At Corner Three’s Not a Crowd By Matt Lombardo

Asante Samuel

In 2010 the Eagles pass defense surrendered 31 touchdowns and ranked near the bottom of the league in yards per game. This off-season the front office rebuilt the secondary by adding Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique-Rodgers Chromartie to go with All-Pro Asante Samuel. Some have called for a trade, but is that an option the Eagles should even consider? 

Last January, Aaron Rodgers threw for a pedestrian 180 yards against the Eagles in the NFC wild card game. However as it became a trend throughout last season, the Packers signal-caller gutted the Eagles secondary for three crucial touchdowns in a 21-16 Wild Card win that ended the Eagles season at home and in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. Needless to say, the Eagles front office sat up and took notice.

Enter eight months later Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Chromartie joining Asante Samuel in a revamped Eagles secondary. Strangely, almost immediately after the signing of Asomugha was announced callers flooded talk radio stations, posters pounded the keys on message boards and fans clamored to all that would listen for the Eagles to deal Samuel.

Samuel to San Francisco for Patrick Willis they screamed. Samuel for linebacking help they pleaded. Samuel for draft picks. The rumors, speculation and thought process persisted. These thoughts from the stands and some media members alike go against the very motivation for Philadelphia signing Asomugha in the first place. The Eagles off-season moves defensively were made for one purpose and one purpose only; to fill the gaps that were exposed by the Packers twice last season and were inadequate against the pass all season long.

Trading Samuel or Rodgers-Chromartie weakens a secondary that is, at least on paper, amongst the best in football. While the Eagles would be misguided not to listen to offers in the event that a team proposes a trade that Howie Roseman, Joe Banner and Andy Reid simply can’t refuse, they’d be much better served to keep all three corners in the midst of a league where the passing game is more prevalent ever year.

The fact of the matter is, the Eagles have no plans to move Samuel. A team source denied that the Eagles are actively pursuing a deal for the All-Pro with seven interceptions in 2010. Contrarily, on the first day of full team workouts on August 5th when newly signed free agents were first eligible for practice all three corners were on the field with the first team. Interestingly enough for the rumor mongers, it was Rodgers-Chromartie, and not Samuel playing the nickel corner. A clear indication of the team’s plans moving forward.

This isn’t the first time that Philadelphia enters a season with three marquee corners. In 2008 the Eagles secondary was anchored by Pro Bowler Lito Sheppard and lockdown corner Sheldon Brown. Yet, the front office added Samuel to the mix when he was the top free agent available. That season the Eagles used the formula of a strong pass rush and dominant secondary play en route to the NFC’s top defense and a trip to the NFC championship game.

Not only did the 2008 season produce strong results for the team as the Birds marched through Minnesota, and New York on the road in the post-season, but despite the bruised ego of Sheppard who was relegated to the nickel role, all three corners prospered. Samuel in his first year as an Eagle tallied 35 tackles, four interceptions and returning one for a score. Brown certainly benefited from the Samuel the ballhawk on the other side of the field, holding down 51 tackles and an interception. Meanwhile Sheppard still managed 21 tackles and an interception, despite admittedly never again reaching the pro bowl caliber level of play he was accustomed to after becoming a part time player that year.

The simple facts are that as strong as the Eagles secondary was in 2008, this year’s incarnation is simply better. Moreover, the league today almost dictates that teams carry three strong corners moving forward as teams continue to evolve towards a much more pass heavy offensive scheme. In 2009 teams threw the ball 56% of the time and averaged nearly five yards per catch. Furthering this trend, teams are playing three and four wide receiver sets more than ever in an attempt to spread the field and exploit defenses with weaker corners on the lower tiers of their depth chart.

Almost needless to say, the last thing the Eagles need to worry about at cornerback is depth.

“Right now we’re trying to get Nnamdi [Asomugha] comfortable at his position at corner. There are some things we’re going to do and right now the first thing is to get him comfortable,” Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said. “You see Dominique [Rodgers-Chromartie] it’s the same thing, sometimes he plays outside and sometimes he’ll play inside. We certainly have the luxury of flexibility with those packages.”

Simple logic and forward thinking says that moving forward in order to minimize the impact of the passing game, a defense must have the personnel and depth capable of withstanding the aerial assaults that offenses are putting forth in today’s game.

The Eagles have built a secondary that is capable of doing just that.

Last season Asomugha only had 19 tackles, but he faced a total of 28 pass attempts all season. That’s only two attempts per game. Samuel faced 35 passes and intercepted 7 of them, that number is bound to increase with Asomugha locking down the opposite side. Finally, Chromartie is the kind of physical corner who thrives in big game situations; he had three interceptions taking two to the house last season. You won’t find a faster corner in the league than Rodgers-Chromartie, and at 6’3 182 he has the size to compete in the middle of the field against the more physical slot receivers in the NFL.

Obviously there’s a formula in place here that the Eagles are using to take away the passing game down the field. By and large Andy Reid and the Eagles have been ahead of the curve in most regards, heir handling of the salary cap among them which positioned them so well for this off-season haul. Once again they just may be ahead once again when it comes to structuring a secondary.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see all three corners on the field for a high percentage of plays every week, which is exactly why trading one of these corners simply doesn’t make sense.

If the Eagles meet the Packers in January, it will certainly be a different defense looking Rodgers in the eye across the line of scrimmage. Whether or not that translates to a different result remains to be seen. However, one thing is for sure, the eagles are much better suited at corner with all three of their new additions then they would be sacrificing some of that depth for help at other positions.

 

Matt Lombardo is a reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL

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