The Philadelphia Eagles have shocked the world by storming out of the gate to an 8-1 record. Overcoming every roadblock, every setback and every challenge set before them, this team has done nothing but impress on a weekly basis. The hardships started early on for the Eagles, as the team lost newly acquired starting cornerback Ronald Darby to injury in the first game of the season. The good news is that the former Buffalo Bill is almost ready to return to action. The bad news is, the team have to figure out how to get him on the field.
In comparison to last season, this Eagles secondary is a completely revamped unit. Just one year removed from giving up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more this season, the most in the NFL, the Birds are still giving up an average of 245 yards per game. The difference this year, is that there is a confidence in tackling, security, and a sense of reliance on a very young and hungry cornerback group. There are no more trips and slips from Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll, no more burns that force fans to turn their heads away. The Eagles cornerback corps are playing with a tremendous sense of discipline and considering that the group consists of a third-round pick, a second-year corner who was a seventh-round pick one year ago, and a veteran who many speculated to be cut prior to the end of pre-season…that says a lot about the strength of development and coaching.
Jim Schwartz has given his corners a lifeline this year with the help of off-coverage looks. Having Mills and Douglas sat on a 10-yard cushion enables the corners to dissect the play instinctively as well as give them more time to make a well-judged decision. In fact, it took until this weekend for the Eagles to begin lining up in press-coverage more aggressively. Confidence is flowing within this unit as the corners make plays week in and week out.
So, what happens when Ronald Darby returns? The Eagles are flooded with cornerback depth (not to mention Sidney Jones waiting in the wings) and it’s no easy decision to rip out a cornerback who has earned every last snap of the starting job.
Let’s start with the obvious, Jalen Mills isn’t going anywhere. The LSU product has come on leaps and bounds since his rookie season and is now tied for the lead in team interceptions. Jalen Mills has always been a confident tackler willing to help in the run, so partnering that with a heightened sense of awareness and positioning and what you have is a corner who can jump routes at the point of the catch and keep the play ahead of him. Teams have tried to throw everything they have in the way of Jalen Mills this year, but the Green Goblin has made very few mistakes in a year where number one wideouts and expositions waiting to happen have been hard to come by.
Inside, Patrick Robinson. The most consistent cornerback on the roster is also the most underrated. Now tied with Mills in interceptions (3), Robinson has made the nickel role his own. Keeping big tight ends and slot wideouts at bay, the clean back-pedal and ability to bat passes down has given the Eagles secondary a surge in momentum throughout the year. The Wiley veteran has been more than just a pleasant surprise for this Defense, emerging as one of the team’s most impactful players, constantly coming up with big plays and consistent coverage.
“I think he’s performed at a really high level.” Jim Schwartz said of Robinson earlier in the year. “He’s really taken that position over. He’s limited his focus to that position. I think that’s helped, also, and has quietly done his job. I mean, sort of offensive tackles, maybe quiet is a good word. Corners, it can be a good one. Certainly don’t want to be quiet when it comes to pass break ups or interceptions or things like that, but he’s given us good, consistent play.”
The one thing Robinson has working against him is his contract. A prove-it deal was signed during the offseason, keeping Robinson in Philly for one year only. While Douglas and Mills are likely in the team’s long-term plans, what happens to Robinson remains a mystery…and we’ll get to why that’s important soon.
Then, there’s the wildcard. Rookie cornerback, Rasul Douglas. The third-round pick out of West Virginia was thrown into the deep end this season and has done more than swim to safety. With a pair of picks to his name, Douglas has turned heads all season. His ‘dinner’ tendencies see him consistently battle at the point of the catch, swatting balls away and delivering hard hits wherever possible.
“Yeah, Rasul’s physical too.” Doug Pederson said after the week nine win. “He’s another one that’s on the perimeter, being able to get these guys down. A year ago, you probably would say we weren’t making those tackles, and this year, we are. So, again, it’s confidence, but you’ve got to work at it.”
Douglas and Mills have both been exceptional this season, especially considering their circumstance and the pressure mounted on them. Would the Eagles risk stagnating the rapid development of two potential starters in order to bring Ronald Darby back into the picture? Is it worth it at such a crucial stage of the year?
“Yeah, he’s really — last week, he really got more reps in practice, and even though it was limited, it was almost full last week too.” Pederson explained when asked about the progress of Darby. “He’s another one that will be around, working on his treatment and his rehab, and we’ll see where we’re at next week when they get back. We’ll evaluate it some more. But he’s in a really good spot to possibly come back and help us here in the next week or so.”
Bringing Darby back into action slowly certainly seems to be the best bet, but who is going to take the back seat? Moving Mills back to CB2 and shifting Douglas into the role currently inherited by Jaylen Watkins (CB/S) could well be an option…but it could also be their only one without making a former starter inactive. Removing Robinson out of the nickel is too much of a risk and sitting Jalen Mills is a non-option.
The other option is going all in on the future. Jalen Mills has previous experience inside and if Schwartz feels confident enough in his abilities, starting Darby, Douglas and Mills inside is the perfect way to develop the three corners who are almost certain to carry over into next season, while Robinson’s status (which is up in the air) is put on the afterburner…for now. The issue with that is that Mills is not a slot cornerback and has proven as such. The drop-off in reliability in press from Robinson to Mills is huge…and all of a sudden, just like the WR group last year, the Eagles are left with a CB group with their oldest player having just three year’s experience.
Ronald Darby brings starting talent to the Eagles, there’s no denying that…but at what cost? The Eagles have seem such huge strides from both Douglas and Mills that extinguishing that fire in the hopes of igniting a fresh one almost seems counter-productive given how fragile this season has the potential to become.
If Darby is still limited in practice, there is no need to hurry him back to action. The Eagles have proven that their secondary is already lightyears ahead of what we saw last year and the terrifying part is that the best is yet to come. But how the Eagles decide to bring Darby back into action could have severe implications on the success of the secondary over the remainder of the season.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports