PHILADELPHIA − It’s hard to tell that it’s just another training camp practice when Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown lays out to catch a back-shoulder pass along the sideline, with cornerback Darius Slay draped all over him.
In fact, the intensity between Brown, the Eagles’ $100 million wide receiver, and Slay, the Eagles’ lockdown cornerback, would rival anything you’d see in the fourth quarter of a tight game with the playoffs riding on the outcome.
It’s a rivalry the Eagles haven’t had in a practice setting since Terrell Owens and cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown went against each other in the 2004 season.
Back then, thousands of fans were streaming into Lehigh University, where the Eagles held training camp, to watch it for themselves.
Owens, meanwhile, would play to the crowd, encouraging their cheers while talking trash.
Now, it’s just a select few hundred fans at the Eagles’ practice facility in South Philadelphia. And Brown, albeit talented, is hardly the trash-talking type.
“He’s a soft-spoken guy,” fellow receiver DeVonta Smith said. “I mean, he’s not somebody that’s going to be talking a lot. He’s going to lead by example. But if he sees something that needs to be said, he’s going to say it.”But the Eagles have not only seen that intensity between Brown and Slay, but between Brown and James Bradberry, the other cornerback. That also holds true for Smith, who set a franchise rookie record in 2021 with 916 receiving yards, going against the two cornerbacks.
“When you have that combination, that really makes guys improve their game,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “With DeVonta working to get open, and A.J. working to get open, and vice versa with Slay and (Bradberry) working to cover them. That’s a true thing of iron sharpens iron. That’s what we’re working on at every position. But I’ve seen it first hand at that position.”
It’s easy to see why.
Brown, whom the Eagles traded for on draft night by sending the Tennessee Titans their first-round and fourth-round picks, has surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in two of his three seasons. The Eagles then signed Brown to a four-year extension worth as much as $100 million.
The Eagles haven’t had a wide receiver with 1,000 yards receiving since Jeremy Maclin in 2014, and DeSean Jackson the year before. But in those seasons, the Eagles didn’t have a lockdown cornerback who could cover them.
They do with Slay, who last season was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his career. He led all NFL defensive backs with three defensive touchdowns. And Bradberry was a Pro Bowl selection in 2020 with the Giants.
Still, the matchup between Brown and Slay is by far the most interesting to watch.
That was evident Monday with the diving catch Brown made along the sideline. Brown also had a catch over the middle where he could have used his 6-foot-1, 226 pound frame to break tackles in the open field. There is no tackling in practice.
There were similar catches against Slay the other days, along with Slay breaking up a pass here and there. Those are the challenges that Slay said he looks forward to.
“A big physical guy, he can catch the ball and run,” Slay said about Brown. “He’s not a T-shirt guy. He’s a pads guy. He wants to run through contact.”
Then he added: “My job is to get him definitely to be the best receiver in this game. That’s what I want to do with him and DeVonta and the whole receiver corps. I want them to be the best unit in the NFL.”
For his part, Brown considers himself among the best wide receivers in the NFL. He bristled during the offseason when the Titans wouldn’t give him an extension, and pushed back on those who felt he forced the Titans to trade him.
The Eagles made Brown among the highest paid receivers in the NFL, putting him in the same range as the most recent signings over the past week in Washington’s Terry McLaurin, Seattle’s DK Metcalf and San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel.
In fact, Brown alluded to that Sunday night after Samuel signed his contract, posting on Twitter: “Basically all 4 of us got the same contract and I’m the only one got traded… yeah keep believing it was me . Anywho Go Birds.”
The Eagles are hoping these matchups between Brown and Slay at receiver and Slay and Bradberry at corner have a trickle down effect on receivers like Quez Watkins and Jalen Reagor.
In the end, though, this will serve to make Brown and Smith better.
“I would say DeVonta Smith, he’s a great route runner,” Bradberry said. “Of course, A.J. Brown, he’s definitely a physical player. Trying to guard him and his strength, and his strong hands, too, at the point of attack, that’s definitely hard to cover.”
Sirianni compared it to when he was a wide receivers coach with the Los Angeles Chargers, watching Keenan Allen improve dramatically after the Chargers drafted cornerback Jason Verrett in the first round in 2014.
Allen has had at least 97 receptions and 992 yards in each of the last five seasons.
“It made Keenan really work all the different things in practice to get open,” Sirianni said. “It wasn’t easy for him to get open in practice. He had to work, he had to think, he had to use his mind, his technique, all of those things.
“It’s the same thing here.”
And it’s fun to watch.
Contact Martin Frank at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.