As training camp beckons, there are still plenty of questions to be answered for the Super Bowl champions. Perhaps the most interesting of all is ‘what happens at cornerback?’ Not only do the Eagles need to find a replacement for Patrick Robinson in the nickel, who was one of the team’s biggest standouts last year, but there’s also the issue of having more talent than they know what to do with.
2017 saw the secondary take on a new identity. Just one year after giving up more deep passes than any defense in the NFL, Jim Schwartz adapted a new philosophy. Playing his DB’s further away from the ball in off-coverage, it favored the ‘click-and-close’ and tackling traits of both Darby and Mills, giving both time to diagnose the play, without giving up the home-run. Both players were absolutely outstanding when on the field, and third-round pick Rasul Douglas filled in valiantly in the time Darby was injured. But as the Birds attempt to repeat that excellence, there’s a new challenge that awaits a developing position.
As of right now, the Eagles cornerback corps is stacked to the brim with young and emerging talent, with the oldest CB on the roster is just 25 years of age. Some of these players are entering crucial seasons that will decide their long-term future, while others are simply hoping to begin their NFL journey. No matter how you look at it, there will be plenty up for grabs when camp begins. Here’s a quick look of how the depth chart might look.
Some will naturally question why Sidney Jones isn’t starting. Others will wonder why Bausby is stashed behind Maddox. The answers to all of these will all present themselves when camp begins. The truth is, nobody knows how this cornerback corps is going to shake out. The X-factor in this top-to-bottom battle is a second-year player who showed all the signs of becoming the elite playmaker he was labelled as prior to the 2017 NFL draft.
That man, is Sidney Jones. After missing most of his rookie year due to an Achilles injury that pushed him down the draft board and into the lap of Philadelphia to begin with, he put on quite the show in week 17 against the Cowboys. With Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills both looking to retain starting roles, it will not only be extremely interesting to see whether or not Jones can snatch a starting role, but have a direct impact on how the rest of the position shakes out.
“Well, I think definitely in the mix.” Doug Pederson said of the cornerback’s potential to earn a starting role. “What he did towards the end of last season and had a chance to get in that last game there with Dallas really, I think, boosted his confidence going into this off-season. Now that he’s had a full off-season now with [defensive backs] coach [Cory] Undlin and [Defensive Coordinator Jim] Schwartz’s defense, he’s definitely going to be in the mix.”
During OTA’s, Jones lined up in the nickel and left jaws dropped to say the least. Whether it was going stride-for-stride with Nelson Agholor, or breaking up key passes, Jones showed plenty of promise during the very early stages of the Eagles offseason program. If Jones is capable of playing inside, it not only adds another level of versatility to his game and secures him defensive playing time as a starter, but ensures that the team can still put trust in Mills and Darby as the outside starters.
The problem (if you can call it that) for Jim Schwartz is trying to find the best way to get the most talented corners on the field. The drafting of Avonte Maddox in this year’s draft, a corner who is poised to be a perfect fit for the nickel role due to his size and playing style, further complicates that process. Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned everyone’s favorite sleeper, De’Vante Bausby, who essentially stole the OTA spotlight by making huge plays day after day.
Ronald Darby is entering his finally contracted year and the Eagles will soon have to make a decision now whether or not they pay Jalen Mills like the CB2 he’s become. The Salary cap has long been a concern for this franchise and the current shape of the roster ensure that it will play a huge role moving forward. It’s likely that at least one spot on the depth chart frees up within the next 24 months so finding the successors would be wise. But do the Eagles milk every last drop out the current starters if they are prepared to lose them, potentially stagnating the growth of first-round talent Sidney Jones and even Rasul Douglas if the team decide to push Maddox inside, or do they approach things differently?
Everything is up for grabs and an ‘Iron sharpens Iron’ Training Camp is bound to throw up some surprises. Maybe Bausby will throw enough caution to the wind to start a minor hurricane. Perhaps it will be Avonte Maddox who solidifies his role as a starting nickel cornerback, or maybe Sidney Jones will bump Jalen Mills, a corner who has played inside during his time at LSU, back closer to the line of scrimmage.
We haven’t even discussed this concept yet…
Whichever way you look, there’s a surprise waiting to happen. Yes, this team is defending their Super Bowl crown, but that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from positional competition. It wouldn’t be remotely shocking to see a completely different cornerback group take to the field against the Falcons than we are all anticipating. Schwartz always seems to have an ace up his sleeve and now he has more talent than he knows what to do with. Are we going to see a surprise trade, or will we even see a refreshed cornerback corps?
Regardless of how the battle for cornerback supremacy pans out, the stage has been set for a truly intense Training Camp.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports