Craig James

Eagles have a knack for figuring things out with criticized cornerback groups

Eagles have a knack for figuring things out with criticized cornerback groups

Two weeks ago, Craig James was on the Eagles’ practice squad, and Orlando Scandrick was at home on his couch. On Sunday, they played 57 and 35 snaps respectively in a win.

Along with Rasul Douglas, who began 2019 in a cornerback rotation, the trio did its part to limit Jets quarterback Luke Falk to 120 yards passing. And James and Scandrick have now made arguably the two biggest plays by Eagles defensive backs this season in consecutive games.

So who needs Jalen Ramsey, right?

The current Eagles regime seems to have a knack for cobbling together quality play from largely unheralded corners, even when it’s least suspected. Last season, Douglas, Avonte Maddox and Cre’Von LeBlanc took charge of an injury-depleted unit and helped propel the team to the playoffs. In 2017, the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson, which nobody saw coming.

All of these players, save for Robinson, are still on the team, by the way.

There’s no question a trade for Ramsey or another Pro Bowl-caliber corner would represent a clear upgrade over the current bunch. But after James sealed a victory against Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay with a pass breakup in the end zone, and Scandrick ripped the ball away from Falk and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown Sunday, and after the past couple seasons of watching oft-criticized secondaries become quality units ... one might begin to wonder if cornerbacks in the Eagles’ defense are almost interchangeable to some degree.

The Eagles won’t make the mistake of putting too much stock in their performance against a pathetic Jets offense down to its third-string quarterback. Yet, the outcome does serve as a reminder of how much better any defensive back looks behind a steady pass rush.

The front four has been the engine that runs the Eagles' defense, but through four games, the line produced just two sacks. Not surprisingly, the secondary struggled as a result as well, even when healthy.

On Sunday, the line registered eight sacks, and the secondary was barely challenged. There were so few attempts downfield, you may not have noticed James, who entered the game with two career snaps on defense, was on the field 97 percent of the time.

If the front four is finally coming around — a story for another column, though there’s reason to believe it is — the cornerbacks naturally will improve, too.

They’re also going to get healthier. Darby, Sidney Jones and Maddox are all week-to-week, Mills is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list after Week 6, and LeBlanc is eligible to come off injured reserve after Week 8. Douglas has been solid all season, and James and Scandrick got the job done for the last 62 minutes of football.

Provided everybody gets back to 100 percent at the same, the Eagles will soon have more corners than they know what to do with.

None of which is to say the Eagles shouldn’t pursue somebody like Ramsey, a young, All-Pro player who could quickly be locked into a long-term contract through his prime.

Then again, if the Jaguars or any team wants the moon for their star corner, there’s no need for the Eagles to make a move out of desperation. Time and time again, they demonstrate they can get by with what they have.

Examining the Eagles' endless rash of cornerback injuries

Examining the Eagles' endless rash of cornerback injuries

With injuries continuing to plague the cornerback position, the Eagles yesterday signed … 

OK, how many stories have you read in the past 13 months that started out that way?

This time it’s Orlando Scandrick, but one constant of the Eagles since last year started has been cornerback injuries.

Rasul Douglas — knock on wood — is the only regular corner that hasn’t missed extensive time with injuries.

Cornerback injuries decimated the Eagles last year. They started the season in Tampa with Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby as the starters and Avonte Maddox, Douglas and Sidney Jones as the backups and they finished it with Cre’Von LeBlanc, Douglas and Maddox as the starters and Josh Hawkins off the bench.

The carousel hasn’t stopped turning this year. 

LeBlanc is on IR. Mills is on PUP. Darby left the Lions game with a hamstring injury and Jones left the Packers game with a hamstring injury.

The Eagles beat Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers Thursday night at Lambeau Field with two healthy corners, one of whom entered the game having never played a regular-season defensive snap.

That was Craig James, who had been on the practice squad two days earlier. He wound up making the defensive play of the season so far, deflecting a last-ditch Aaron Rodgers pass that Nigel Bradham intercepted, sealing the Eagles’ 34-27 win over the Packers.

Now Scandrick, who spent the summer here, is back on the roster, and when he plays against the Jets Sunday he’ll become the 11th cornerback and 20th defensive back to play for the Eagles since opening day 2018. 

But unless Darby is able to get back without missing a game, the Eagles still have only three healthy corners — only one of whom has played more than two snaps in an Eagles uniform.

Mills will be eligible to return for the Cowboys game on Oct. 20. LeBlanc will be eligible two weeks later. There’s a kid named Ajene Harris on the practice squad.

But four games into the season, the Eagles find themselves in the same predicament they’ve been in for most the last two years.

Trying to cobble together a healthy, productive cornerback rotation in an age where three- and four-receiver sets are the norm and the Eagles face a Hall of Fame quarterback seemingly every other week.

“It’s challenging,” Doug Pederson said. “It is challenging. Just like it was with the receivers, now it's affecting the defensive backs. So it's a challenging deal. Fortunately, we have some days here to get guys healthy.”

That said, here’s a look at the Eagles’ cornerback injuries and roster movement on a day-to-day basis since last year began. I didn’t include players the Eagles signed and released during the offseason who were never on the 53-man roster or practice squad during the season:

Eagles' cornerback activity since 2018
Sept. 2, 2018: Signed De’Vante Bausby to the practice squad
Sept. 2, 2018: Signed Chandon Sullivan to the practice squad
Sept. 11, 2018: Released De’Vante Bausby from the practice squad 
Oct. 11, 2018: Sidney Jones left Giants game with hamstring injury
Oct. 16, 2018: Signed Dexter McDougle
Oct. 25, 2018: Promoted Chandon Sullivan to the 53-man roster
Oct. 28, 2018: Jalen Mills left Jaguars game with shin injury
Nov. 5, 2018: Claimed Cre’Von LeBlanc off waivers from the Lions
Nov. 5, 2018: Released Dexter McDougle
Nov. 5: Signed De’Vante Bausby to the practice squad
Nov. 17: Promoted De’Vante Bausby to the active roster
Nov. 17: Placed Ronald Darby on Injured Reserve (knee)
Nov. 18: Ronald Darby left Saints game with knee injury 
Nov. 18: Sidney Jones left Saints game with knee injury
Nov. 18: Avonte Maddox left Saints game with knee injury
Nov. 20: Signed Jeremiah McKinnon to the practice squad
Dec. 8: Placed Jalen Mills on Injured Reserve (foot)
Dec. 9: Sidney Jones left Cowboys game with hamstring injury
Dec. 11: Signed Josh Hawkins to the practice squad
Dec. 24: Promoted Josh Hawkins to the active roster
Dec. 24: Released De’Vante Bausby
Dec. 24: Released Chandon Sullivan
Dec. 26: Signed Chandon Sullivan to the practice squad
Jan. 14: Signed Jeremiah McKinnon to future contract
Jan. 14: Signed Chandon Sullivan to future contract
March 15: Signed Ronald Darby 
May 1: Waived Chandon Sullivan
May 10: Signed Jay Liggins
July 26: Claimed Alex Brown off waivers
July 27: Signed Orlando Scandrick
Aug. 4: Signed Ajene Harris
Aug. 16: Released Jay Liggins
Aug. 31: Placed Jalen Mills on PUP
Sept. 2: Signed Cre’Von LeBlanc
Sept. 2: Placed Cre’Von LeBlanc on Injured Reserve (foot)
Sept. 2: Signed Craig James to the practice squad
Sept. 11: Promoted Craig James to the 53-man roster
Sept. 12: Signed Ajene Harris to the practice squad
Sept. 17: Released Craig James
Sept. 18: Signed Craig James to the practice squad
Sept. 22: Ronald Darby left Lions game with hamstring injury
Sept. 24: Promoted Craig James to the active roster
Sept. 26: Sidney Jones left Packers game with hamstring injury
Sept. 26: Avonte Maddox left Packers game with concussion and neck injury
Sept. 27: Signed Orlando Scandrick 

And here’s a look at the 10 cornerbacks the Eagles have used since opening day last year with the number of starts they’ve made first and the number of games they’ve played second:

Rasul Douglas: 11-22
Avonte Maddox: 14-19
Ronald Darby: 12-12
Jalen Milles: 8-8
Sidney Jones: 7-13
Cre'Von LeBlanc: 1-10
De'Vante Bausby: 1-6
Chandon Sullivan: 1-5
Dexter McDougle: 1-2
Josh Hawkins: 0-3
Craig James: 0-2

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On 3rd defensive snap of his career, Craig James comes through for Eagles

On 3rd defensive snap of his career, Craig James comes through for Eagles

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Before little-known Craig James made the game-saving play in the Eagles’ 34-27 win over the Packers at Lambeau Field on Thursday night, Malcolm Jenkins had a message for him: 

“You know where the ball’s coming.”

Jenkins knew it. James knew it. Heck, all 77,509 fans in Green Bay on Thursday night knew where the ball was going. 

Of course Aaron Rodgers was going to try his luck against a cold and inexperienced cornerback who was thrust into action after watching one of his teammates leave on a stretcher. So on his third career NFL defensive snap, James was ready. 

It was a battle between a future Hall of Fame quarterback and a second-year undrafted free agent from Southern Illinois. By now, you already know how the story ended. David slew Goliath. 

Rodgers tried to squeeze the football to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a slant route from the 3-yard line with 28 seconds left, but James timed it and attacked. He tipped the ball in the air and Nigel Bradham, who dropped an easy interception earlier in the game, didn’t drop this one. 

“I just played the inside hard,” James said. “I couldn’t let him inside. Right when I seen him take that inside release, I attacked.” 

Game over. 

I’m the guy nobody knows about, just coming into the game,” James said. “When you see that new guy, you’re like, ‘we gotta target him. That’s the weakness of the defense right now.’ You can’t blame them.

James, who played three games with the Vikings last year, didn’t arrive to the NovaCare Complex until earlier this month. It’s been a wild few weeks: 

9/2: Signed to the practice squad
9/11: Promoted to active roster 
9/15: Made Eagles debut vs. Falcons
9/17: Waived from active roster 
9/18: Signed to practice squad 
9/24: Promoted to active roster 
9/27: Made game-winning play in Green Bay 

Ping-ponging back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster hasn’t been easy for James, but he says, “You just gotta keep a stable mind.” 

While Thursday night was James’ fifth-career NFL game, his game-winning PBU came on his third-ever defensive snap. His two defensive snaps on Thursday came on the last two defensive plays of the game. He admitted it can be difficult to wait all game for a chance, but he tried to remain ready. He made it count. 

After James tipped the ball in the air, Bradham picked it off for his third-career interception and his first since 2016. 

"I got my first chance to do a Lambeau Leap,” Bradham said. “I got denied. But it was fun."

Thursday was definitely fun for James too. As he was getting interviewed by about a half dozen reporters, his teammates kept playfully ribbing him. One shouted, “OK, James!” Another jokingly asked if James took off his shirt for the interview. But they were all happy for him. And so was Doug Pederson. As the head coach walked past James, he gave him a slight tap on the shoulder, universal code for “good job.” 

Because on the third defensive snap of his NFL career, James knew the ball was going his way. And he helped the Eagles escape with a much-needed win. 

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