Heading into the offseason, the Eagles cornerback corps was questionable at best. After parting ways with both Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll, the only starters remaining as free agency opened were Jalen Mills and Ron Brooks. The outlook was bleak and big free agent names were passed on, but as we enter Mandatory Minicamp, the position is set to enter in an exciting new direction with competition at heart.
The one big change between the current deep breath of the offseason and the start of OTA’s? The arrival of second-round pick, Sidney Jones. The Washington standout had missed all OTA practices due to a mandated rule that kept him away from the NovaCare Complex until he graduated. But the injured corner returned to the building for Mandatory Minicamp, and the walking boot is off.
“Even just speaking to him this morning just from his standpoint, just being away is hard.” Eagles Head Coach Doug Pederson explained last week. “As athletes, as football players, they want to be involved. They want to be here. But just being back now and being in the meeting room, and being around the guys, watching practice, this is where he gets a lot of his mental reps going forward. It’s good to see him here, obviously, No. 1, and now it’s just a matter of getting him caught up and learning the defense as fast as he can.”
Mental reps will be crucial for Jones, who is clearly the long-term future at the position. But in terms of right now, it’s his sheer presence alone that could elevate the potential of those around him. It was clear from the moment that Jones was drafted, longevity was the name of the game. The Eagles sports science department believed fully that the nature of Jones’ injury and his age meant that the chances of a full recovery were well worth taking a chance on. Even though the former Washington standout may miss 2017, it’s that one fact alone that may spark some competitive fires.
|The draft is about the long-term interest of your football team.” Roseman stated after the team took Jones in the second round “If you go into it and say, ‘Hey, we have this open spot on our depth chart and we’ve got to fill it right now,’ we’re going to miss opportunities to get the best player. When we look at it, for us, whatever the timetable is with Sidney, when he gets back and he’s 100 percent, he makes a difference. He’s a difference maker at the corner position. For us, that’s something we’ve been looking for. It’s hard to get that guy, period, let alone with the 43rd pick in the draft.”
The remaining cornerbacks on the roster are well aware of two things:
It’s open season at every spot at the position:
It’s clear Jones was drafted to be a starter when healthy, but between now and then lies a world of uncertainty…and a group of players looking to capitalize on that opportunity. Whether it’s the likes of Aaron Grymes eventually earning nickel reps in Mandatory Minicamp, or Jalen Mills being named as the starter prior to the commencing of OTA’s, nothing is cemented when it comes to the Eagles 2017 cornerbacks. If Jones were healthy, there would be one less starting spot to worry about, and arguably two depending on how sure the Eagles are that Jalen Mills can be a reliable option on the outside. In a strange way, the absence of Jones has contributed heavily to what has been an intense cornerback battle so far.
2018 is a long way off, but there’s no time to be short-sighted:
Yes, Sidney Jones will return…and yes, he will likely start. But a lot can change between now and then. For guys like Rasul Douglas who are looked at as fringe starters alongside Patrick Robinson, this offseason and upcoming year is huge. There’s no need to rush Jones, and if the Eagles are comfortable with their starting tandem after this season, Jones still has to earn his cut of the meat just like everyone else. For corners who may be viewed as depth players at the moment, a chance to shine as a starter may be the difference between being kept on the roster next season, or potentially landing elsewhere due to overcrowding.
So far, OTA’s and Mandatory Minicamp have seen ruthless reps at corner. While there hasn’t been any finger-wagging just yet, there has been a fair share of assertive plays and aggressively natured plays. Not only that, but players have rotated perhaps more than any other spot on the roster. Mills and Robinson opened OTA’s as the outside starters, before the lengthy Rasul Douglas stepped up to the plate and Mills dropped into a slot role. But beyond the big names and even the familiar underdogs, there lie players driven to make the most of a very unique opportunity.
Take Jomal Wiltz for example. With 60 tackles in 24 career games as an Iowa State Cyclone, Wiltz showed just how dangerous he can be. Add to that 17 pass deflections and 271 kick return yards, and what you see is a player who can help the Eagles in more than one facet of the game. But it’s not just Wiltz who could help the Eagles…the Eagles have very much helped the undrafted free agent, acting as a perfect fit for his playing style. Something he broke down to us in an exclusive interview after being signed:
“As far as why I chose Philadelphia, well I looked at their roster, and saw that they play with guys my height (5’10), but they also love aggressive players, guys who are willing to hit, willing to make a play and that fits me perfectly. I had other chances for other teams, during the pre-draft process there were a few teams interested in me, but when it was all said and done, I felt like this is the best spot for me. I wanted to go somewhere I could really compete, and be who I am as a player, I think the coaches like my style of play, so it was really a no-brainer.”
For Wiltz, an opportunity to earn a roster spot as an undrafted free agent may never have come around if it wasn’t for Jones being kept out of action due to devastating injury. For players such as Mitchell White, a former Grey Cup winner with the Ottawa Red Blacks, his presence may not have been felt anywhere near as much if Jones was out lining up alongside fellow draftee, Rasul Douglas.
When it comes down to it, there is so much uncertainty at cornerback for this season that it’s leading to a Training Camp competition and preseason showdown like none other. But beyond that, things begin to stabilize. The likes of Ron Brooks and Patrick Robinson both fit that mold, two guys who don’t exactly have their long-term futures secured in Philadelphia, while Douglas, Mills and the “next generation” are chomping at the bit for an opportunity.
Next season, that new generation sees the most important piece of the puzzle added to the roster in Sidney Jones. It’s one less prove-it deal, one more long-term option in the defensive backfield. But who will be joining him remains a mystery…and in the strangest sense, the fact that Jones is sidelined during his rookie year has made this season that much more important for those looking to ensure their name will be called upon for the season’s beyond the one that lies ahead.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports