Eagles rookies Mitchell, DeJean have chance to start

ByTim McManus ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 15, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- The stars had to fully align for the Eagles to walk away with defensive backs Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean in the first two rounds of April's draft.

There was a thought internally that Mitchell, the playmaking corner out of Toledo, would be gone by pick No. 15. Instead, he fell to Philly at 22 and became the latest first-round DB to come off the board since 1995 (Tyrone Poole -- 22nd overall to Panthers).

According to ESPN's Draft Day Predictor, there was just a 3% chance DeJean, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year out of Iowa, would be available at pick 40 entering the draft. The Eagles, who had a first-round grade on DeJean, traded up from 53 to land him.

They are just the fourth team in the common draft era to take two of the first four defensive backs selected, joining the 1987 Bills, 1986 Giants and 1976 Patriots.

"We didn't have 32 first-round guys, so when you get that opportunity to get two first-round guys, especially picking where we were, we felt like it was an opportunity," general manager Howie Roseman said, "and it was obviously an area we wanted to address."

That combination of Mitchell and DeJean being highly ranked talents at positions of need creates a scenario where both could land starting jobs immediately.

It has been well-documented how poorly the secondary played last season. The Eagles allowed 35 touchdown passes, second most in the NFL and second most in franchise history. They were also 31st in passing yards allowed (252.7) ahead of only the Washington Commanders (262.2).

There were myriad problems, from the downtick in pass-rush production to the communication lapses in the back end -- issues that ballooned when the organization made the ill-fated decision to change defensive playcallers from Sean Desai to Matt Patricia late in the regular season.

Personnel-wise, two developments set the secondary on the wrong course. One was the drop in play of outside corner James Bradberry, who went from an All-Pro selection the year before to a liability. The second was the loss of slot corner Avonte Maddox to a torn pectoral muscle in Week 2. The position never stabilized thereafter.

This is where Mitchell and DeJean come in.

Bradberry remains on the roster, but the starting outside spot opposite Darius Slay is considered up for grabs. Kelee Ringo and Isaiah Rodgers could be in the mix, but all eyes will be on Mitchell this summer. He did not allow a touchdown in 402 coverage snaps in 2023, and his 15 pass breakups were tied for the most in the FBS. That level of play along with his measurables (6 feet, 195 pounds, 4.33-second 40-yard dash) and his performance during the Senior Bowl against top competition led to him becoming the first corner selected.

Despite that Senior Bowl success, the biggest question is how he'll handle the major leap from the Mid-American Conference to the pros. He was the first MAC player taken in the first round since Corey Davis in 2017 and only the third MAC defensive back taken in the first round in the common draft era (1978 Ron Johnson, 2014 Jimmie Ward).

"He's obviously got good movement. He's got good size for a corner," new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He's going to have to adapt to the NFL game, covering NFL receivers, NFL schemes in the passing game. There's a lot to learn. We think he's the right guy emotionally and mentally to do that. Hopefully he'll pay dividends quickly rather than later. But he's going to be one of the many competing."

Perhaps part of the reason why DeJean dropped in the draft is because of the varying opinions on what position he's best suited for in the NFL. Some evaluators believe he projects as a safety on this level, while others, such as the Eagles, think he has the ability to do it all.

Slot corner offers his clearest path to a starting job. The Eagles released Maddox in March and brought him back about a month later on a more team-friendly deal. They like Maddox as both a locker room presence and player, but injuries have impacted his availability of late.

The nickel corner position also appears to be open to competition. Like Mitchell, DeJean did not allow a touchdown in coverage in '23. He held opposing quarterbacks to a QBR of 15.1 when they threw in his direction last season, third-best in the Big Ten. DeJean also has a penchant for the big play with three career interceptions returned for a touchdown.

He lined up primarily at left outside corner last season, with 75% of his coverage snaps coming from there. But he has nickel as well as safety experience in his background.

"I don't have a preference. I'm a football player," DeJean said. "You put me on the field, I'm going to go play football, whether it's inside, outside, at safety, wherever it is."

The secondary is all but guaranteed to have one new starter with the signing of safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson this offseason. There's a chance that three-fifths of it is new depending on how quickly Mitchell and DeJean can get up to speed.

"Throughout the course of the season having guys that can cover people is so important," Roseman said. "Obviously we've been in position over the past few years where we haven't had enough of those guys, whether that's through injury or just kind of running out of guys towards the end of the season.

"We've got a lot of practice, a long time to go before we go to Brazil (to face the Green Bay Packers Week 1). It's our goal right now to add as much competition as we can to this football team and let it all shake out."

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