A program might be needed to familiarize Eagles fans with the team’s starting defensive backfield. A new era of Eagles football will likely include at least three new starters in the secondary. It’s entirely conceivable that all four will be newcomers.
Gone are Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, high-priced former Pro Bowlers. The Eagles signed four less acclaimed players for the defensive backfield, though they do have significant starting experience. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher and safeties Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips have started a combined 131 regular-season games.
A depth chart at this point of the year is difficult to come by, and not just because Chip Kelly says it is “written in sand.” Williams has missed every practice since Friday with a hamstring injury, and Phillips is making up ground after missing time in the spring while recovering from a knee injury.
The early expectation is that Williams and Fletcher will start at cornerback, and Chung and roster holdover Nate Allen will be the starting safeties. That was the look during minicamp, although injuries are the unknown variables.
“You never expect anything,” Chung said. “The best guy’s going to play, regardless. You can think what you want to think, you can expect what you want to expect, but you can’t come in with a thought in your mind that you’re going to be the guy.”
This should be enough to put any veteran on notice: In addition to the departures of Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie, the team signed two experienced safeties even though Allen and Kurt Coleman were on the roster.
Allen is a former second-round pick who has yet to fulfill his potential and still appears in line to start. But the Eagles felt they needed more options.
Chung came from the Patriots and Phillips came from the Giants, and both were high picks and at times high-performing players on two of the NFL’s top teams. They were also let go by two smart organizations without a fight, so that could be a concern.
“As far as my interactions, these guys have been fabulous,” defensive backs coach John Lovett said.
Lovett said that Chung, a former Oregon standout, has been a leader among the group and impressive on the field. The coach said he did extensive research on Phillips, a former first-round pick who presents rare talent if he can stay healthy.
Phillips has not been restricted during training camp as he bounces back from surgery on his left knee, and he thinks he can shine in a system that is tailored to the safeties.
I’m not going to be that stationary, save-all guy,” Phillips said. “I felt like when I was with the Giants, I was that safety net… . Here, the scheme is a lot different. I feel I’ll be more involved.”
At cornerback, Williams and Fletcher do not have the credentials of Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie. But the two former Eagles underachieved over the last two seasons, including a 2012 campaign in which the Eagles allowed more passing touchdowns than any defense. So fresh faces are welcome.
Williams will likely be the Eagles’ No. 1 corner. He’s 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, the body type preferred by Kelly. He started 38 games for Baltimore the last two seasons, including six postseason games. The missed time is a concern, but his hamstring injury is not thought to be serious.
Fletcher was the least heralded of the acquisitions, although he hasn’t missed any time during the offseason and has consistently lined up with what appears to be the first-team defense. Fletcher was squeezed out in St. Louis when a new coaching staff rebuilt the secondary, and the Eagles targeted him early in free agency.
Fletcher’s size (6 feet, 200 pounds) and press-coverage ability should be an asset.
Kelly’s claim about the sand-sketched depth chart is applicable, and it’s likely that roster holdovers such as Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh, and Kurt Coleman might object to suggestions about the transformation of the secondary. But the Eagles did not acquire 131 games of starting experience by accident.
“Everything’s going to be new: new staff, new teammates,” Chung said. “I think we’re picking up on it well.”