Leading up to the 2019 NFL draft, one position that has been popular to mock to the Eagles is cornerback. ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay have both had the Eagles drafting a corner in various versions of their mock drafts.
Personally, I do not see it. While these are two highly successful and well-respected analysts, the lazy narrative is to assume the Eagles need cornerbacks because they struggled against the pass last year. I can understand that rationale when you look back on the season and remember the many games where it seemed like they got torched through the air, but the reality is Football Outsiders ranked them as the 18th rated pass defense in 2018.
That is clearly a number they want to improve on, but it is not among the worst in the league. This becomes even less of a worry when you consider the fact that the Eagles had their top five corners heading into the season all missed time with injury, and in most cases multiple games. Both of their starters ended the year on IR, Jalen Mills after Week 8 and Ronald Darby after Week 10, while backups Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox missed seven and three games, respectively.
All this being said, one move I disagreed with was the decision to re-sign Ronald Darby. I know the deal was reasonable (one-year for just over eight million dollars) and that he is the most athletically talented of their cornerbacks, but he does not seem to fit what Jim Schwartz values in his corners. Schwartz wants them to be physical and to be able to tackle. Darby is……not those things, as evidenced here and here. The Julio Jones play was especially egregious as it occurred with under two minutes left in a six-point game and Darby barely even attempted to tackle him. Now watch Rasul Douglas with a big hit here that fires up the defense, or remember Avonte Maddox tackling Todd Gurley in-bounds to keep the clock running in the last 20 seconds of the Rams game in week 15 (detailed here via Benjamin Solak at The Draft Network) and try to imagine Darby doing the same thing.
It has been a while since this has been said in Philadelphia, but the Eagles have young talent at the position now. Their defense improved at the end of last season (week 15 and on) once Douglas and Maddox were solidified as the starters on the outside with Cre’Von LeBlanc in the slot. This stretch included giving up 23 points in a win against the Rams and their second-ranked offense, shutting out the (albeit terrible) Washington football team in week 17, allowing 15 points in an away playoff win against the Bears, thanks to a double doink, and holding the red-hot Saints to 20 points in New Orleans, where they averaged 31.6 points per game, according to TeamRankings.
The Eagles currently have 6 corners on the roster who are all under 25 and have had success in the NFL. Rasul Douglas (age 23) came on hot at the end of the season when he got some snaps under his belt and ended the year their highest rated corner, finishing with a 72.5 rating according to PFF. Their second highest rated corner, LeBlanc (age 24), was signed off the scrap-heap in Week 11 but impressed manning the slot. After the Eagle beat the Bears in the playoffs Jim Schwartz was quoted saying, “I don’t know where we’d be without Cre’Von … that might have been the key to our season, putting the waiver claim in.” (quote per Les Bowen at Philly.com.) Jalen Mills (age 24) struggles against the deep ball but is stifling in the red zone, and is also a Schwartz favorite. Mills’ health is in question with the foot injury that ended his season, but a healthy Mills will most likely start opposite Darby. That leaves Avonte Maddox (age 23), the rookie who thrived playing safety, nickel, and outside corner, and Sidney Jones (age 22), the second round pick from 2017 who struggled last year.
The Eagles are being cagey about the health of Mills, so if they are expecting that he will not be ready to start the season then this re-signing does make more sense. It would be very Eagles training staff to have Mills hurt his foot on October 28th, be originally considered day-to-day by Doug Pederson, to then not be ready the following September, almost 10 months later. So, the assumption here is that Mills will be healthy to start the season.
The goal should be to get these young players as many snaps as possible. They showed that the defense can thrive with them in, and young players in general need reps to develop. The Eagles coaching staff is going to have their work cut out for them figuring out what role each of their CBs is going to have in this upcoming season. Douglas, LeBlanc, and Maddox all showed serious potential and deserve to be starters, but odds are Cre’Von will be the only week 1 starter of the trio, depending on the health of Mills.
It will be interesting to see where Maddox lines up. At 5’9, 184, according to ESPN, you probably do not want him as a full-time starter on the outside, but he deserves to be on the field. He could take the Corey Graham role as the Eagles third safety, but he is almost over-qualified for that after his performance to end the season. I have not even mentioned Sidney Jones, who the Eagles drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft with hopes that he could become a shutdown corner for them. The Eagles know better than anybody how important it is to have depth at the position to protect against injuries, but it is unlikely that they have the same horrible injury luck that they had last year.
Bringing back Darby also makes you wonder what the Eagles are expecting out of Jones in 2019. Although they will tell the media they are confident in him, their actions show otherwise. Darby is guaranteed to start on one side, with a healthy Mills or Douglas starting on the opposite side, and LeBlanc manning the slot. Depending on where Maddox lines up, that leaves Jones as either the 4th or 5th option going into the season. It has been rough for Jones since he tore his Achilles in March 2017. He was projected to be a top 15 pick in the draft but fell to the second round because of the injury.
After basically redshirting his rookie year (he only appeared in one game, a meaningless week 17 matchup against the Cowboys), it was tough sledding this past season. He started the year off playing well as the slot corner, but never really recovered after injuring his hamstring in week 6. The lasting memory of Jones was getting torched by Amari Cooper in week 14 in a heartbreaking OT loss to Dallas, and he ended the season as the Eagles worst rated corner with a 47.5 rating according to PFF.
Jones will have to prove he can stay healthy after playing in only 10 of a possible 32 games but the signing of Darby seems to show that the Eagles are not counting on him as a starter in 2019.
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