Nick Fierro
The Allentown Morning Call

Throughout the four days of OTAs that were open to the media, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs seemed to "get it."

They would understand position coach Cory Undlin's directives on when to give ground and when not. And they would make plays on the football. All kinds of plays.

More and more, it's looking like the decision to replace departed starters Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin with the likes of Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and rookie Rasul Douglas is sound. Aaron Grymes and Dwayne Gratz have been making themselves noticed as well, and not in a bad way.

Combined with the personnel moves they made to get more pressure on the quarterback from the front four, the Eagles are on track to show significant improvement in their pass coverage in 2017

A big part of Carson Wentz's accuracy issues has been that he and fellow quarterbacks Nick Foles and Matt McGloin have been forced to slip their passes into tight windows that are only open for a split-second and sometimes not open at all because they're under pressure to release the ball too soon.

Thursday's red-zone work was a total victory for the defense, thanks to corners who gave a 3- to 5-yard cushion before the snap but held their ground right after, allowing them to better read the receivers across from them and the quarterback's eyes. Too often last season, the corners would backpedal at the snap, keeping too big a space between them and the receivers as they approached or entered the end zone.

As mandatory minicamp is set to open on Tuesday, it's clear that those days are over.

Mills, in particular, has appeared locked in since the start, an encouraging sign for a second-year player who made his share of mistakes after being thrust into action prematurely as a rookie.

"He's somebody that we're planning on leaning heavily on," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He's embraced that role and he loves being in that position and has played well so far. He's been consistent."

"I'll sum his rookie season up," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz added. "It was a rookie season. There were some things that he did well, and he flashed. There were times he didn't play as well as we needed him to. His challenge is creating that consistency. ... I like where he's going, but he's never lacked for competitiveness. He's never lacked for work ethic. Those are things that he comes every day with."

Same is true for Douglas, who like Mills is not blessed with world-class speed but more than makes up for it by playing within himself and using his size to slow down faster opponents, neutralizing whatever advantage they might have had.

"He doesn't want us to be too far [off]," Douglas said, "because a lot of them, they run the [route] and then they just stop and they catch it and fall in for the extra yard. So you're there but you're not there."

Up front, the Eagles expect solid production from newcomers Tim Jernigan, Chris Long and rookie first-round pick Derek Barnett, and there's no reason to believe they won't after OTAs, which ended on Friday. Rookie pass rushers rarely draw unsolicited praise no matter how high they're drafted. Brandon Graham didn't. Marcus Smith certainly didn't.

Barnett does.

"The thing about him, he has such a good bend, so if you miss with your hands [he's going to get by]," tackle Lane Johnson said. "I think he's going to have a great year for us. He's got a great motor. Every play. That's a good thing for us.

"I'd say he's pretty similar to Brandon Graham, the body type. He's not as strong yet but [he's similar] size-wise and dip and bend. ... I think he's got a lot better just in timing, snap and rhythm of our offense, with what we're doing."

Johnson admitted that Barnett won a few of their battles on Thursday.

"I sat too flat on him," Johnson said.

Jernigan comes in with very good pass-rush credentials for a defensive tackle: 13.0 sacks over his first three seasons, including a career-best 5.0 last year, good for second best on the Baltimore Ravens.

This attacking system the Eagles employ with their front four should do nothing but enhance Jernigan's ability to help, according to Schwartz.

"It's a lot less reading, it's a lot more attacking," he said. "I think it fits him. He can win individual pass rushes, meaning when the center is sliding away, he's a tough matchup for a guard. He's not physically the biggest guy, but he's very strong and he's very active. It's been a great addition for us. I really look forward to coaching him, and I really look forward to him being on the field for us. I also like his temperament. He's got a football player's temperament."
Combined with the personnel moves they made to get more pressure on the quarterback from the front four, the Eagles are on track to show significant improvement in their pass coverage in 2017.


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