Eagles Bye Week Breakdown: The Secondary
PHILADELPHIA - Football is generally a game rooted in continuity, the ultimate team exercise where no one at any level gets anything accomplished without some help.
And that's why so many are still holding out hope that Sam Bradford will eventually reach the expectations so many set for him when the 2015 season began. The narrative says the more comfortable the embattled Eagles quarterback gets, the more he and his receivers will start developing an improved chemistry and things will take off from there.
Of course the rebuilt defensive backfield with three new starters has needed little time to get acquainted, spawning the revitalization of Bill Davis' defense, which ranks 16th in the NFL.
In a 32-team league that screams mediocrity but we all understand this stop unit is behind the 8-ball just about every week due to Chip Kelly's offensive philosophy, which generally keeps the group on the field for untenable amounts of time.
(Listen to John McMullen discuss the Eagles secondary at the bye week)
Both safeties, the lone holdover starter, Malcolm Jenkins, and converted cornerback Walter Thurmond have played at a Pro Bowl level entering the bye, while the cornerback play, although far from stellar, has improved greatly over the much-maligned duo of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher from a season ago. Offseason star Nolan Carroll has been solid on the right side and big-money free agent signing Byron Maxwell has rebounded from an awful start and settled down at least a bit.
Nickel back Cris Maragos has emerged as a solid contributor and the Eagles rave about the football IQ of veteran corner EJ Biggers. Rookie Eric Rowe, meanwhile, gives Philadelphia a deep reserve with a high ceiling for the future.
About the only safety in football who has played better than Jenkins to this point is Minnesota's Harrison Smith. Smith is a little more well-rounded than Jenkins because he's a top-tier blitzer and run-support player but no back-end option has performed better in coverage than the leader of the Eagles' defensive backfield. Jenkins excels in a single-high look, can handle the deep zones in cover-2 and often drops down to the slot when Philadelphia plays nickel.
Thurmond and his ball skills deserve an honorable mention although issues in run support were exposed a bit against a physical, downhill team like Carolina.
Better Days to Come: Maxwell
Maxwell's wheelhouse in Seattle was as a zone player in a predominantly cover-3 defense. He arrived in Philly with the big pay check and Davis threw him into the deep end of the pool, calling too much man coverage against receivers like Julio Jones.
That made Maxwell look bad at times and got him off to a bad start with the fan base who expected a Darrelle Revis- or Richard Sherman-type shutdown corner for $60 million plus. Recently Davis has put Maxwell into more desirous positions and the former junior member of the "Legion of Boom" has started to gain a little confidence, which has resulted into increased production.
Wait Until Next Year: Rowe
The Eagles second-round pick has the length and athleticism the team wants on the outside but he really struggled late in the preseason and the learning curve at the NFL level has been a little too steep for the Utah product. That said, when Rowe was forced into action against the New York Jets, the default settings took over and he played pretty well. At this stage, however, the Eagles have far more confidence in veteran players like Biggers and Maragos but the future is still bright for Rowe, who could eventually fit in on the outside or at safety.
Biggest Surprise: Maragos
The Eagles' nickel back slot featured a cast of thousands in the preseason, starting with injured rookie JaCorey Shepherd and moving on to just about every corner on the roster. No one seized the spot so when the real bullets began to fly during Week 1 in Atlanta, it was Jenkins dropping down to the slot when an extra defensive back came on the field with Maragos replacing Jenkins at safety.
It sounded like an awful plan because Maragos was always thought of as nothing more than a special teams guy but he performed admirably before the bye and has held up very well.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973ESPN.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen