The ninth of 10 parts previewing the Eagles’ 90-man roster as the team continues to conduct virtual offseason workouts.
May 28: Wide receiver
May 29: Offensive line
June 1: Quarterback
June 2: Tight end
June 3: Running back
June 4: Defensive end
June 5: Defensive tackle
June 8: Linebacker
June 9: Cornerback
June 10: Safety
Who’s back: The Eagles invested four draft picks in the cornerback position from 2016 to 2018 and all four remain, although Jalen Mills is expected to return as a safety. His change of position and the departure of Ronald Darby – more on that later – allows for Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox, and Rasul Douglas to vie for a starting position at outside cornerback (The traded-for Darius Slay has a hold on the other). The Eagles likely anticipated Jones at one spot by this point in his career, but their 2017 second-round pick has failed to live up to expectations. This season could be his last chance.
Jones got a pass for 2017 when he missed most of the year after suffering a predraft Achilles tendon rupture. He got one, too, for 2018, which was ostensibly his rookie season. But his inability to claim a role on defense in 2019, even when the cornerback unit was besieged by injury, spoke to how defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and Eagles coaches viewed him.
Jones has the skills. He’s flashed at times, most notably when called upon for a few plays late in the season. But a small sample of plays does not a starter make. While injury was an issue two years ago, his confidence, or lack thereof, has apparently been an obstacle to consistency.
Former Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins alluded to Jones’ mental struggles before, but the Amazon series All or Nothing – aired in February -- would offer more proof when Jenkins told the young cornerback during one game, “Waiting for you to switch it on.”
The Eagles are hoping their patience pays off. Jones turned 24 just last month, after all. I thought that maybe they’d move him during the offseason. It can be hard for high draft picks who fail to perform initially in Philadelphia. A change of scenery could benefit Jones. But there is an opening if he wants it. I wouldn’t rule him out yet.
Maddox will likely enter training camp as the starter opposite Slay. That’s where he was when the season ended, and general manager Howie Roseman all but handed him the job during an interview with reporters following free agency.
The Eagles drafted Maddox to play primarily in the slot, but they have increasingly used him outside despite his relative lack of length. He may be only 5-foot-9, but he can compensate some with his speed and 37-inch vertical leap. He’s had mixed results lined up against outside receivers.
The Eagles like his confidence, but quarterbacks have taken advantage of his aggressiveness. But that aggressiveness has led to big plays. Maddox’s athleticism often gives him a chance to be around the ball. I’d be concerned about his lack of length – he also has short arms – against taller receivers, especially on jump-ball situations. But if Schwartz is to use more man coverage with Slay on board, it could play to Maddox’s strengths.
Maddox could always move back inside, but Nickell Robey-Coleman was signed in the offseason to likely fill that role. I liked what I saw out of Maddox at safety two years ago, but the Eagles clearly don’t envision him in that role – for now.
Rasul Douglas returns, albeit at a reduced salary, per reports. His name was routinely mentioned in predraft trade rumors, so the pay cut doesn’t come as much of a surprise, nor does the fact that the Eagles didn’t receive an enticing offer.
Douglas is a suitable reserve, but injuries forced him into the lineup on many occasions over the last two years, and he just didn’t have the skills to hold up over an extended period.
Douglas is like a lesser version of Mills. He’s solid on shorter routes but struggles when the ball is thrown over his head. He has the desired length but lacks long speed. His body type has had some fans wonder why the Eagles haven’t moved him to safety, but from what I understand, he doesn’t have enough bend in his hips to consistently handle two-way goes when lined up inside.
Douglas is a competent special-teams player. I’d expect him to make the 53-man roster for that reason alone.
Cre’Von LeBlanc missed the first 11 games of last season after he suffered a Lisfranc foot injury during camp, but the Eagles extended his contract for another year while he was out. He was pressed into the lineup late in the season and covered the slot but was targeted often, mercilessly by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the playoff loss. “Strap” is a fan favorite, mostly for his limited success a year earlier, but he’s not a lock to make the team if one of the undrafted rookies has some talent worth developing.
Craig James will always have his game-ending pass breakup against the Packers. He was active every game from that point forward but played almost exclusively on special teams. He’ll be fighting again for a job, as will Tremon Smith and Trevor Williams, who signed future contracts in January.
Who’s gone: After three injury-marred seasons, Ronald Darby left via free agency this offseason. He signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Redskins in April. Darby is only 26 and has enviable natural skills for a cornerback, but he was never consistent or healthy enough to warrant a long-term extension. He missed 23 of 54 games, including the playoffs, during his tenure in Philly. He can always say he was a starting corner on a Super Bowl-winning team, and maybe he finally pulls it all together in Washington, but the Eagles need corners they can rely on.
Who’s new: The Eagles were involved in the chase to sign Cowboys free agent Byron Jones, but their offer fell short of the Dolphins’ bid. Jones would have cost a lot, but he’s young, physically gifted, and has been durable in his NFL career. He wouldn’t come without concerns, namely the lack of forced turnovers and whether he would have been able to handle playing for a former divisional rival. The Eagles wasted little time addressing the glaring need for an established outside corner when they sent third- and fifth-round picks to the Lions for Darius Slay a day after missing out on Jones. They wisely signed the 29-year-old to a three-year, $50 million extension with $30.05 million guaranteed. That may sound like a lot considering his age, but Slay came with a year remaining on his deal with Detroit and the extension has no guarantee in base salary beyond 2021.
Slay might be regressing based on last season, but he was still a top-flight corner, especially when healthy and playing man defense. He was hampered by a hamstring strain at times last season.
Slay likes to travel with a team’s best receiver. His cover numbers might be skewed as a result. I watched nearly all of his snaps in 2019, and while he struggled a few weeks, he should be better than any corner the Eagles have had since Asante Samuel. He’s a lockdown defender, and I’d expect Schwartz -- who coached Slay for one season with the Lions -- to utilize man coverage more than he typically has in the past.
Slay did well last season against the Cowboys and receiver Amari Cooper; not so well against the Redskins’ Terry McLaurin. But one thing you can say about him is that he competes every down. He should help the Eagles’ defensive line have more time to pressure quarterbacks.
The signing of Nickell Robey-Coleman came as a bit of a surprise because the Eagles already had two slot corners in Maddox and LeBlanc. But with Maddox’s expected move outside, Robey-Coleman brings experience to the nickel spot. The Eagles acquired the 28-year-old for just an expense of one-year, $1.35 million, which doesn’t say much about his market value. But Robey-Coleman, who also played under Schwartz for a year in Buffalo, has been a reliable inside defender for seven NFL seasons. He also missed only one game to injury over that span.
The Eagles added four rookies after the draft. Grayland Arnold played both corner and safety at Baylor. He’s on the smaller side – 5-10, 187 – so corner could be his more likely landing in the NFL. Versatility has become so important in the secondary, and the line between positions blurred, so it might not even matter which title he’s given. Elijah Riley was a productive, physical corner at Army. His size – 5-11, 214 – could result in a full-time switch to safety. Prince Smith was a four-year starter at New Hampshire. Michael Jacquet of Louisiana-Lafayette started his collegiate career at receiver and moved to defensive back as a junior.