The Eagles re-solidified the cornerback position this offseason and are now set with a deep group of young and talented players in the secondary. Now, a position battle is brewing to see who will win the starting roles for the 2019 season.
After re-signing Ronald Darby to a one-year deal worth up to $8.5 million, the Eagles are set to have the following CB’s barring any moves: Darby, Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Avonte Maddox and Jalen Mills. That group is an average of just over 23 years old, and Darby is the oldest cornerback on the roster at just 25 years old.
All six players have shown different levels of potential, but all are capable of being starting-level CB’s in the NFL. It is still fairly early in the offseason, but in mid-April, teams can begin their offseason programs, which will be the beginning of what should be a very competitive position battle.
There have been some rumblings of if the Eagles could trade one of their CB’s, but that likely will only be if the team is enamored with an offer and if they feeling comfortable drafting a replacement in the early rounds of the draft. The two players who seem to be most at risk of being dealt are Douglas and Mills.
Assuming none of the cornerbacks are traded, here is a look at who could be starting at the position when week 1 of the 2019 season kicks off…
With the re-signing of Ronald Darby, it is very clear he will be returning to his traditional starting role on the right side of the defense at cornerback (assuming he is healthy for week 1). Out of any of the Eagles CB’s, Darby is the one best suited to guard opposing team’s #1 wide receivers.
At 5’11 and 193 pounds, Darby isn’t the most physically imposing CB, but his ball skills and speed give him the ability to force a turnover at any moment. According to ProFootballFocus, Darby ranks as the 19th-best CB in the league since he entered the NFL in 2015, and has also forced the 12th-most incompletions in the NFL during the same period. In 2018, Darby ranked as the best cornerback on the Eagles when targeted, holding opposing quarterback’s to an 86.5 QB rating.
Staying healthy is a problem for Darby, though. In his two seasons with Philadelphia, Darby played in just 20 of the teams 37 games due to a dislocated ankle (2017) and a torn ACL (2018). Despite his issues with injury, it shouldn’t affect his status on the starting line for the Eagles, though he isn’t guaranteed to be fully recovered from his ACL injury for week 1. In the event Darby isn’t ready, Douglas would likely be the place-holder, but once Darby is ready, it’s his job.
Darby was the top available cornerback in free agency, and he surely would only re-sign in Philadelphia if he was assured that his role was safe. Look for Darby to continue his role as the Eagles top CB in 2019.
Prediction: Ronald Darby
This spot is going to be one of the most intriguing storylines once minicamp and training camp rolls around. As of now, this looks to be a three-way battle between Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas, and Jalen Mills. However, Maddox and Douglas are largely viewed as the favorites.
When Mills went down with a season-ending foot injury last season, Maddox slid into this spot and instantly became a fan favorite for his tenacious play. Maddox ranked 4th in lowest passer rating when targeted, 2nd in least yards allowed per snap, and 1st in snaps per reception allowed.
In the Eagles’ biggest win of the season against the Los Angeles Rams, Maddox was a key difference maker on defense. Maddox deflected two passes, intercepted one, and also had three key tackles. Without the emergence of Maddox, the Eagles likely don’t win that game and don’t make the playoffs.
Maddox is also a very dynamic player, as he can lineup either on the inside or outside at cornerback, and he also can slide in at safety when needed as well. As a fourth-round pick in 2018 and it is clear the Eagles found a diamond-in-the-rough with Maddox.
Meanwhile, Douglas had the career year many were hoping for after he was drafted in 2017. As a matter of fact, Douglas was one of the more dominant cornerbacks in the NFL for the final portion of the season after filling in for the injured Darby.
After the Eagles’ Week 12 loss to the Saints, Douglas was graded as the 7th-best CB in the NFL and was the top CB when it came to tackling and run defense. On deep targets, Douglas ranked as the 10th-best CB as well.
As a whole, Douglas finished 2018 with a career-high in tackles (58), tackles for a loss (6), interceptions (3), and also started a career-high 7 games.
Along with his outstanding play, Douglas has great size to be a full-time starting CB. At 6’2 and 209 pounds, Douglas has great length to be able to compete with the majority of opposing wide receivers.
Somewhat further in the back of the discussion is Mills. Mills has caught a lot of slack for his inconsistent play and frequently biting on double moves, but he has been one of the best defenders in the red-zone for many years.
Among every CB in 2018, Mills absolutely blew every other player out of the water when it came to forced incompletions in the red zone, forcing 87.5% of passes in his direction to be incomplete. The next closest CB was Marshon Lattimore at 50%.
Outside of the red zone, though, Mills hasn’t been nearly as dominant. Opposing QB’s have a 107.2 rating when throwing in Mills’ direction, and many of those targets are frequently downfield for big plays.
Mills’ experience (most importantly during the 2017-2018 Super Bowl run) and the fondness from the coaching staff will keep him in discussion here, but Mills seems to be beaten out by Douglas and Maddox simply based on last years play.
All in all, this is a toss-up between Douglas and Maddox, and the Eagles really couldn’t go wrong with either one. Douglas is a great size, and Maddox is very versatile, but only one player can start.
Prediction: Rasul Douglas
This is another spot where there will be a fascinating battle. Sidney Jones began the year as the teams starting nickel CB and played very well, but after he went down with an injury, Cre’Von LeBlanc came in and dominated. Maddox, simply because of his small size (5’9 and 184 pounds), will conventionally be in contention here as well.
Jones was selected in the second-round in 2017 but missed all but one game that season as he recovered from his Achilles injury. However, once the 2018 season came, Jones earned the starting job at the slot cornerback spot.
In week 1, Jones allowed just four catches for 18 yards against Mohamed Sanu. In week 2, Jones allowed just a 60.4 passer rating when targeted, which was the best in all of football. Through the first four games, Jones ceded just 12 catches on 20 targets for 79 yards. Then, Jones injured his hamstring in week 6 and only played two more games throughout the remainder of the season.
Health is the biggest concern for Jones, as he’s missed 21 games in his first two seasons in the NFL, and didn’t play in either of the Eagles playoffs runs. If Jones proves he can stay healthy, and a full offseason of being healthy is a great start than he has a legitimate chance to start the season as a starter yet again.
LeBlanc, meanwhile, was more than a capable fill-in after Jones got hurt. In the postseason, where LeBlanc shined brightest, he graded as the top cornerback in football. In the playoffs, LeBlanc finished with 7.0 tackles, two pass deflections, and one interception.
LeBlanc wasn’t just a top performer in the playoffs, either. During the regular season, LeBlanc finished with the second-best rank on the Eagles when it came to lowest QB rating when targeted.
LeBlanc proved he can play on the highest stage, and after a crazy journey both in the NFL and before his time in the league, he is set to be on the verge of earning a starting position.
Maddox, who was described in the earlier discussion, is also in contention here. He would certainly be able to play in a high-level in this role, but it would be a disservice to restrict his versatility to only being a starting nickel CB.
Prediction: Cre’Von LeBlanc
There is plenty of time for this to work itself out, and roles could even shift during the season. However, the competition is set to begin in the coming months for who will be the starters in Week 1. It is also important to note that these players, who all are free agents within the next two seasons, will be competing for future jobs on the Eagles.