Eagles should use Asomugha in the slot

Posted: August 11, 2011

BETHLEHEM - If you're looking for a clue as to how Juan Castillo intends to use his three stud cornerbacks, Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel, you aren't likely to find one in the Eagles' preseason opener tonight against the Baltimore Ravens.

The three, like the rest of the team's starters, aren't expected to play beyond the first quarter. They'll rotate in and out on the outside. When the Eagles line up in nickel, Castillo will do what he has been doing in practice at training camp the first 2 weeks, which is use veteran Joselio Hanson in the slot.

"We know what we want to do, but it's too early to put it out there," Castillo said.

When the Eagles fired the shot heard 'round the NFL two Fridays ago and signed Asomugha just a day after trading for Rodgers-Cromartie, everybody's first assumption was bye-bye Asante.

Club president Joe Banner did nothing to knock down that assumption last week when he suggested in a radio interview that the Eagles were keeping their options open with respect to trading the four-time Pro Bowler and that teams "are formulating offers."

Personally, I think they would be foolish to trade Samuel right now. Yeah, they could get a reasonably high draft pick for him. But they'll be able to get that next March or April if they wanted to trade him then. What's the hurry?

After giving up a franchise-record 31 touchdown passes last season, they've now got the cornerback equivalent of Halladay, Lee and Hamels.

In Samuel, they have the game's best ballhawk; a guy with a league-best 36 interceptions in the last 5 years.

In Asomugha, they have a shutdown corner who can make the opposing team's best receiver disappear.

And in the 6-1 1/2, 182-pound Rodgers-Cromartie, they've got a tall corner with a long wingspan and world-class speed who no longer is going to allow tall receivers to have their way with the Smurf corners the Eagles have favored over the last several years.

The obvious question, if you keep all three, is which one of these guys do you put in the slot?

The obvious answer is Asomugha.

Castillo has said all three guys could play inside, but that's not really true. Samuel isn't suited to be a slot corner. He'd be on IR by Week 6. A slot corner has to be physical and be able to deal with a lot of traffic inside. That's not really Samuel's forte. He's better out in space where he can read the quarterback and the receiver and use his uncanny anticipation to jump routes.

Rodgers-Cromartie, like Samuel, isn't the most physical corner to come down the pike. And many of his best attributes would be wasted inside.

"It's not a plug-in position," said Hanson, who has been one of the league's better slot corners since the late Jim Johnson moved him inside after he joined the Eagles in 2006. "You can't just put anybody in there. Some guys are made for the slot. Some guys are made for the island [outside].

"You've got to think a lot more [inside]. You've got to be thinking about the run a lot more. You've got to help out the two linebackers sometimes. You've got to blitz. It's a lot more thinking."

The thinking part would be no problem for Asomugha, who is the Ken Jennings of NFL corners. And at 6-2, 210 pounds, he is more than physical enough to deal with life in the slot.

Most important, and this cannot be overemphasized, he's willing to do it.

"[Playing slot corner] is not the easiest thing to do," he said this week. "It's definitely something you have to focus in on. But I think I could do it once I took the time to figure it all out.

"I know about the game and understand how it works as far as the mental side of it. So I'm sure I could pick up things pretty quickly if they want to put me in the slot. I'm willing to do it just so that we can get all our guys on the field and everybody remains comfortable at doing what they do best."

Mike Quick, a former Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Eagles and for the last 13 years an analyst on the team's radio broadcasts, thinks Asomugha would flourish as a slot corner.

"All three of those guys are going to be on the field when teams go to three wides, which is going to be most of the time," Quick said. "The guy that needs to be the most physical is the guy in the slot. There's a lot of traffic. Sometimes he's going to get a tight end. Because if you look at the tight ends in this league - [Tony] Gonzalez or the guy in Washington [Chris Cooley] or the guy in Dallas [Jason Witten], they're tight ends, but can run routes like wide receivers. You need to have the body to take on some of these guys, and Nnamdi does.

"If you had him in there, not only could he cover either a tight end or a slot receiver, but when you blitz, you're better off blitzing with him than one of the other two guys. And I think they're going to want to do some of that with him."

If the Eagles don't trade Samuel, the odd man out would be Hanson, who turns 30 on Saturday. Asked after the Eagles signed Asomugha, what would happen to Hanson, Castillo said, "How about dime? How about [when] people play four wideouts?"

But Hanson has a $2.4 million cap number this year, which really is too high for a dime corner. He's also getting squeezed from both ends.

In addition to the Eagles' Three Pro Bowl Musketeers at the top, they have two promising and less expensive young corners - rookie third-rounder Curtis Marsh and 2010 fourth-rounder Trevard Lindley - who are going to be pushing for playing time.

"I'm taking it day by day," Hanson said. "I'm not going to let anything affect me.

"I can't think too far ahead. I'm just trying to go out there and have one great day at a time, one great practice at a time."

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