Coming to the Philadelphia Eagles as one of the team’s higher profile free agents in 2013, Cary Williams has taken the brunt of the blame for the team’s No. 25 pass defense efficiency ranking. Sports reporters have even gone as far as labeling him the next Nnamdi Asomugha.
The focus on Williams is well-deserved, because the most successful defensive schemes are predicated on a team’s best cover corner holding the opponent’s No. 1 receiver in-check. This was something Cary Williams struggled with all year as he finished the season as the 80th ranked corner on Pro Football Focus. His -7.9 grade in pass coverage was 5th from the bottom amongst full-time starting cornerbacks. And if it were not for an epic blizzard holding down Calvin Johnson‘s production in the Eagles December matchup with the Detroit Lions, his grade would have been even lower.
For the Eagles’ defensive unit to have a true breakthrough in 2014, the team must upgrade the outside cornerback position. General Manager Howie Roseman has two options: draft a highly touted rookie cornerback or sign a proven free agent.
If the Eagles draft a cornerback, the team will likely select either Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State University or Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State University. Dennard has the athleticism and coverage ability to be a franchise building block at corner. He is fast enough to run with NFL-caliber wide receivers, and he has shown great instincts when the ball is in-flight as well as the natural hip fluidity that scouts obsess over. Dennard’s strength and stature also make him an ideal run defender.
At 6-foot tall, Justin Gilbert has the requisite length to match-up with No. 1 wide receivers in the NFL. Gilbert also possesses game-breaking lateral agility and explosive change-of-direction ability. He frustrates opposing wide receivers by playing physical at the line of scrimmage, and then quickly recovering if out of position. With 12 interceptions on his collegiate resume, Gilbert may have the most finely tuned playmaking instincts in the draft. Against the run, he aggressively pursues opposing running backs and explodes into the ball carrier at the point of contact. Either Gilbert or Dennard would be a significant upgrade over Carey Williams.
On the other hand, if the Eagles pursue an established free agent cornerback, they will not like their choices. Precious few free agent starting cornerbacks will be unrestricted free agents in 2014. If Philadelphia goes this route, look for the team to sign a veteran with one or two good years left such as Dunta Robinson. It would also not be too far-fetched for the team to welcome back Asante Samuel, who made a Pro Bowl during his time with the Eagles.
With the free agent cupboard bare, the Eagles’ first priority in the NFL Draft will likely be upgrading the cornerback position.