It has not been a fun week to be an Eagles cornerback, and Saturday's training camp practice, the first in pads, looked downright painful. Carson Wentz was lasering passes – observers credited him with going 15 for 15 in one drill – and his rebuilt receiving corps was reeling them in, led by Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
"Today was a very good day for the whole offense. We had a few snafus here and there, but in the pass game in particular, we really executed well," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.
"It was only one practice. I'm not getting too excited, but that's probably as well as we've executed in the passing game since I've been here."
Last year, the cornerbacks weren't great, but they practiced each day against a really inexperienced, unaccomplished receiving group, so they fared pretty well. Though it's very early, this year that competition looks like a huge mismatch. Part of it is that, with 2016 starters Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll gone, the corners are the less-experienced, less-heralded group. Part of it might be the switch in wide receiver coaches from Greg Lewis to Mike Groh. But a lot of it is that since arriving as free agents, Jeffery and Smith have raised the level of the wideout corps. Not only are they bigger, faster and smoother than most of what Wentz had to throw to as a rookie, they seem to have brought out the best in some of the returning receivers.
Jordan Matthews, always pretty capable, made a stunning catch over the deep middle in traffic Saturday. If you didn't know Marcus Johnson was a guy from last year's practice squad, from watching this camp you would think he was a swift, smooth NFL starter. Nelson Agholor, whose redemption tour began in the spring, continues not to look like the Nelson Agholor whose first two seasons might have been inscribed in a modern Book of Lamentations.
"You see those [receivers] out there before practice catching balls and then after practice, working on the route tree with the quarterbacks, or catching tennis balls or whatever. You see the focus with those guys," corner Jalen Mills said Saturday. "It's a lot sharper than last year, for sure. Me being a rookie [in 2016] seeing them then and now, it's a lot sharper. You can tell on the field – the ones, twos and threes."
Mills has been fighting Jeffery tooth and nail, most of the time to little avail. Friday, Jeffery jostled him for inside positioning and caught a slant, with Mills almost inside his jersey.
"He ended up getting inside on me," Mills conceded. "But like Coach Pederson always says, 'Iron sharpens iron.' He got me that time. Next time it's going to be my time, I'm going to get him."
Someone asked Mills how strong Jeffery is, at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds.
"As strong as he looks," Mills said. "You see him walk around, he looks like a giant. That's exactly what he is. He looks bigger in pads. He's definitely a physical guy at the line of scrimmage. When you get up there, and you say you're going to press him, you better have it on your mind that he's going to come, too. He sees you. He's going to get strong with you, too."
Jeffery's catch radius has been a major topic of conversation in the locker room.
"It's one of those tough things to cover … If he does catch one of those [jump balls] and you're all over him, you just have to shake that off, because you have to know one thing you can't teach is height," Mills said.
"It's very intense. Alshon, man, his catching radius is crazy," corner Patrick Robinson said. "He has strong hands, great hands. He's definitely going to win with that. Then, with Torrey, he's just flying down the field."
Robinson has played in New Orleans, San Diego and Indianapolis. He said he ranks this receiving corps right up there with any he has practiced against and includes Jeffery with his toughest practice adversaries – including Marques Colston with the Saints, Keenan Allen with the Chargers and T.Y. Hilton with the Colts.
"Alshon, he's definitely one of those receivers that if you don't get your hand on the ball, it's going to get caught," Robinson said.
Robinson said he isn't frustrated. He enjoys the challenge. Second-year corner C.J. Smith agreed.
"It's definitely different from last year," Smith said. "Not really frustrating. Just out there competing. It's practice. … When you have guys like Alshon and Torrey Smith who know the game in and out, who create plays for themselves, who are just good guys, it helps us a lot.
"Sometimes they'll give you little pointers here and there – 'When the receiver does this, then you want to be in this position.' I'm enjoying the competition."
Veteran corner Ron Brooks said there is frustration, but it leads to improvement.
"I just think they make you work your technique, make you have to really make sure you're doing what you're supposed to do within the scheme," Brooks said. "Seven-on-seven with no pass rush, the quarterback can sit back there and make his reads comfortably, but it's still a period we've got [in practice], and we've got to do what we've got to do."
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn't enjoy seeing the offense get the better of his guys. Schwartz delivered a pungent critique Saturday after several running-game reps resulted in backs romping free because no one could get off a block. But Schwartz, too, takes the attitude that better receivers ultimately make better young corners.