Eagles Outlook: Four lesser-known cornerbacks vying for depth roles
The prodigious offseason addition of cornerback Darius Slay will undoubtedly revive an oft-uninspiring Eagles' secondary in search of an identity following the departure of Malcolm Jenkins in free agency. Slay's presence gives the team a sorely-needed shutdown defender that can shadow the opposition's primary receiver each week, eliminate one side of the field, and perhaps give Jim Schwartz the flexibility to be more creative in his scheming.
Further down the depth chart, Avonte Maddox and Sidney Jones offer an intriguing blend of youth and upside, but must first prove themselves to be healthy, reliable options. Nickell Robey-Coleman is an outstanding slot defender and an underrated signing that should provide a tremendous return of investment in 2020, and Cre'Von LeBlanc figures to factor into the equation in a prime reserve role.
Beyond that, the team rosters a quartet of unknown cornerbacks that, for one reason or another, could potentially make things interesting during final roster cutdowns.
He doesn't boast a gaudy resume or offer the allure of an upside-laden rookie, but don't forget about Craig James when configuring your 53-man rosters.
An undrafted free agent signing of the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, James spent his first season bouncing between Minnesota's practice squad and active roster. After appearing in three games as a rookie, James fell victim to a numbers game last summer and ultimately became a casualty during final roster cutdowns.
James' sophomore campaign began in similar fashion, as he spent the better part of the first month of the 2019 season between the Eagles' practice squad and active roster before unexpectedly getting his break in a September prime-time matchup at Lambeau Field.
In the waning stages of the fourth quarter, James got a hand in to deflect an Aaron Rodgers pass at the three-yard line. The ricochet landed in the unsuspecting arms of linebacker Nigel Bradham, effectively putting a bow on the Eagles' 34-27 riveting prime-time victory.
That was merely the third defensive snap of James' young career.
James appeared in 14 games in 2019, playing sparingly on defense while etching out a prominent role on special teams. Though James contributed just 68 snaps on defense, the Wisconsin native finished fifth on the team in special teams snaps (237).
The final roster spots on NFL teams are typically awarded to those who can provide value at multiple spots. While James has already established himself as a core third-phase performer -- he also served as a punt returner in college, albeit briefly -- his versatility on the back end could prove to be the added value that enables him to stick around for another season.
Williams is one of the more interesting roster hopefuls on the Eagles' 90-man roster.
Following a moderately productive collegiate career, the Penn State product unsurprisingly went undrafted in the 2016 NFL Draft, but experienced early success with the Los Angeles Chargers. Williams, who appeared in 12 games (5 starts) as a rookie, would compile 22 more starts over his three-year tenure. The Chargers waived Williams from injured reserve last fall, but the cornerback was promptly claimed by the Arizona Cardinals. His brief stay last all of two weeks.
Signed to a reserve/future contract in January, Williams' resume includes 110 tackles, 22 passes defended, and 3.0 interceptions across 39 games (27 starts). Far from your typical bubble player, Williams brings experience, athleticism, and plus ball skills to an largely maligned cornerback group. While injuries are mostly to blame for hampering a once-promising career, Williams will be afforded every opportunity this summer to prove he's deserving of the highly coveted roster spot.
Heralded as one of the chief undrafted free agents in one of the more decorated classes in recent years, Arnold will be a player to monitor this summer. In fact, had it not been for his ill-timed 4.59 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine, it's likely the Baylor defensive back hears his name called on draft weekend.
Arnold elected to forego his final season and enter the 2020 NFL Draft following a stellar redshirt junior campaign that included 46 tackles (2.5 for loss), six interceptions, and 1.0 sack.
The 5-foot-10, 190-pound defensive back is known for his toughness, ball skills, and versatility to align anywhere on the backend, but like the majority of rookies, Arnold will enter training camp at a distinct disadvantage due to the abbreviated offseason.
Smith signed a reserve/future contract with the Eagles in January, after spending the final five weeks of the season on the practice squad.
A former sixth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018, Smith appeared in 14 games as a rookie, but cut his teeth on special teams, where the 23-year-old cornerback returned 33 kicks for 886 yards. Smith was voted to the PFWA All-Rookie team for his third-phase contributions. In a ploy to maximize his innate athleticism and explosive traits, the Chiefs opted to move Smith from cornerback to running back last summer -- an experiment that ultimately ended in a trip to the waiver wire in September.
From there, the six-foot, 190-pound defensive back pinballed between Green Bay's active roster and practice squad before ultimately landing in Philadelphia in December.
Smith's experience (22 games), versatility, and familiarity in Jim Schwartz' system should give him a leg-up in what figures to be a hotly contested preseason battle for a spot on the practice squad, but the third-year pro faces decidedly long odds to make the final roster.