The Eagles made some big moves last offseason in order to completely reshape the secondary. In the blink of an eye, the likes of Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll were gone and in their place was a new core of players built to succeed with the long-term future in mind. But as we head into the second year of this cornerback rebuild, the Eagles will again face some interesting problems and none of them are particularly bad.
The X-Factor in which direction the Eagles secondary will grativate toward is Patrick Robinson. The veteran corner signed a prove-it deal during the offseason and after some teething problems in Training Camp, it was the arrival of Ronald Darby that would completely change his future.
The Eagles quickly shifted Robinson inside due to overcrowding at the position and it became blindingly obvious that the nickel spot is where the 29-year old belongs. Robinson would remain there for the regular season and go on to have a season that nearly mirrored what we saw two years ago.
During the 2017 regular season, Robinson recorded 47 tackles and matched a career high in interceptions (4) and passes defensed (18). That interception number could have been much higher however, with several quite literally slipping through his hands. There is no doubting that Robinson was one of the key defensive standouts in the Eagles miraculous Super Bowl run. As consistent as can be, Robinson rarely put a foot wrong and gave the Eagles enough flexibility to bring Malcolm Jenkins down into the box and really get the most out of their franchise safety, as opposed to forcing him into the nickel role where he spent the majority of 2016 in absence of Ron Brooks.
Robinson’s contract is now up however and nobody really knows what the future holds. If the Eagles decide to give Robinson an extension, which would absolutely be a strong move if they can somehow make it work in their favor (being -$9M in the red when it comes to cap space plays a big role here), they then have another interesting debate.
Sidney Jones will be fully healthy. The rookie spent the entire season watching from the sideline, gaining mental reps and working closely with Cory Undlin to prepare for what would be a week 17 NFL debut against the Dallas Cowboys. A game in which Jones was able to showcase just how high his ceiling really is.
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 in the second round.
“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 alonewith the 43rd pick in the draft.”
It would be right to assume then that Jones will walk into his second season looking to a starting role…which becomes the next domino. If Patrick Robinson is still on the team, then does Jalen Mills suddenly become the odd man out? It would be almost heartbreaking to see after the former seventh round pick was thrown into the deep end during his rookie season and not only swam to safety, but has seemingly developed a backstroke and some choreographed aquatic dance moves.
With 3 interceptions and 14 passes defensed (doubling his rookie season total), Mills has even amassed 3 more tackles than his 61 as a rookie despite playing in one game less. Mills entered this season as the team’s number two cornerback while Sidney Jones rehabbed his heartbreaking injury…but even that didn’t last long.
Ronald Darby went down with an injury scare of his own in week one, forcing him to miss half of his first campaign in Midnight Green. This once again elevated Jalen Mills to the number one spot. Covering elite receivers and perfecting his off-coverage technique, Mills has come a long way since his rookie days. A key breakup that sealed the deal against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game will stand out to many, but his heart and resilience should be just as poignant. No corner was targeted more than the former LSU standout in 2017 as teams looked to exploit the weak link in the secondary, but the more they backed the Dog against the wall, the more its bite became worse than its bark.
The unpopular option here then would be to cash in on Jalen Mills after a stunning sophomore campaign, retaining Jones and Darby as starters, penning Patrick Robinson to a new contract. This isn’t likely, but a this stage you can certainly make the case for Mills having more value in a trade than Ronald Darby due to age, durability and recent production.
The smartest option for the Eagles would be to get their best three cornerbacks on the field. Jalen Mills played plenty of snaps from the slot during his rookie season and it’s arguable that his skillset would be more suited to that role, given his physicality and desire to get down and dirty with big hits and secure tackles. That would allow Mills, Jones and Darby all to play at the same time.
However, here’s catch-22. Ronald Darby has one year left on his contract with the Eagles and will be sniffing for an extension, enter the next domino. Would the Eagles seek to cash in on Darby, who missed eight games with an injury in his first season as an Eagle, while value is there and use that saving to retain Patrick Robinson, fielding a combo of Jones, Mills and Robinson, or instead let Darby ride out his contract and potentially walk into free agency?
If the Eagles proceed to part ways with either Darby or Robinson, they’re certainly going to need re-enforcements. Beyond a wildly impressive Rasul Douglas, the Eagles have a lack of starter-ready or even backup-ready depth at the position. In recent years, the team turned to the CFL for names such as Mitchell White and Aaron Grymes to compete during Training Camp, but with such a deep cornerback class this year, it would behoove the Eagles to try and grab a late steal. (We’ll have plenty of cornerback prospect analysis and interviews with some potential targets so don’t panic).
It’s safe to say that the secondary that soared high above expectations in 2017 may have a very different look as we head into the depths of the offseason…but will that be for better or worse? The answer to that lies in the hands of Howie Roseman.
Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports