Eagles

Inside the Eagles’ unique stable of developmental cornerbacks

Eagles

Eagles defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson knew of Kary Vincent Jr. before Tuesday’s trade but he had never met him in person.

That changed just minutes before Vincent’s first practice.

After Vincent, whom the Eagles acquired this week for a 2022 sixth-round pick, cleared the NFL’s COVID protocols and passed his physical on Wednesday, it was already the afternoon. It was time for practice.

So he got a new No. 34 jersey and headed out to the fields at the NovaCare Complex.

“I really just met him going out on the field,” Wilson said to NBC Sports Philadelphia this week. “Just putting a face to a name. And it was, ‘Hey, Kary, this is what we’re going to do. You go on the show team, this is the spot that I want you to play. Just go out there and play hard and then after practice, we’ll get together and we’ll start install.’ That’s kind of how that went.”

And that’s kind of how it’s gone for the Eagles this season.

They have 13 defensive backs on their 53-man roster. Eight of them are cornerbacks. Five of those cornerbacks are 23 or younger. And three of them weren’t even on the roster on opening day.

It’s pretty clear that Howie Roseman wanted to build a uniquely large stable of developmental cornerbacks. He’s done that. And the defensive back room is now pretty full.

“It’s getting tight in there, man,” Rodney McLeod said.

 

It makes plenty of sense. The Eagles starting cornerbacks are Darius Slay, who is 30, and Steven Nelson and Avonte Maddox, who are both on expiring contracts. For a team like the Eagles that has struggled — for the most part — to draft cornerbacks, it’s not a bad idea to bring in a bunch of developmental prospects and see who works out.

If it’s a numbers game the Eagles were after, they are playing it.

Here’s a look at their five youngest cornerbacks in order of their arrival this year:

Zech McPhearson (5-11, 191) — Age: 23. Drafted 4th round (123) in 2021 by Eagles out of Texas Tech.

Josiah Scott (5-9, 185) — Age: 22. Drafted 4th round (137) in 2020 by Jaguars out of Michigan State. Traded to the Eagles on May 18 for Jameson Houston and a 2023 6th-round pick.

Mac McCain III (6-0, 175) — Age: 23. Undrafted out of NC A&T in 2021. Claimed by Eagles on Sept. 7 from the Broncos.

Tay Gowan (6-1, 186) — Age: 23. Drafted 6th round (223) in 2021 by the Cardinals. Traded to Eagles in the Zach Ertz deal on Oct. 15.

Kary Vincent Jr. (5-10, 189) — Age: 22. Drafted 7th round (237) in 2021 by Broncos. Traded to Eagles for a 2022 6th-round pick on Nov. 2.

“The premium position like that, corners, there are so many teams that don't have corner depth,” head coach Nick Sirianni said. “So, just like we think about with the offense and defensive line, that's another position right there at cornerback that we want to build depth on and want to get the young players in that we feel good about.”

The Welcome Wagon

Vincent said the first person who he talked to from Philadelphia after the trade was Roseman, who expressed how delighted he was to bring Vincent in. But unlike Gowan, Vincent said the Eagles didn’t show much interest in him during the pre-draft process.

What is similar is the process both have gone through since joining the team. Because both arrived with the season well underway.

Wilson has coached plenty of young players before, especially with the Jets, but having three of them join the team during the season is different. Wilson obviously has a lot on his plate. He has to coach the starters and veterans on the team but he also has to work with these developing players as they arrive.

The first thing he has to do is learn about them as individuals.

“When you get around them, you have to figure out their personalities first and foremost before you coach them,” he said. “Just getting them here and getting to know them, see how they work, how they operate. That’s huge in coaching. Just getting the feel for those guys when they get here was big. Because you know what buttons to push, you know how they remember things. Everybody learns differently.”

Wilson said some guys learn conceptually, others need to be on grass. And it’s up to him and the other coaches to figure that out.

 

While the methods might change, the overall process can’t. Wilson has a very specific way he wants things done; he has a standard for everything.

“You can’t skip steps,” he said.

So the first thing he teaches his new players is technique. How does he want them to play the run? How about press technique? All those little details matter.

From there, he’ll teach them more about the scheme, getting into every nuance.

“You don’t try to flood them too much with information,” he said. “You kind of give them the basics. Then when you’re at practice, you kind of put them out when you know they can make certain plays or they have a thorough understanding of what you’re asking out of that coverage. So you kind of spoon feed them for a week or two, so when it’s time to play, they gotta go.”

Assistant defensive backs coach D.K. McDonald plays a big role with the young players too. When Wilson is busy, the basic stuff sometimes falls on McDonald. It’s all about allocating their time and resources.

Learning from the vets

Slay claims he was never a shy rookie and, knowing him, that’s pretty believable. He still remembers his first year in Detroit and “asking all the questions,” but he also knows some — if not most — rookies are more timid.

So Slay approaches them when he has tips to give.

“I go to them and tell them what it is,” Slay said. “I say this is why I’m doing that. Because some rookies be shy, some rookies be scared to talk. I go up to them and tell them, hey, I’m an open book. I’m going to teach you how to play this game and how to become a pro.”

Slay is in Year 9 now but still appreciates how much the veterans in Detroit helped him early in his career and he’s determined to be the same force for his young teammates. He seems to relish the responsibility.

Wilson clearly appreciates the help from Slay, whom he called a “football junkie,” before pointing out that Slay is also happy to help the receivers too and any other players from different positions.

But in the defensive back room, there’s no shortage of veterans from Slay to McLeod, Nelson, Maddox, Anthony Harris. Sirianni said everyone in the building has a role in developing young players.

Wilson has a unique way to look at this veteran help.

“Once you have a message and you build a culture through a room and there’s a standard and a way that you go about things, you always want the vets to resemble and act on those same things,” he said.

“When you have a message, you have a clear vision of what you want and they buy into it, that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to sell it and teach it to the young guys, especially if it works. For him to take the young guys under his wing and do things like that is amazing. Because that’s about the group and the unit, not about individual self.”

 

What do the Eagles have?

It’s hard to say.

The Eagles are pretty set right now with their three starters. Slay and Nelson have played well outside and Maddox has been very good in the slot too.

But the Eagles are one injury away from seeing some of these younger players. And because the Lions game was a blowout, a few of them got to play in the second half. There were some miscues but they held their own.

All of a sudden, McPhearson is one of the longest-tenured players in the group. He got to Philly in the spring when the Eagles drafted him in the fourth round. He had an up-and-down training camp but showed some real promise. We haven’t seen him much on defense this year but he’s played well on special teams and has looked good in practice, according to Wilson.

“He’s doing an outstanding job,” Wilson said. “The growing pains that he had, he was able to endure during offseason program and training camp and it’s helped him now. He’s playing well on special teams. He gets out there and gets acclimated and if he gets an opportunity to play, I know he’ll be prepared for it."

But we don’t really know what the Eagles have in any of these five young players and that’s the exciting thing.

“I’m in front of the room. I don’t let anything slip. I don’t care who you are,” Wilson said. “We’re going to do things a certain way. They have to buy into it. If they don’t, the vets aren’t going to let them get away with anything either. But the vets, they praise them when they do things well, so it’s a very tight-knit close group from the top down.”

All we know is that DB room is a little cramped these days. The rest we’ll have to wait and see.

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