CB Lito Sheppard (AP Photo)
Andrew Pluta examines the play of the Eagle's cornerbacks in 2007. In a division full of Pro Bowl receivers, the Eagles needed excellent play from the secondary, but injuries made things difficult. See which players made the most of their opportunities and who might have played his last game in a Philadelphia uniform.
With every team in the division fighting for a playoff spot until the end of the regular season, the NFC East has developed into one of the NFL’s most talented grouping of teams. Stud receivers like the Giant’s Plaxico Burress (12 touchdown receptions in ‘07) and Terrell Owens of the Cowboys (15 touchdowns last year) have the ability to dominate games and are big reasons why their teams had great success last year. As the Eagles have to face each of these Pro Bowl players two times a season at least, the play of the cornerbacks has become even more important recently.
Coming off a spectacular 2006 season where he recorded a career-high six interceptions, Lito Sheppard entered the year as one of the most clutch playmakers at his position. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, Sheppard seemed to have a knack for making a big play when his team needed it the most, with 8 of his 17 career interceptions coming in the fourth quarter (4 in the final 2 minutes) and 3 ending the game. The biggest knock on the former Florida Gator was his history of injuries, and this season did not help to quiet his critics. After missing five games this season because of a knee injury, Sheppard has now missed a total of 14 games over the past three years. Even though he was at less than 100% at times during the season, the six-year veteran finished the 2007 season with 51 tackles and two interceptions and showed that he can still be a lock-down defender. In the game against New England, he held the Patriot’s Randy Moss to just 43 yards on five catches and kept the All-Pro receiver out of the end zone the entire game.
At the other corner, Sheldon Brown has had much better luck in terms of staying healthy, and the six-year veteran has proved to be very durable despite his reputation as a ferocious hitter. After playing all 16 games last season, Brown ranks third among active players in consecutive games played to start a career with 96, behind only ex-Eagle Al Harris (160 games) and Nate Clements of the 49ers (112 games). Brown did a good job of attacking the run in 2007 and finished the season with 68 tackles, the second-highest tackle total of his career. Although he seems to have trouble covering taller receivers like Owens and Burress, the former South Carolina standout led the team in interceptions (3) and passes defensed (14), and also had a forced fumble. Although he has yet to make a Pro Bowl appearance, Brown has made his share of big plays for the Eagles and should be an important player for years to come as he is under contract through the 2012 season.
After signing with the Eagles in 2006 as a free agent, former Giant William James had another disappointing season in Philadelphia and failed to make much of an impact on defense. James started six games last season, taking Sheppard’s place in the lineup, and finished the year with 31 tackles and one interception. Although he posses good size for a cornerback at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, James was only average in coverage and did not provide much support against the run. He also has a history of injuries and back problems, and the seventh year player missed two games in 2007. James is a free agent and will likely not be with the team next year, as the Eagles do not have plans to re-sign him.
While he was probably thought of as a special teams player coming into the season, Joselio Hanson exceeded most expectations in 2007 and provided solid depth to the secondary while the injuries piled up. After coming into the league as a rookie free agent out of Texas Tech, Hanson progressed nicely in his third season in the NFL and was the Eagles nickleback by the end of the year. Although Hanson is somewhat undersized at 5-foot-9, he finished the season with a career-high 52 tackles and also recorded a sack while seeing action in all 16 games. Hanson had arguably his best game of the season against the toughest of opponents, as he recorded nine tackles in the Eagles week 12 loss to the Patriots. Even though he is set to become a restricted free agent, Philadelphia will look to bring Hanson back next season for added depth at cornerback and for his abilities on special teams.
Nick Graham, an undrafted rookie free agent who signed with the Eagles before the start of the season, played mostly on special teams but could have a future with Philadelphia. In the preseason, Graham recorded an interception against the Steelers and he finished the regular season with 12 tackles in 15 games played. A playmaker during his days at Tulsa, Graham has some potential and could earn a more permanent roster spot with some improvement and another good off-season.
Although Philadelphia’s defense let up only 16 passing touchdowns in 2007, they ranked 18th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, giving up 215.6 yards per contest. With the signing of Asante Samuel on the first day of free agency, the Eagles added a ball-hawk and All-Pro talent to their secondary who should fit in well with the team. Although the signing of Samuel has left little doubt that Sheppard will be traded at some point, moving him would be worthwhile if the team can get a star player like Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals, who they reportedly tried to make a deal for recently.
In the unlikely event that Sheppard is still with the team next season, the Eagles would match up nicely with the big name receivers of the NFC East and arguably have the best secondary in the league.
Final Grade: C
Andrew Pluta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org