Next Up At Nickel
Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The injury bug has plagued the Philadelphia Eagles locker room, starting with outside linebacker Travis Long and has worked its way toward rookie cornerback JaCorey Shepherd; both of which have suffered torn ACLs. The Birds lose depth with the subtraction of Long who was planning on competing with Marcus Smith for the #3 OLB spot, however, Shepherd’s injury has been deemed much more serious given as this rook was on his way toward replacing the recently-traded nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin.
Upon being drafted by the Eagles, draft analysts had been calling Shepherd the steal of the draft. His slide to the sixth-round was estimated to be that of his hamstring injury as well as his shaky 40-time, but since arriving in camp, the Kansas-product has shown exactly why he has been labeled as a steal. In practice, he has been the starting nickel cornerback in first-team reps and outside corner with the second-team. He reads the quarterback well, sticks to starting slot receivers like glue, and has won the hearts of his coaches, something that became widely apparent during head coach Chip Kelly’s most recent press conference regarding the rookie’s injury.
“First and foremost, you just feel so bad for him ‘cause he worked so hard [and] had invested so much into this. He’s a great young man. It was tough talking to him yesterday. Just one of those freak things where his foot was planted a little bit awkwardly.”
To answer the following question that was asked as to who would become the next set of players to rotate in to compete for the nickelback spot, Kelly responded with rookie Eric Rowe, second-year Jaylen Watkins, and recent free-agent addition E.J. Biggers with safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond as contingency plans.
Rowe spent his first three years at Utah playing safety before finishing his senior year as an outside corner. Although he has been battling Nolan Carroll for the CB2 position upon his arrival in Philly, his experience playing inside at safety gives him an advantage in competing for the starting nickel role.
Watkins, who already has a year of defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ scheme under his belt, also played multiple positions while in college. At Florida, Watkins rotated between nickelback, cornerback, and safety while also posting great speed with a 4.41 40. His only professional playing time was during the week-17 matchup against the New York Giants, where Watkins was tasked with subbing in at dime due to Nolan Carroll being bumped outside to replace an injured Bradley Fletcher. Despite the Eagles victory, nothing really stood out on tape that gave any indication that the Florida-product was ready to start, which makes this new positional battle that much more interesting.
Biggers had bounced around the Tampa Bay Bucs and Washington Redskins before being signed to the Eagles almost a month after free agency had opened its doors. Optimism is not particularly high for 28-year old defensive back, but he possess solid height at 6’0” and has shown tremendous work ethic.
Finally, there is always the last resort and contingency plan safeties. Despite being locked into their position, it is not all too impossible to fathom the idea of either Jenkins or Thurmond switching back to nickel. Due to the nature of how similar Eagles’ safeties are to their cornerback counterparts, the defense is predicated on versatility and being able to change positions while still staying on the field in order to keep up with the up-tempo offense. The added bonus is that both players have won Super Bowls with their previous teams starting from the nickel cornerback position.
Whoever the Eagles choose to start at nickel on week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, it makes decision making that much easier and brings peace knowing that there are legitimate options within the secondary to remedy this unfortunate incident.