For the third year in a row and the seventh time in eight years, the Eagles will open their season with different starting cornerbacks than they featured at the beginning of the previous season.
In fact, if the Eagles line up for the first snap in their nickel package Sunday at Washington, which is likely, given the prominence of slot receiver Jamison Crowder in the Redskins' attack, all three corners will have changed – from Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll and Ron Brooks last year vs. Cleveland, to Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson.
This was the team's most scrutinized group all offseason, the group that saw the most extensive tinkering in the preseason, with Darby arriving in an Aug. 11 trade with Buffalo and reserve corner Dexter McDougle making the team after coming in Aug. 27 in a trade with the Jets.
"I like where we are," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. "I think I've told you before, I think Jalen Mills is one of the most improved players on our team, has really settled into the outside corner spot, played the deep ball very well. He's that quintessential 'take a big jump the second year' guy; at least he has been so far."
The qualifier was, of course, because "we're judging training camp and preseason games," Schwartz said. This weekend, not only do the results finally count, but the Eagles are facing Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is 4-1 against them, with 12 touchdowns against three interceptions and a 102.9 passer rating. Overall, Washington has won the last five meetings.
But Schwartz clearly expects his defense to be better on the back end than it was at the end of 2016 or even a month ago, before the trades, when second-year man Mills and Robinson were the starters and presumed nickel corner Ron Brooks was working off the rust from last year's quad tear. Brooks ended up being released.
Not only did the Eagles acquire what they hope is a man-coverage, shutdown corner in Darby, his arrival allowed Schwartz to move inside Robinson, the unit's most experienced corner, who signed this offseason as a free agent from the Colts. Robinson turns 30 on Thursday.
"I thought he'd played well [in nickel] in San Diego [in 2015]," Schwartz said. "He has some traits we like in there, and some experience at it, so it wasn't like he was starting over."
Most likely, Crowder (5-9, 177, 67 catches, 847 yards, seven touchdowns last season) will be a matchup for Robinson. But if the Redskins move, say, big tight end Jordan Reed into the slot, Schwartz seems to feel more comfortable this year moving safety Malcolm Jenkins down to nickel corner and plugging in newcomer Corey Graham for Jenkins. Jenkins played some slot last year, but Schwartz said that was more on a game-by-game basis, rather than for particular plays. (Possible translation: Schwartz feels more confident subbing Graham for Jenkins in a variety of situations and coverages than he did using former top sub safety Jaylen Watkins.)
"There's a lot of different ways we can play. We'll probably have six different personnel packages that we can play in this game, which is a little bit more than we carried last year," Schwartz said.
Though Darby still won't have been here quite a month when the season opens, Schwartz said he has assimilated well, that Schwartz won't feel limited in the coverages he can dial up.
Depth Chart (unofficial)
Last season's losses were 27-20 on Oct. 16 at Washington, the first game of Lane Johnson's suspension, and 27-22 Dec. 11 at the Linc, in a game that ended with Matt Tobin giving up a sack/fumble in Johnson's spot. Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson caught a combined 18 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns in those meetings. Though the Redskins added 6-4, 228-pound QB-turned-wideout Terrelle Pryor in free agency, they lost both Garcon and Jackson.
"The first game, we particularly struggled with stopping the run [230 Washington rushing yards on 33 carries], and big plays. The second game, we did a much better job in the run game, still gave up a couple big plays," Schwartz said. "A couple guys gave us some trouble last year; particularly, Pierre Garcon made some key catches in both games. I'm not sorry to see him gone. DeSean the same way. They've replaced those guys and moved up draft picks and things like that, but I'm not going to be disappointed not to see those guys on the field."
Overall, Schwartz said he thinks his defense can do better than last year's 12th overall in points allowed (20.7 per game).
"I think when it's all said and done after 16 weeks or after 17 weeks, plus hopefully more, I think if we can say that we minimized points allowed and we also gave our offense a chance [to score after forcing turnovers], I think then we'll have been successful," Schwartz said. "And any other ranking really doesn't matter to us."