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."

Trey Burton denies report questioning his Eagles future

AP Images

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.