For the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive unit to break into the top half of the NFL in 2014, the team must upgrade the outside cornerback position. With few quality free agents coming available, expect Eagles general manager Howie Roseman to take a highly touted rookie cornerback with the No. 22 overall selection in the NFL Draft.
College football experts have been heaping praise on Oklahoma State‘s Justin Gilbert. Some have gone as far as labeling him the best collegiate cornerback since Patrick Peterson. At 6-foot tall, Gilbert has the requisite length to match up with No. 1 wide receivers in the NFL. He 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 caught 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 Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard would be a significant upgrade over current Eagles cornerback Cary Williams. After looking like the next Nnamdi Asomugha, Williams has taken the brunt of the blame for the Philadelphia’s No. 25 pass defense efficiency ranking in 2013.
The draftniks are right, replacing Williams with a young playmaker should be the Eagles’ first priority on draft day. If Dennard is not available, Gilbert’s measurables, passion for the game and reliability would put him ahead of the remaining cornerbacks on the board. He is significantly bigger than TCU cornerback Jason Verrett and is more durable than Virginia Tech‘s Kyle Fuller. Gilbert has also leapfrogged the consensus No. 1 cornerback prospect headed into the 2013 college football season, Bradley Roby from Ohio State. Injuries and off-the-field issues, as well as several lackluster performances during the season, have likely pushed Roby out of the first round, though his physical skills are on par with, or better than, Dennard and Gilbert.
In previous drafts, the Eagles would have had no shot at a player of Gilbert’s caliber, but this year’s draft class is talent-rich on both offense and defense. With several quarterbacks, a number of offensive and defensive lineman, and a handful of wide receivers sure to go in the top 20, Philadelphia will have an opportunity to draft a true game-changing defensive back later in the first round. And with a gaping hole at the cornerback position, Philadelphia should not let Justin Gilbert get past them at No. 22.