It’s been a while since the Eagles have had a sense of serenity in the secondary, but with week one of the 2019 season on the horizon, the team may have finally turned the corner.
The Eagles ranked 25th in interceptions last year and the man leading the team in that category wasn’t just a backup, but was shoved so far down the depth chart, that the team brought in Dexter McDougle off the street, who literally ran into Jordan Hicks on one play, before finally giving him a starting shot.
Allowing 4,308 passing yards (30th in the NFL) in 2018, the Eagles have battled cornerback criticism for quite some time now. But with a bucket full of healthy, young, talent, it seems as though a new era is about to begin. The only question is, how will Schwartz deploy his defensive backs? We were given our first real glimpse of things to come on Monday, when Doug Pederson spoke to reporters following the finalization of the 53-man roster.
“You’re going to have on game day two designated corners obviously, but they are all going to play. They are all going to have to play and I feel like that’s one of the areas that we got better this off-season and through training camp. The addition of [CB Ronald] Darby coming back is really going to give a shot in the arm to the defense and the cornerback position. So they are all going to play. And that’s kind of how we look at it.
Top two guys? Well, obviously going in, we’ll see where [CB Ronald] Darby is at at the end of the week. But Darby and [CB] Sidney [Jones] obviously could be the top two. [CB] Rasul [Douglas] is going to play quite a bit and [CB] Avonte [Maddox] is going to be in the mix at nickel, so all four guys are going to play.
The problem facing Schwartz is both unique and arguably positive. The Eagles have more talent than they know what to do with. It was always assumed that Ronald Darby was going to resume his CB1 duties when healthy, but there’s no guarantee he will be in a position to carry a full game’s workload on his shoulders to begin with. However, it’s the remaining two positions that cause the headache.
Sidney Jones is now entering his third year in the NFL, but has played in just 10 games thus far. The Washington product started last season replacing Patrick Robinson and did so very promisingly. A series of big games were followed by the typical ‘rookie’ struggles that all defensive backs struggle with, but he flashed that elite potential once more. Through the opening three games playing inside, Jones had allowed 8 receptions on 14 targets, which is quite impressive, all things considered. But then that bad omen returned and his season ended with yet more durability setbacks that partnered a slump in form.
This offseason though, Jones has been one of the stars of the show. The 24-year old made what felt like ‘a play every day’ throughout Training Camp and with Jalen Mills still on the PUP list, the natural step up to becoming a full-time CB2 makes sense here. The Eagles did invest a second-round pick in Jones after all.
In the nickel, it looks as though Avonte Maddox will be given the reins and with good reason. The 5’9 corner is a little undersized, lending himself very nicely to the position where he terrorized offenses at Pitt.
During his rookie year, Maddox excelled wherever he was lined up. Nickel, Safety, outside, it didn’t matter. Speedy, willing and as reactive as a nuclear weapon, he piled up three pass breakups to go along with his five solo tackles in the team’s wildcard win last year, before recording eight total tackles (six solo) and tacked on another pass breakup for good measure against the Saints, somewhat stopping their high-octane offense. Maddox was one of the team’s biggest defensive standouts last year and the team need to get him on the field as often as possible. It’s back to familiar territory for Maddox, but that same saying can be applied to another corner.
The West Virginia Ballhawk who led the Eagles in interceptions last year, enjoyed a stellar offseason, like Jones. But just like last year, where the Eagles seemingly exhausted every other avenue before giving Rasul Douglas a legitimate shot when depth was minimal, he’s on the outside looking in.
In two weeks, McDougle, who was signed off the street, played 106 snaps on defense, proving to be a liability in most. Douglas, a former third-round pick, meanwhile had played in 94 through 8 games up to that point.
Douglas totaled four games with 9+ tackles in his return to the Eagles defense, not to mention leading the team in interceptions with 3. He’s not as polished as Darby, or as consistent in tackling as Mills, but flashes starting quality was visible in every game he played.
If Ronald Darby is planning to test free agency waters next year, it would hurt the Eagles to let Douglas stagnate on the bench…but it would also hurt the team from another aspect.
They’re unusually blessed with a variety of skill sets at corner and this isn’t taking into account the recently extended Cre’Von LeBlanc or injured Jalen Mills. With LeBlanc placed on IR, there’s a strong chance that Orlando Scandrick returns to the fold by week 2. A veteran nickel corner who amassed 13 passes defensed last year in Kansas City, a career-high.
The Eagles have rapid corners in Darby and Maddox, and rangy athletes in Jones and Douglas. They have thumping tacklers in Rasul Douglas and sticky cover-corners in their CB1.
There’s every chance that we see a more matchup-dependent based secondary this year. It makes sense, right? We already see it at wide receiver and running back, and to an extent cornerbacks on other teams who shadow #1 receivers. But we know how forward-thinking this team is and if it means switching personnel when down inside the red zone in order to neutralize bigger targets, or bringing on quicker corners in third and long to ensure they break to the ball and take away those pesky underneath routes, I think there’s a strong chance we begin to see a lot more movement in the defensive backfield than we have in previous years.