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Friday, March 7, 2014
New safeties could sharpen Eagles' corners

By Phil Sheridan

Any list of the Eagles' needs starts with their secondary, which is understandable when a team is ranked last in the NFL in pass defense.

Cary Williams
Cary Williams and the Eagles cornerbacks could benefit from quality play at safety.
That's why many analysts, experts and fans think the Eagles will focus on safeties and cornerbacks in free agency and the draft. And they certainly might. But there's one thing I think gets overlooked in all this.

The cornerback play may have looked worse than it actually was because of the quality of the safeties. By improving their safety performance, the Eagles may find that Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin are perfectly adequate cornerbacks.

One step further: Improve the pass rush, which virtually disappeared late in the season and in the playoff loss to the Saints, and the whole secondary would look better.

This doesn't mean the Eagles should pass on a quality cornerback in the draft, if there is one they like when they are on the clock. It is a position where you almost can't have too much talent or depth.

But Williams and Fletcher, the two starting guys on the outside, may not be as urgent a problem as some seem to believe. They were nowhere near perfect, to be sure, but pass defense is a product of cooperation and synchronization.

Williams played for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens the year before. He had Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at safety. They were more likely to help their cornerbacks out than to leave them hanging.

After the Eagles lost to New Orleans in the wild-card round, Williams seemed especially frustrated.

"We had too many mental breakdowns in the secondary," Williams said. "We didn't put ourselves necessarily in the best situations to win. That was really the issue with me, man. It was frustrating out there -- situations that you know are coming, that you've seen over and over on film, and they don't necessarily go right. The right call isn't being made. It's frustrating. Drew Brees saw those mistakes we made and was able to capitalize on those situations."

Williams wasn't excluding himself or the other cornerbacks from his critique. But you definitely got the feeling, watching that game and those that preceded it, that the major breakdowns were at safety. That is why Nate Allen was not among the impending free agents signed to new contracts last week, and it is why Patrick Chung could well be gone before training camp.

Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, by consensus the top free-agent safety, combined for 33 interceptions and forced fumbles in his five seasons. In four years with the Eagles, Allen had a total of seven.

Signing Byrd would make the Eagles much better, obviously. But there is a lot of room between his production and Allen's that would qualify as improvement. And improvement at safety should contribute to better play from the corners.