With revamped secondary, Eagles confident new unit will be an upgrade

With revamped secondary, Eagles confident new unit will be an upgrade

You know when you're playing Scrabble and you have lousy letters so you just trade them all in?

That's pretty much what the Eagles have done with their secondary.

Nolan Carroll, gone. Leodis McKelvin, gone. Ron Brooks, gone. C.J. Smith, Terrence Brooks and Aaron Grymes? All gone.

The Eagles reshaped their secondary this offseason — and even more during training camp — jettisoning six defensive backs that started 33 games and played more than 1,700 snaps last year and replacing them with a draft pick, a free agent and three guys who weren't even with the team when training camp began.

Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, one of the NFL's better safety combos, both return, but the eight other defensive backs currently on the roster have started a total of eight games combined in an Eagles uniform.

It's a new group, but the Eagles believe it's a talented group, a fast group and an upgraded group.

We'll get our first glimpse of this reconfigured secondary when the Eagles open the 2017 season against the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field (see five matchups to watch).

“I hope there’s no growing pains and if there are growing pains, I hope they’re little ones," said cornerback Ronald Darby, one of three defensive backs Howie Roseman acquired during training camp.

"But we can’t think about that. We have to go into the game playing fast and if we make a mistake, make it full-speed.

"We have no choice but to make it come together fast. We don't have time on our side, so you have to take the extra time and really stress the little things as well as the big things to make sure you’re on track with everyone else."

Darby and Jalen Mills will start at corner, with another newcomer, Patrick Robinson, the primary slot. Rookie Rasul Douglas is also in the mix at cornerback, as is Dexter McDougle, who joined the Eagles less than two weeks ago. Another rookie, second-round pick Sidney Jones, is currently out with an Achilles injury.

The overhaul was certainly necessary. The Eagles allowed 27 pass plays of 30 yards or more last season, second-most in the league (the Raiders allowed 28).

The Eagles have allowed 25 or more touchdown passes in eight straight seasons, the only team in NFL history to do that.

“I think we’ve got a lot of eager guys, a lot of guys who are very hungry to play in this defense and get on the field, and it shows at practice," Mills said.

"The new guys are active in meetings, asking questions if they don’t know something or certain adjustments, if not asking the coaches, asking the players. So I think those guys are adjusting really well." 

It's easy to assume that when you have this many new pieces, it's going to take some time for the whole thing to come together.

But the Eagles don't have a lot of time. So guys like Corey Graham, McDougle and Darby — who all began training camp elsewhere — had to do plenty of extra work just to catch up and be ready for Sunday.

“It's just guys putting in the time and the effort," said Graham, now in his 11th NFL season. "These guys know defense, you just have to learn the terminology, so for us, it’s tough but you see all the young guys asking a lot of questions, staying later, doing what they need to do, and those are things that help you as a defense play all as one."

Only two of the 10 defensive backs on the roster are Eagles draft picks. Mills was a seventh-round pick last year and Jaylen Watkins a fourth-round pick in 2014 (but was with the Bills in part of 2015).

It's an intriguing group, and not including Chris Maragos — who is essentially a special teamer — only Jenkins has been here since opening day 2015.

“We have a lot of competition," Watkins said. "We have a lot of young guys, but they’re really competitive trying to make their mark on this league, and then our older guys are our hardest-working guys, and the young guys follow them."

The Eagles haven't had an elite pass defense since 2008, when they ranked third in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Not coincidentally, that was their last year with Brian Dawkins on the field and Jim Johnson in the coaching booth.

In the eight years since, the Eagles have allowed 234 touchdown passes — the most any team has ever allowed in an eight-year span.

This group believes those days are over.

“I like where we are,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Obviously, the proof is in the pudding over the course of the season. …

"There's a lot of different ways we can play. We'll probably have six different personnel packages that we can play in this game, which is a little bit more than we carried last year. And I think a lot of it has to do with some of the flexibility the guys have in the secondary.”

Graham said Jenkins, a Pro Bowl safety two years ago, is the key to the defensive back room because he's so well respected by everybody around him.

"When you have a guy like Malcolm Jenkins in your room, who’s a serious, get-my-job-done kind of guy, then the young guys buy in," Graham said. "If he’s out there joking and playing all the time, then that’s what they’re going to do. It’s all just falling in line with what your leader is doing.”
So how does such a new group come together almost overnight?

Think about it: The Eagles signed Robinson on March 28, they drafted Jones and Douglas on April 28, they signed Graham on Aug. 3, they acquired Darby in the Jordan Matthews deal Aug. 11 and they acquired McDougle on Aug. 27.

That's six guys who weren't Eagles six months ago.

"Just guys paying attention to detail, taking it serious, wanting to be great," McLeod said. "I think all of us got something to prove, whether it's Darby being traded over here and being the new guy, whether it's Corey Graham getting a second chance, myself just kind of being underrated, Jenk, maybe he wants to be higher in the (player) rankings. 

"Everybody's been working, holding each other accountable. It's going to be good this year. We have a lot of diversity in the group, a lot of guys who are very interchangeable and it's allowing us to do a lot more with this defense.

"I feel like everybody has something to prove and we all set out for one common goal and that's to win and get to the playoffs and Super Bowl."

Derrick Gunn's NFL Week 7 Picks: Will Falcons avenge Super Bowl loss to Patriots?

USA Today Images

Derrick Gunn's NFL Week 7 Picks: Will Falcons avenge Super Bowl loss to Patriots?

Derrick Gunn makes his picks for Week 7 of the NFL season.

Redskins at Eagles (8:30 p.m. on ESPN)
Because they have the best record in the NFC, the Eagles have a huge target on their backs and everybody is gunning for them. On Monday night, the Washington Redskins are hoping to take them down a notch. The ‘Skins come limping to the Linc. Their star rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen is done for the year with a Lisfranc injury. Their starting cornerbacks Josh Norman (rib) and Bashaud Breeland (knee) both might miss this key divisional showdown.

Carson Wentz has the Eagles offense rolling, and the defense has been rock solid against the run. Kirk Cousins will go after a Birds secondary ranked 29th against the pass (273.5 yards per game). One of the key matchups to watch closely is how the Eagles will try to defend against ‘Skins running back Chris Thompson, who is Washington’s leading rusher. More importantly, he’s their leading receiver, averaging 18.9 yards per catch.

In Week One the Eagles sacked Kirk Cousins 4 times, but since then he’s only been sacked 4 times. The Birds broke the ‘Skins jinx in the season opener. I look for the home team to make it a season sweep.

Pick: Eagles 28, Redskins 24

Buccaneers at Bills (1 p.m. on FOX)
The good news for the Bucs is Jameis Winston is expected to play despite dealing with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder. The bad news for the Bucs is they’re playing against a Bills team coming off a bye and a Bills' defense that is No. 1 in the league in points allowed at 14.8 points per game. Tampa Bay is also winless on the road. That won’t change this week.

Pick: Buffalo

Panthers at Bears (1 p.m. on CBS)
The Panthers have had a long time to lick their wounds after their encounter with the Eagles. The Bears are riding high after a stunning road win at Baltimore. Until the Panthers learn how to run the ball effectively, better teams will make them one-dimensional. Chicago has a potent run game, averaging 136 yards, but has difficulty scoring, putting up just 17.5 points per game. The Panthers go into the Bears' den and claw out a win.

Pick: Carolina

Titans at Browns (1 p.m. on CBS)
Desperate men take desperate measures and Hue Jackson is desperate to change the misfortunes of his 0-6 Browns. Jackson is going back to rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer who has 3 touchdowns and 9 interceptions this year. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is still dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, but he fought through it last week and threw for 306 yards against the Colts. The combination of running backs Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray takes a lot of pressure off Mariota. Look for the Titans to ground and pound the Browns.

Pick: Tennessee

Saints at Packers (1 p.m. on FOX)
These are dark days for Packers fans with Aaron Rodgers on the shelf with a broken collarbone. Meanwhile, the Saints have been marching, winning three straight. New Orleans has averaged 35 points in its last three and Drew Brees hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 1. The Saints will be doing more Lambeau Leaps than the Packers will this Sunday.

Pick: New Orleans

Jaguars at Colts (1 p.m. on CBS)
At 3-3, the Jaguars are tied for first place in the AFC South with Houston and Tennessee. Indy is just one game off the lead at 2-4. Jags rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who is second in the league in rushing, is questionable with an ankle injury. These Jaguars are an odd bunch to figure out and their wins have come in Weeks 1, 3, and 5. Since this is an odd week, I guess you know who I’m picking here.

Pick: Jacksonville

Cardinals at Rams (1 p.m. on FOX)
Looks like all the Cards needed was to find a running back to cure their offensive problems. In his Arizona debut last Sunday, Adrian Peterson had 26 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns, along with a Cards win. The Rams have the league’s fourth-leading rusher in Todd Gurley. Both teams' offenses have the capability to light it up through the air, but if it comes down to the run game the Rams could be in trouble, as they allow 139.5 yards per game. With that said, I like the Rams at home in a close game.

Pick: Los Angeles

Jets at Dolphins (1 p.m. on FOX)
After falling behind 17-0 in Atlanta last week, the Dolphins mounted an impressive rally to pull off an upset win. The Jets have surprised many with limited offensive talent and have found a way to win three games. Division matches are usually difficult to pinpoint. The Jets are not the Falcons and since the Dolphins beat Atlanta on the road, they should handle New York at home.

Pick: Miami

Ravens at Vikings (1 p.m. on CBS)
Who are these Ravens? They look like contenders one week, then unravel against a team like Chicago the next week and look like pretenders. Minnesota’s defense is fast and rugged. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum has a firm grip on the offense. The Vikings will win their third in a row.

Pick: Minnesota

Cowboys at 49ers (4:05 p.m. on FOX)
These Niners are an interesting bunch. They haven’t won a game, but they’re in most of them. The Niners have set an NFL record by losing five consecutive games by three points or less. The 'Boys are coming off a bye and look to regroup. Their defense has been hot or cold. In this case, their D can be lukewarm because the 'Boys have just enough offensive firepower to hold off the Niners.

Pick: Dallas

Seahawks at Giants (4:25 p.m. on CBS)
This should be one of those good old rock’em sock’em type matchups. The Seahawks' and Giants' defenses can both bring it. Big Blue shocked the world last week by manhandling the Broncos in Denver. Russell Wilson is one of the best in the game at extending plays with his feet. Eli Manning is a stationary target with very few weapons to work with. Yes, I remember they found a run game against the Broncos but the legion of boom and company will be ready for it.

Pick: Seattle

Bengals at Steelers (4:25 p.m. on CBS)
The Steelers put it all together last week to hand the Chiefs their first loss. Do you want defense? This game is about defense. The Bengals are ranked second and the Steelers are third best in the NFL. The Bengals are well-rested coming off a bye and will be waiting for Le’Veon Bell. The wide receivers in this AFC North showdown are exciting … Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, John Ross. The Bengals two-game win streak stops in Da Burgh.

Pick: Pittsburgh

Broncos at Chargers (4:25 p.m on CBS)
Remember how we were all snickering at the Chargers for inventing new ways to lose close games? Well, laugh no more. The Chargers have won their last two by a grand total of six points. Meanwhile, the Broncos have lost two of their last three. This game features premier pass rushers on both sides —Von Miller, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The Chargers are 0-3 at home. This is a pick’em game. After closing my eyes and throwing at a dart board, I’m picking the Chargers. Don’t ask me why.

Pick: Los Angeles

Falcons at Patriots (8:30 p.m. Sunday on NBC)
A rematch of last season’s Super Bowl. It would be a small measure of revenge for the Falcons, but Atlanta is having problems finding the end zone. In each of their last two games, the Falcons have been held to just 17 points and lost both. Brady and company know how to score, but the Pats' defense has been inconsistent stopping the opposition from scoring. However, maybe that’s changing. In its last two games, New England held Tampa Bay to 14 points and the Jets to 17 points. Atlanta presents a much bigger test, but never bet against Bill Belichick at home.

Pick: Patriots

Zach Ertz making significant strides after offseason work with Carson Wentz

USA Today Images

Zach Ertz making significant strides after offseason work with Carson Wentz

The same Zach Ertz who's never had more than four touchdowns in a season now leads all NFL tight ends in touchdown catches. With four.

It's all part of the natural evolution between Ertz and Carson Wentz.

Ertz shares the NFL TD catch lead among tight ends with the Buccaneers' Cameron Brate and the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski.

And going back to last year, Ertz has six touchdown catches in his last seven games and eight in his last 13 games.

In his previous 40 games? He had five touchdown catches.

“I think it's just all the offseason work with Carson," Ertz said. "I think the coaches have a lot of confidence in me down there, and I think that stems from all the red-zone emphasis that we had all spring and summer.

"And then I’ve just made plays, the offensive line has held up, I think Carson is putting the ball in amazing spots, and I just go up and get the ball. I have the easy part."

Ertz had TD catches to give the Eagles' 14-0 leads against the Giants and Cards and then caught two last Thursday that turned a 10-3 deficit into an 18-10 lead as the Eagles beat the Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He's the first Eagles tight end with four TD catches through six games since Pete Pihos in 1955.

“The biggest thing is A) He puts in the work and B) He’s a really intelligent football player," Wentz said. "He knows coverages, recognizes things, knows when he’s hot (on a blitz).

"He’s really kind of in my head. He knows when I’m about to change his route, those types of things. With a guy like that, that knows how to create separation and play on time and be on the same page as me, that makes it tough to stop."

The touchdowns are most notable, but Ertz is off to the best start of his career in every category. His 34 catches and 405 yards are both second-most among all NFL tight ends to Travis Kelce's 37 and 423 (in seven games).

The Eagles, 5-1, face the 3-2 Redskins Monday night at the Linc. Ertz already has 54 career receptions against the Redskins — third-most ever by a tight end.

“It’s just Year 2 in this system," he said. "I’m a lot more comfortable in my role this year as opposed to last year. I was hurt, missed two games, and I was slowly integrated back into the game plan.

"I think this year I’m extremely confident in my role, I think they have the confidence in me to go out there and make plays when my number’s called, and it’s not going to be 10 targets every game. Last week it was two targets, 20 yards. It’s going to vary each and every week but I’m very happy with how they’re using me right now."

Ertz and Nelson Agholor are the first Eagles tandem with four touchdowns each through six games since Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams each had four back in 1992.

The red zone was a point of emphasis this offseason, and Wentz's numbers in the red zone are off the charts — 62 percent completion percentage, nine touchdowns, no interceptions and a 112.8 passer rating, fourth-highest in the NFL.

Ertz is third in the NFL with five red-zone first-down catches and fourth in the NFL with both six red-zone receptions and 49 yards.

“It’s timing," Wentz said. "It’s a timing thing and being on the same page.

"Red zone’s all about making plays. Playmakers making plays and playing on time down there is so crucial and that’s something we’ve really focused on. I think we’ve gotten better at all our spots on playing on time but he’s a guy that we feel creates mismatches and we take advantage of them."