The seventh of eight parts previewing the Eagles’ roster before organized team activities start May 21.
Here is the preview schedule, with links to previous installments:
Who’s back: Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Josh Hawkins (Jeremiah McKinnon from practice squad)
The Eagles brought back every cornerback from last season, hoping that better health and more experience will be the answer at the position.
The biggest move they made was re-signing Ronald Darby, who tore his ACL in Week 10 last season. The Eagles kept Darby on a one-year, $8.5 million contract and will be patient during his recovery. Darby said during a March conference call that his goal is to be back for Week 1. When healthy, Darby has the skill set to be a high-level starting cornerback, but he hasn’t spent enough time healthy in an Eagles uniform. This contract gives him a chance to reset his value. The Eagles have the depth to wait for him, and the best Darby contributions might not come until the back half of the season.
Jalen Mills is back for his fourth season after missing eight games with a foot injury. Doug Pederson said Mills might not return until training camp, so he’s another player whose health must be monitored. Mills drew criticism, but he’s a player the coaching staff and teammates trust. My guess is the starting job remains his to lose.
“One of the reasons we had a big parade on Broad Street was Jalen Mills,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
However, Mills will have competition.
The Eagles have been waiting on Sidney Jones to develop into a top cornerback since taking him in the second round in 2017. They waited through his recovery from a torn Achilles tendon as a rookie, but his 2018 season was again abbreviated by injuries. Now entering his third year, the discussion can no longer center on what Jones is capable of doing for the Eagles. He must perform. The Eagles liked the way Jones played in the slot last year, but if Jones reaches his potential in the NFL, it will be as a standout cornerback on the outside.
“You’ve got to be patient with young players in this league,” top executive Howie Roseman said. “We’ve seen it with Brandon Graham, we’ve seen it with Nelson Agholor, we’ve seen that it doesn’t always click right away with everyone. But when they have the right fortitude, when they have the talent in their body, there’s a chance for it to click. And that’s what Sidney has. He’s a determined guy, with a good work ethic and a talented guy. We won’t judge that pick right now and we’ll let it play out.”
The Eagles selected Rasul Douglas one round after Jones in 2016, and he’s proven to be a valuable spot starter for the Eagles during the past two years. He’s started 12 games and he has five interceptions. The Eagles view Douglas as an outside cornerback, so he’s not someone they’ll play in the slot and he’ll only play safety in emergency situations. Considering the injuries to Mills and Darby and the injury history of Jones, Douglas is an important player for the Eagles.
Avonte Maddox emerged last season as a contributor after the Eagles selected him in the fourth round. His versatility was his best attribute – Maddox played cornerback, slot, and safety last season. Look for the Eagles to continue using him around the defensive formation. Despite his size, he showed that he can handle the outside. I think safety might be the best long-term play for him. But the fact that there’s a discussion is a good sign, and with the Eagles often using six defensive backs, Maddox should find his way onto the field.
Then there’s Cre’Von LeBlanc, a midseason addition last year who established himself as the Eagles’ slot cornerback. There was much to like with LeBlanc, whose toughness and coverage skills endeared him to teammates and coaches. He’ll be on the roster and should compete for playing time, but the slot could be crowded with Jones and Maddox. Still, I’d expect LeBlanc to get playing time on defense this year.
Who’s new: Jay Liggins
The Eagles did not sign any veteran free agent cornerbacks, and they did not address the position in the draft. They signed Jay Liggins as an undrafted rookie. The Dickinson State product is unlikely to make the 53-man roster.
Who’s gone: n/a