Eagles training camp 2021: Eagles’ competition at cornerback

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Breaking down Eagles’ scary competition at cornerback originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It’s the final full week before Eagles training camp begins so we’re taking a look at five notable camp competitions.

We kicked it off with Andre Dillard vs. Jordan Mailata.

Today: The battle at cornerback.

The one thing we know about the Eagles’ cornerback position is that Darius Slay is their CB1. Even if you think he didn’t quite play to his standard in 2020, he’s still a very good corner and clearly the best the Eagles have.

OK, so go ahead and write Slay’s name in pen on the depth chart and then grab a pencil. Heck, just go ahead and grab a dry erase board. Because there’s not really much known after that.

Who will be the Eagles’ CB2 opposite Slay? Who will be their nickel corner?

The Eagles actually bring back their other starting outside cornerback from the 2020 season in Avonte Maddox, but he clearly didn’t play well enough to simply keep him there again without more thought.

So not only do the Eagles need to figure out during training camp who their CB2 is, but they also need to figure out who their starting nickel is going to be and then they need to figure out the depth chart after that. And to be honest, it’s all a little scary.

Let’s look at the players:

Avonte Maddox

Age: 25

Experience: Year 4 (35 games, 23 starts)

Size: 5-9, 184

Last season, Maddox was ranked dead last among cornerbacks in ProFootballFocus’s rankings. No. 121 out of 121. Of course, that all wasn’t his fault. You can certainly argue that the Eagles played him out of position last season.

During his first three years in the NFL, Maddox has played outside corner, nickel corner and free safety and it seems pretty obvious that outside corner has been his weakest of the three. So maybe it’s just the Eagles’ fault for giving him that role in 2020. Sure, the defense will be different under Jonathan Gannon — it might be easier on the corners — but it might be a mistake to put him outside again.

Ideally, the Eagles would find another outside cornerback, which would allow Maddox to move inside to a spot where he would likely be more comfortable.

Zech McPhearson

Age: 23

Experience: Rookie

Size: 5-11, 191

The Eagles didn’t sign any big free-agent corners and then they waited until the fourth round to draft one, taking McPhearson out of Texas Tech. Pre-draft opinions were really split on McPhearson but the folks who liked him really seemed to like him. For instance, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah ranked McPhearson as his No. 85 prospect, which would make him quite a steal at pick 123.

The Eagles really liked what they saw from McPhearson at the Hula Bowl, where he was coached by former NFL head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan came away from the event very impressed with McPhearson, whom he said stood out all week.

The only knock — if you want to call it that — that Ryan had on McPhearson was his lack of height. He’s just under 6 feet. But he at least has better height than Maddox. And if the learning curve isn’t too great for him, it’s not crazy to think about McPhearson earning a signifiant role in 2021.

Craig James

Age: 25

Experience: Year 4 (21 games, 1 start)

Size: 5-10, 195

We mostly think about James as a special teams player but last training camp before an injury, he was actually getting reps ahead of players like Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. Of course, he hasn’t played much on defense during his three-year NFL career; just a total of 83. While James never played under Gannon, he was in Minnesota and played for Mike Zimmer in 2018, so James might have a slight advantage learning the Eagles’ new defense.

And even if James doesn’t figure into the Eagles’ plans at the cornerback spot, he has proven to be a pretty good special teams player. If he makes the roster in 2021, it’ll likely be as a gunner on the punt team.

Michael Jacquet

Age: 24

Experience: Year 2 (7 games, 2 starts)

Size: 6-1, 203

The Eagles signed Jacquet out of Louisiana as an undrafted free agent last year and paid him a nice chunk of guaranteed money. He was clearly one of their favorite UDFAs in 2020. He initially signed to the practice squad but saw significant time with the Eagles as a rookie.

It didn’t go all that well. Jacquet played in seven games with two starts and had his ups and downs. While he battled in a tough situation, he seemed overmatched. In a late-season game against the Cowboys, the Eagles finally had to bench Jacquet and move Jalen Mills to corner from safety to try and stop the bleeding.

The one thing Jacquet has going for him is length, but that might not be enough.

Kevon Seymour

Age: 27

Experience: Year 4 (33 games, 5 starts)

Size: 6-0, 185

The Eagles didn’t add Seymour to their practice squad until December, but because of other injuries, he was needed to play almost immediately. Seymour saw action in two games before landing on IR with an injury of his own. Seymour signed a futures deal after the season to return to Philly.

While it’s been a long road for Seymour, he does have some playing experience. With the Bills in 2016 and the Panthers in 2017, he played in 31 games with 5 starts. But he has struggled to stay in the NFL since then.

Josiah Scott

Age: 22

Experience: Year 2 (6 games)

Size: 5-9, 185

The Eagles picked up Scott in a trade back in May that sent Jameson Houston and a 2023 sixth-round pick to the Jaguars. While giving up a sixth-round pick doesn’t show that the Eagles are in love with him, it at least shows they were willing to give up an asset to get a better look at him.

And Scott is just one year removed from being a fourth-round pick out of Michigan State. As a rookie in Jacksonville, Scott played in six games but saw just a total of 80 defensive snaps. Scott’s nickname is “the Gnat” and he’s known for being an irritating nickel corner who pesters opposing slot receivers. Because of his size, he’s a much better fit inside.

Shakial Taylor

Age: 24

Experience: Year 3 (5 games)

Size: 6-0, 181

Believe it or not, the first transaction of the Nick Sirianni Era came back on Feb. 16, when the Eagles claimed Taylor off waivers from the Giants. Since entering the NFL as an undrafted player out of Kansas in 2019, Taylor has spent time with the Colts, Broncos and Giants. In Indianapolis in 2019, he played under Gannon.

But it’s hard to imagine Taylor is the answer. After all, he’s played in just five NFL games (all in 2019) and saw just 60 defensive snaps.

Lavert Hill

Age: 22

Experience: Year 1

Size: 5-10, 190

The former Michigan corner joined the Eagles’ practice squad in December after spending several months with the Chiefs as a UDFA and then as a practice squad member. He has an uphill climb.

So what’s going to happen?

Good question. And there’s no easy answer. Perhaps the Eagles will see how McPhearson looks early in training camp before making a move. If he gets off to a good start, perhaps they’ll feel confident enough to either start him or make him a big part of the defense early. The problem there, of course, is that he’s a fourth-round rookie, so expectations must be tempered.

On my list of the top 20 most important Eagles for the 2021 season, I put Maddox at No. 16 and I think that holds even if there’s a different CB2. Because Maddox is still an important veteran and he’s going to either be the starting outside corner or he’ll be the top nickel. Maybe he’ll even have a role that combines both responsibilities.

But without another addition, this is a very thin group. It seems pretty clear that cornerback, especially after Slay, is the weakest position on the roster. So the Eagles better hope competition brings out the most in these guys.

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