One thing we at least think we know as the April 29-May 1 NFL draft approaches: The Eagles, with four picks in the two days that encompass the draft’s first three rounds, will head into Day 3 having drafted at least one potential starting cornerback. Their top pick, 12th overall, seems likely to be either a corner or a receiver.
The need at corner is obvious and perennial. The Eagles have 30-year-old Darius Slay on one side and a question mark on the other. Avonte Maddox showed last season that he is not a solid starter, at least not at an outside post. The last Pro Bowl corner the Eagles drafted was Lito Sheppard in 2002. The last time they started two really good corners was in 2009, Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown.
How long ago was that? Well, Asante Samuel Jr. is a likely second- or third-round corner in this draft.
Accordingly, you see the Eagles linked to Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn, corners many draft experts project to be among the top 10 or 15 selections. You don’t hear all that much, though, about them drafting the player who was considered the top corner in this draft class just a few months back.
That player would be Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, who opted out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns, then couldn’t participate in his school’s pro day last month after undergoing a second procedure to eliminate back pain. The first took place following the 2019 season.
Before you toss your newspaper/smartphone/tablet device across the room and lay siege to NovaCare brandishing MRIs of Sidney Jones’ legs, Farley expects to be fully healthy by the time training camp starts. He shouldn’t need a medical redshirt year as Jones essentially did after his Achilles tear dropped him to the Eagles in the second round in 2017. Jones, still talented but still battling leg muscle injuries that have kept him well short of expectations, now plays in Jacksonville.
Is Farley’s back problem worrisome long-term? A medical source who has worked with pro teams said that if Farley isn’t experiencing symptoms now, he wouldn’t downgrade him in the draft. But draft experts are placing Farley somewhere in the 20s overall, considerably below where he was projected when draft season began. Also lurking in the background is an ACL tear that caused Farley to miss the 2017 season.
NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah’s most recent mock draft envisions the Tennessee Titans taking Farley 22nd overall.
“I view Farley as one of the top five players in the draft, but he’s likely to slide a bit,” Jeremiah wrote in his explanation.
It isn’t outlandish to think Farley might be the Eagles’ choice at 12 if Surtain and Horn are gone, or that the Eagles might trade back a bit again, accumulating more assets, then take him later in the first.
Some NFL evaluators have groused anonymously about trying to figure out what it meant that 151 prospects sat out 2020. Among the top corners, Surtain played in 13 games. Horn played in seven, then opted out after South Carolina fired head coach Will Muschamp in November.
Farley had a pretty good reason for not playing. His mother, Robin, died of breast cancer in 2018. Farley found unthinkable the idea that he could bring a COVID-19 infection home to his father, Robert.
“I cannot afford to lose another parent or loved one,” he said in a video announcing his decision.
Farley reportedly was given a clean bill of health recently when 150 prospects with potential medical issues were examined in Indianapolis as a substitute for the evaluations that would normally have taken place at the canceled scouting combine. But in a normal year, the Eagles’ doctors would have been able to do their own evaluation.
“You’re not going to trust the medical as much [in this draft],” an AFC personnel executive predicted in an interview last month.
Farley, fast and fluid at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, knows that the combination of opting out then undergoing a back procedure that kept him from being able to post eye-popping pro day numbers probably will affect how high he goes. He still expects to have the career he envisioned back when scouts were raving about the 26.8 opposing quarterback passer rating he compiled in 2019. That was only his second year at corner, by the way; Farley was a quarterback at tiny Maiden (N.C.) High, and went to Virginia Tech as a wide receiver.
“Being blessed with a lot of abilities I’m blessed with, I put a [lot] on my pro day,” Farley said last month after watching teammates work out for scouts. “Unfortunately, I’m not running. I can’t say why this has happened the way it’s happened. It’s not something I would have chosen. I really think it was a lack of information from myself, not having the time to experiment with my body.”
In other words, he didn’t understand until recently that his lingering sciatica would require more surgery. He could have gotten the second procedure earlier had he known.
“All my life I’ve dreamed of having a pro day. I’ve dreamed of running the 40 at the combine,” Farley said. “I truly try to find a way where I’m not bitter about the situation or frustrated because it’s out of my control.”
Farley said he didn’t reinjure himself. He said he played the 2019 season with a herniated L5 disc and an S1 bulge. Those are the two components of the sacral joint at the base of the spine. His original surgery was to fix the L5, with the idea that the S1 would get better on its own. Ultimately it didn’t.
“I got a great report from Dr. [Robert] Watkins about the season,” Farley said, referring to the spine surgeon. “Really, the only negative about the situation is not being able to go put up the numbers that I [envisioned].”
The medical source who has worked with pro teams said that, in the short term, Farley should have good function but that he would be concerned about longevity, and about the possibility that Farley would have to modify his weightlifting regimen to the point that it could affect conditioning.
Farley said: “My mentality and my abilities are special. … When the teams look at the imaging and get the real information, I don’t think [the back procedure] will be an issue. I accepted my draft invite, so I’ll be in Cleveland. If a team wants the best corner in the draft, they’ll come find me.”