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It's No Longer "Slay and Pray" at Cornerback with Emergence of Zech McPhearson

The rookie has hit the ground running, getting his hands on plenty of passes, but now he has to figure out how to turn those pass breakups into interceptions

PHILADELPHIA - Eagles fans became accustomed to No. 27 making plays on the back end of the defense.

Those assembled at the NovaCare Complex for practice on Tuesday may have experienced a little deja vu because rookie cornerback Zech McPhearson is doing Malcolm Jenkins' number proud in the early days of training camp.

As the Eagles sped toward camp, there was plenty of hand-wringing going on for obvious reasons.

A four-win team had blown things up with its Super Bowl-winning coach, highly-regarded defensive coordinator, and former franchise quarterback while turning the keys over to unknown commodities in Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts.

Of all the question marks, however, none provided more angst than cornerback where the plan seemed to be "Slay and Pray."

Darius Slay, though, couldn't do it alone.

One of the crossed fingers was McPhearson, a rookie fourth-round pick who started his college career at Penn State before finishing at Texas Tech.

The Eagles didn’t want to throw McPhearson to the wolves but they were having a hard time convincing Steve Nelson to accept a one-year, prove-it deal in exchange for the opportunity of a starting job opposite Slay.

Once that domino fell two days before camp began, there was a little sigh of relief although the depth still looked razor-thin after the projected starters: Slay, Nelson, and slot corner Avonte Maddox.

MORE FROM CAMP: Eagles Training Thoughts Day 6: Jordan Mailata Takes Control at LT

Now, six days into summer work, the CB position as a whole has been a pleasant surprise with McPhearson leading the way.

The 5-foot-11, 191-pound Maryland native has been a PBU (passes broken up) machine, getting his hands on the football more than any other CB in camp.

His first interception came against Hurts on Monday and that was followed by a three-PBU day on Tuesday, two of which should of went for pick-sixes as far as the rookie was concerned.

“The ones today, I view those, they’re touchdowns if I catch those,” said McPhearson after practice Tuesday. “That’s two dropped pick-sixes. That’s what, 12 points off the board? That’s a lot in this league. Whenever you get the opportunity to play a ball like that, you have to capitalize.”

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One PBU, in which McPhearson was all over recently-signed receiver Andre Patton. had defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon buzzing.

Yet, McPhearson wasn’t satisfied.

“I have to finish some plays,” McPhearson told SI.com’s Eagle Maven. “I know I dropped a few today. I have to capitalize on it because in this league you have very little room for error, you have to finish on these plays.”

Zech McPhearson after Tuesday's practice

Zech McPhearson after Tuesday's practice

It’s not always going to be this easy for McPhearson especially in a division that boasts WRs like Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Terry McLaurin, and Kenny Golladay.

McPhearson seems to have the mindset to handle it.

“Whenever the ball’s in the air, my mindset is I’m the receiver. I’m trying to get the ball just as much as he is, so it’s a fight to the end,” he said. “It’s 50-50. It’s whether you want it or not.”

One of the issues with rookie CBs making the transition to the NFL is the tougher restrictions when it comes to putting your hands on the receivers, something McPhearson saw first hand on Tuesday when the offense lobbied for a flag during one of his PBUs.

“No flag was thrown, I’m good,” said McPhearson. “I’m just playing through the ball. Just as much as they want the ball, I want it, too. They’re going to get their hand pushes in and I’m going to fight through those hand pushes and get my hands on the ball.”

McPhearson is cognizant of what lies ahead in the NFL, however.

“It’s definitely faster. It’s way faster than college,” he said. “I tell my boys that every day, just prepare themselves now because this game speed is a whole different level. I can see it today. 

"I just experienced two-minute (drill) for the first time and it felt like a track meet out there. It’s definitely a different game speed on this level.”

McPhearson is ready for what lies ahead, though, and that’s Wednesday’s practice.

“There’s a lot that I think about, but really I know it’s not going to do me no justice, so I’ll just be in the moment and I’m trying to just grind every day,” he said. “Every day is a day to get better in camp, so that’s what I’m really focused on right now.”

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.