Eagles do the unexpected with Asomugha signing

Posted: July 30, 2011

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - All right, now it's really interesting.

It was expected that the Eagles would trade quarterback Kevin Kolb to Arizona, probably for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and it was expected they would bring back defensive end Jason Babin through free agency.

During the first hectic days of the jump-started 2011 season, the Eagles did the expected. They got those deals done, and they quietly endured the predictable holdout of DeSean Jackson and the also predictable inability to get a quick contract settlement with their first-round draft pick.

Things ho-hummed along, with a Vince Young rumor here and a Stewart Bradley exit there. When the hottest topic was whether the Eagles should have sent Leonard Weaver a Candygram to let him know he was released, training camp was officially chasing its own tail in circles.

And then on Friday night, the expected got blown up. Boom.

While every Twitter account worth its 140 characters was trying to decide whether Nnamdi Asomugha, the best cornerback in the NFL, would land with the Cowboys or the Jets, the Eagles were signing him to a contract.

Even the news late in the evening that Young had, in fact, agreed to back up Michael Vick could barely raise a ripple on its own. Not after the wave that crashed on shore earlier.

On the surface - and even down a little deeper - signing Asomugha made no sense at all. With Asante Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie on the team, and at significant salaries, taking on Asomugha didn't compute. Unless there is a lot more to learn.

That part will make the next few days and weeks interesting as well. The immediate reaction was that someone (Samuel) would have to go, and that might still turn out to be the case. Samuel is not in camp, because of an excused absence to take care of a personal matter, according to the Eagles. Could the personal matter have been he was looking for a house somewhere else? The Eagles insist that is not true, although Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman stopped short of making any promises.

"We've got three great cornerbacks," Reid said. "It reminds me a little bit of when we had Al [Harris], Troy [Vincent], and Bobby Taylor, and that crew. We'll see how things go there."

Usually, when Reid says we'll see how things go, he means that we will see how things go, and he already knows. One thing he knows is that Harris, Vincent, and Taylor might not have earned one starting position if they were matched up against the three cornerbacks the Eagles have under contract right now.

The more interesting possibility is that the Eagles really do plan to keep all three, and plan to start all three, going with nickel coverage even more of the time than before. New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has had a long, reflective offseason to put together his scheme, and he could be taking the Jim Johnson cover-and-pressure philosophy to a new level.

Is there a reason the linebacker roster is so unimpressive? Maybe it's because Castillo is inventing a base 4-2 defense in which having three linebackers on the field becomes an increasing rarity. Both Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha are 6-foot-2 and a physical handful on the field. Either one, if you chose to go that way, could operate as a nickel back with a presence that is less than a traditional linebacker perhaps, but more than the usual collection of undersized Eagles cornerbacks could ever bring.

"We do consider the third corner a starter," Roseman said. "It's a passing league. And we think it's important to defend the pass and pressure the quarterback. . . . We felt last year we were in a situation where maybe we got a little shorthanded [at cornerback] and thought it was a place we wanted to go heavy and have a lot of talent. You can never have enough cover corners."

Well, with Samuel, Asomugha, and Rodgers-Cromartie, they are testing that theory. They were going to have to do something, however. Before Friday, their third cornerback was probably Joselio Hanson, although they do have a third-round pick (rookie Curtis Marsh) and a fourth-round pick (second-year player Trevard Lindley) on the roster. None of those options was a sure thing as the third corner, however, and beyond them on the depth chart are nothing more than lesser lights.

So, maybe it does make sense, in a nonsensical way. If the Eagles are willing to put all these resources at one position, and to beef up the defensive line at the same time, they are betting everything on scheme. And no team falls in love more deeply with its schemes than the Eagles.

"I think that we have to go light in certain other areas," Roseman said. "In this [salary-cap] system, if you go heavy in one area it has to come out of another . . . if you're heavy in some areas, there are other areas where you may go young with draft picks or some rookie situations."

Unless, of course, it's all a smokescreen and Samuel will be traded before the weekend is out.

It's hard to know what to expect anymore, because the Eagles splattered the expected all over the green hills of the Lehigh University campus on Friday. All that can come next is more of the unexpected, although it will be tough to top this one.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/postpatterns

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