Credit: Philly Voice
Coming into the offseason, it was expected that starting corner Steven Nelson was not going to be re-signed, so many were speculating who the Eagles would target at cornerback in free agency and the draft. To everyone's surprise (or lack thereof), Howie Roseman and the Eagles did not add a single cornerback to this team outside of a few undrafted free agents (UDFA's).
While it may seem like the cornerback spot is a big weakness, Howie Roseman has preached all offseason that the Eagles can and will improve after the draft, and to his point, there are a lot of solid options at cornerback still left in free agency and even the trade market. There's also a handful of guys on the team that will have the chance to earn that starting spot in Rookie Minicamp, OTA’s, and even Training Camp. If Roseman was to make a move to acquire a veteran starter opposite Darius Slay, it would likely come after Rookie Minicamp and OTA's as it looks like the Eagles are content with the guys they have in the room for the time being, and they want to let them battle it out and get a fair shot at earning a starting spot during the summer and leading up to Training Camp. If the Eagles feel like the young corners aren't quite ready yet come Training Camp in August, it is likely that Roseman acquires a short-term answer at the position.
Options at Corner
Throughout last draft and into the beginning of the season, the Eagles added a lot of young cornerbacks that they were wanting to develop and mold into viable options for the future. Among those players were 2021 4th round draft pick Zech McPhearson, Tay Gowan who was part of the Zach Ertz package, and Kary Vincent who was acquired from Denver for a late round pick near the trade deadline. All three of these cornerbacks were part of the 2021 draft class, so they will all be going into their sophomore year in the league this season. Among all of these players, Zech McPhearson and Tay Gowen have the best chance to start on the outside.
McPhearson was the 124th selection of last year’s draft, and he fits exactly what Jonathan Gannon loves to do on defense. Gannon runs a Cover 2 Zone defense that is based around not giving up big plays through the air by having two double high safeties. Not only is this scheme extremely cornerback friendly, but it fits Zech McPhearson perfectly, as he was the fourth highest graded corner in zone coverage in his time at Texas Tech, according to PFF. Zech also played the most out of all of these defensive backs, logging 179 (17%) defensive snaps. Additionally, McPhearson was the only one of these corners go through the Eagles offseason program last summer.
In last year’s Training Camp, The Athletic's Zach Berman wrote “Looking at my notes, and I keep seeing “27” — McPhearson’s number. He made plays throughout the day … I’m not sure they’ve seen enough to think that McPhearson could have started, but he’s been the best first- or second-year player on defense.”
Before last offseason's late free agency acquisition of Steven Nelson at corner, McPhearson was the favorite to start opposite Slay. Zech wasn't ready to be a full-time starter last season, but after another year of development, the second-year corner could earn that starting spot heading into his sophomore campaign. In his limited action in coverage during his rookie season, Zech was targeted 17 times and only allowed 9 completions for 96 yards, while quarterbacks had a 69.7 passer rating when targeting him in coverage and only completed 52.9% of their passes. Zech also had an 80.9 PFF grade against the run, which is pretty darn good. It was a limited sample size, but Zech looked comfortable in the Eagles defense, and he has the best shot to be the starter come September due to his experience and fit in this scheme.
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Of the three corners we added during the 2021 Regular Season (Gowan, Vincent, McCain), Tay Gowan has the best shot to start. Gowan was part of the Zach Ertz trade and appeared in 2 games, playing 44 defensive snaps. Gowan also ran a 4.4 40- at 6'2" during the combine. Coming into the 2021 NFL Draft, PFF had a second-round grade on Gowan, saying "Gowan is a special mover at his size. For a small-school corner, he brings an NFL-level starter skill set to the table." Gowan did not play in the 2020 college season due to covid, which may be part of the reason he fell. But in 2019, he was one of the best corners in college football, only allowing a 54.9% completion percentage when targeted in coverage. If Gowan can improve his technique and become more sound at the cornerback position, he could become a very solid player for the Eagles. At his size with his speed, fluidity, and ball skills, he and Zech McPhearson will be battling over who gets the second starting cornerback spot all summer long.
Kary Vincent Jr.
Kary Vincent Jr. is another intriguing option, as he is a smaller corner at 5'10" 185, and he ran a 4.36 at the combine along with having a 35.5-inch vertical. Vincent was another guy like Gowan that sat out in 2020 due to Covid, He was also the starting nickel for LSU in their 2019 Championship run. Vincent recorded 47 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 8 pass deflections while only allowing a passer rating of 68 while in coverage during the 2019 season. Vincent is a smaller corner, so he is likely be battling with Josiah Scott for the backup nickel role behind Avonte Maddox.
Not too often do we talk about undrafted free agents potentially becoming starting options just a couple weeks after they were signed, but Mario Goodrich from Clemson and Josh Jobe from Alabama have played a lot of football for two of the best teams in the country. Howie Roseman also mentioned that this year’s UDFA class will be huge for the Eagles due to the amount of good players that will go undrafted after a lot of players elected to not enter the draft last season with the free Covid year. Jobe and Goodrich are both corners that played in schemes with advanced NFL level coverage concepts led by the two best defensive coordinators in college, giving them a great understanding for NFL coverage concepts from the jump.
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Mario Goodrich was one of the best corners in college football this past season, and he was the best performing corner on a Clemson team that featured second round pick Andrew Booth (not to say Goodrich is better than Booth). In 11 games, Goodrich was targeted 44 times in coverage and only allowed 23 catches for 244 yards and no touchdowns, while logging 2 interceptions, 9 pass deflections, along with allowing a passer rating of 40 and 51.2% completion percent when targeted in coverage. Goodrich plays with good vision while in zone, and he understands NFL coverage concepts and has a pretty good sense of what the receiver is going to do. The biggest knock on Goodrich is that he isn't fluid in his hips, but he won't be asked to match receivers movements in Gannon's scheme, so this is not much of a concern. Another thing to note is that Goodrich can get turned around at times, and he often panics and tries to get too grabby which often causes penalties. The former Clemson Tigers has really good breaking speed and ball skills when playing with his eyes on the quarterback, and he is extremely sound in zone coverage which will most definitely be a massive advantage during minicamp. Goodrich has all the tools to play big time snaps for the Eagles, but he needs to work on not getting turned around and out of position.
Jobe is a two year started that was profiled as a second/third round pick heading into the year, but he struggled in his junior year at Alabama. This past season, Jobe gave up a 71.4% completion percentage and a 109.9 passer rating along with 4 touchdowns in coverage. With Jobe, he is a long and physical corner, but at 24 years of age, many worry about some of the bad traits he has like his poor eyes and play recognition when in zone, along with his poor ability to locate the football with the ball in the air. Jobe often goes from playing the ball to playing the man in zone coverage, which frequently leads to flags. Jobe is also another victim of tightness in the hips, and he struggles with his initial burst and change of direction. Even though Jobe won't be asked to match receivers while in coverage while in Philadelphia, some of these traits are quite worrisome. With the cornerback room wide open, Jobe has the chance to come in and earn a roster spot. He has all the physical tools to be an impact player, but it will be hard for him to beat out Goodrich, McPhearson, and Gowan. I fully expect Jobe to make the roster, or in worst case the practice squad. Having depth is never a bad thing, and Jobe provides that with the knowledge of advanced NFL coverage concepts.