Football / Sports

Defensive backs center stage at Eagles rookie camp

Despite allowing more yards in the air than other defense in 2013, the Eagles did very little to the core of their secondary this offseason.

Free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins was signed, in essence, to replace Patrick Chung, but the other starters or those near the top of the depth chart entering spring practices return.

A few second-tier free agents were added for competition and special teams, and the Eagles waited until the fourth and fifth rounds before selecting cornerback-safety Jaylen Watkins and safety Ed Reynolds.

There are no guarantees when it comes to the draft, especially with third-day picks, but Watkins and Reynolds are walking into an enviable position with few from the aforementioned core locked in place beyond this coming season.

The Eagles will get their first on-field look at Watkins and Reynolds, along with the rest of the Class of 2014, when rookie camp begins Friday and ends Sunday at the NovaCare Complex. Full-squad organized team activities don't start until May 27.

So it will be a few weeks before either gets an opportunity to stack himself up against his competition.

Watkins, despite playing some safety in college at Florida and projecting to that position as well in the NFL, will start off at cornerback.

"I think for a young player starting a career, it's hard to go back between two positions," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said last week."We wanted to have a plan with him, and the plan early on was to go in, play the corner position. He's very comfortable there, and then we'll see."

Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are the returning starting outside corners. Brandon Boykin is the quasi-third starter in the slot. Nolan Carroll, formerly of the Dolphins, could push Williams and Fletcher, but he was brought in primarily to add depth.

Aside from Boykin, who should be in line for a multiyear contract extension next offseason, Williams, Fletcher and Carroll aren't guaranteed spots with the Eagles beyond this season.

A larger role for Watkins, 21, is there for the taking. He obviously has to prove he belongs first, but he has a clean slate. Of the 64 primary starting cornerbacks in the NFL last season, 24 were drafted after the third round or weren't even drafted at all.

John Fulton, an undrafted cornerback out of Alabama, will also be at camp this weekend. The rookies will face roster competition from the returning Roc Carmichael and Curtis Marsh.

Roseman said Watkins slipped to the fourth round partly because of an ankle injury that slowed him during the predraft period. He still ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the combine, but Watkins said he could have sprinted under 4.3, which would have been best among cornerbacks.

His quickness should offset what he lacks in length (5-foot-11, 30 5/8-inch arms). Watkins isn't squatty, but he isn't as rangy as coach Chip Kelly likes his outside corners. Carroll (5-11, 31-inch arms) doesn't exactly fit the mold either.

But Watkins' versatility could give him an edge in roster or game-day roster battles. He also played in the slot in college and hardly missed a beat moving to safety for his final six games at Florida.

Kelly spoke about projecting Watkins as an NFL safety immediately after his selection, but that was before Reynolds was chosen a round later. Still, he impressed the Eagles with his proficiency in reading offenses pre-snap.

"A lot of what we do defensively is we're going to play this coverage vs. this look, this coverage vs. this look, and it's up to the safety to make that decision," Kelly said. "So you have to have a high football intelligence, and that's where Jaylen fits in."

But so does Reynolds in that regard, according to the Eagles. He quarterbacked a pro-style, multiple-front defense at Stanford. And while he may not have Watkins' athleticism, he has prototype size (6-1, 207 pounds) for an NFL safety.

The Eagles lost three safeties to free agency -- Chung, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson -- but Nate Allen and Earl Wolff are back and will likely battle for the spot opposite Jenkins. Chris Maragos was added in March to help with special teams, but Kelly didn't count him out of the starting competition.

Keelan Johnson, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, is also back. The undrafted Daytawion Lowe of Oklahoma State will join Reynolds at rookie camp.

Reynolds heads back to Stanford after this weekend to finish the school year, though, and won't be able to participate in OTAs. He dropped to the fifth round even though some analysts pegged him to go higher following a standout sophomore season in 2012.

His interceptions decreased last season (6 to 1), but his number of tackles nearly doubled (57 to 86). Reynolds said quarterbacks threw at him less as a junior. Kelly said there were inconsistency issues.

"I think there (were) ebbs and flows," Kelly said."Depends on which games you look at. I think when you're picking guys on this day, there's going to be something."

Martinez fails physical.

After agreeing to terms with the Eagles, Nebraska quarterback Victor Martinez failed a physical and wasn't signed to an undrafted rookie contract, according to the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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