision," Schwartz said. "If Malcolm was playing the nickel, he was going to play it pretty much the whole game, where this year we potentially have the ability to get in and out of (formations) within games, as opposed to just for that one game."

In other words, Robinson might be listed as the Eagles' starting nickel corner. But depending on the opponent's personnel, the score, the down and distance and several other factors, Robinson, Dexter McDougle, Jaylen Watkins, Corey Graham or even Jenkins could be manning the slot.

Why is this so important? Because nickel has really become the Eagles' base defense. Last year, the Eagles had five or more defensive backs on the field on 696 of 978 plays, or 71 percent.

As the NFL has evolved more and more into a passing league, the nickel has become more and more prevalent. Teams generally play five D-backs twice as much as they did a decade ago. And the Eagles like their options this year.

“It’s all about matchups," Jenkins said. "Just in our division, you’ve got (Jamison) Crowder, you’ve got Odell Beckham, who’s in the slot sometimes, you have (Sterling) Shepard, and then you’ve got (Cole) Beasley.

"So the body types change week-to-week and so sometimes that guy in the slot might be a tight end type of body, it might be a shifty route runner, it might be a team’s No. 1 receiver, and you need enough guys who are versatile enough to play that position, and I think that’s one of the advantages we have. We have guys who can move in and out of positions."

The Eagles open the season at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

It will be our first chance to see a new Eagles secondary — Jalen Mills is the only cornerback remaining from last year's opening-day roster. And our first chance to see how the Eagles' new slot system works.

Crowder, the Redskins' regular slot receiver, had 67 catches for 847 yards and seven touchdowns last year. He caught five passes for 89 yards in the Redskins' two wins over the Eagles.

“I think he does everything well," Jenkins said. "He runs his routes really well, he’s patient, he does the dirty work for them, he blocks, he’s running across the field, down the field, he’s running their option routes, and he’s just a tough guy.

"For him not to be that big, he’s a scrappy player, good with the ball in his hands after the catch, and he’s a reliable target for (Kirk) Cousins. He’s one of those guys we definitely have to circle every time we play them."

When training camp began, Ron Brooks was the incumbent slot guy. He played in 76 percent of the snaps the first five weeks of last year before getting hurt. But he was released, leaving Robinson as the de facto No. 1 slot corner going into Washington.

“If we're playing one of those small quick guys, then I’ll be in there most of the time," Robinson said. "If we've got a team that has two really good receiving tight ends, we might have bigger guys in the slot. It's all going to depend on the matchups.

“You got quick guys, shifty guys, big guys, crafty guys, all kinds of guys playing slot (receiver). You definitely need a (defensive back) who’s going to be on point with everything he’s going to do."

Robinson struggled early in training camp but finally got comfortable when he moved from the outside to the inside. It was his progress in the slot that made Brooks expendable.

“That’s just me being here longer and getting more comfortable," he said. "Knowing the defense as far as my assignment.

"Since the spring, I've definitely gotten better. I’ve gotten better slowly but I’ve definitely gotten better over the past couple months."

The slot corner doesn't need the same sort of speed as outside corners but does need some safety traits because he needs to be physical, play the run and defend bigger, stronger receivers.

“In the slot, you definitely have to think fast and you have to recognize formations a lot faster," Robinson said.

"You have to be strong enough to take on a fullback or something like that, but your eyes have to be really good. You have to be really focused on formations and really tuned in to technique and your assignment."

Schwartz said the Eagles will go into Washington with six different secondary formations, more than last year. The versatility of newcomers like Robinson, Graham and McDougle allows it.

So who's the slot? Robinson is.

And McDougle. And Watkins. And Mills. And Graham. And Jenkins. And who knows what else Schwartz has up his sleeve.

"Versatility is always the way to go because the one thing that’s always consistent in the league is injury," Jenkins said.

"So while you might start out with (one formation), you’re one rep away from putting in another player and if the drop off is too far, you can’t get away with it. Right now, we’re confident in a lot of different guys at that position, and that’s a luxury.”

Trey Burton denies report questioning his Eagles future

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Trey Burton denies report questioning his Eagles future

Several hours after an NJ.com report surfaced that the Eagles were unlikely to re-sign Trey Burton, the tight end denied it on Twitter.

Replying to a tweet about the report from former Eagles teammate Emmanuel Acho, Burton said he hasn't spoken to anyone.

NJ.com's Matt Lombardo reported Friday that the Eagles made Burton an offer that the soon-to-be-free-agent "didn't consider serious."

"We are fully expecting Trey to sign elsewhere," the source said.

It wouldn't be surprising whatsoever if Burton leaves in free agency. A team will likely pay him starter's money and offer him a chance to start, which he doesn't have here with Zach Ertz firmly entrenched.

The Eagles are over the projected salary cap, and while they could create space in numerous ways, they also have to worry about re-signing key linebacker Nigel Bradham.

6 ways for Eagles to create cap space

6 ways for Eagles to create cap space

The Eagles are coming off a thrilling season but there's a lot of work to be done. 

The NFL's new league year begins on March 14 and the Eagles must be under the salary cap by then. The problem is that based on projections, the Eagles are set to be more than $9 million over the cap, according to OverTheCap. So it's time for some maneuvering. 

The good news is that Howie Roseman's specialty has always been finding unique ways to get the Eagles out of cap trouble. There are ways for him to do it again.

Cut Torrey Smith 
Probably the easiest one. Smith was a great teammate and a solid addition to the Eagles' locker room, and he really stepped up his game in the playoffs, but it's probably not enough to bring him back. He just wasn't good enough last season, and cutting him would save the Eagles $5 million in cap room with no dead money. The Birds still have Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, while Mack Hollins is entering Year 2. 

Cut Brent Celek
This one will hurt, but Celek can take away the sting if he decides to walk away as a champion. He's set to have a cap number of $5 million. That's just way too much for what Celek provides these days. By cutting him, the Eagles would save $4 million in cap space. So just between Smith and Celek, the Eagles will almost get back to zero ... but there's other work to do. They'll still need money to sign free agents and draft picks. 

Extend Brandon Graham 
Graham is entering the final year of his contract with a cap number of $8 million. He wants a new contract and deserves one. Good news: An extension would work for both sides. Graham would get more money long term and the Eagles could get his cap number down this season. 

Rework/cut Vinny Curry
Curry is coming off of probably his best season in the NFL but will have an $11 million cap number. That's tough to swallow, especially with Derek Barnett waiting for his chance to start. It seems likely the Eagles will ask Curry to take a pay cut or rework his deal. If not, cutting him would leave $6 million in dead money but would also save $5 million in cap room. 

Trade Mychal Kendricks
If you remember, Kendricks actually wanted a trade last offseason. Good thing that didn't happen. Kendricks ended up being a big part of the Eagles' success in 2017. Depending on what happens with Nigel Bradham in free agency and with Jordan Hicks' Achilles recovery, trading Kendricks might again be an option. A trade would save $4.4 million in cap space. 

Trade Nick Foles 
This is such a tough one — we explore it more here. But basically, Foles is a pretty amazing insurance policy until we know when Carson Wentz is going to be ready. If the Eagles do trade Foles, it would save them $5.2 million that they could certainly use. The problem is that by the time they know Wentz's status, free agency will be long gone and that cap space won't help this year. But it could help in 2019.