Trevard Lindley was the first cornerback Howie Roseman acquired as general manager. His on-again, off-again, four-year relationship with the Eagles was a cruel reminder of a wasted draft pick.
Chosen in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, Lindley played sparingly and ineffectively as a rookie. He was released before the next season but would be re-signed and released two more times before finally exiting for good in August 2013.
Other NFL teams have similarly given their own picks repeated chances. But Lindley spent two whole seasons on the street without being claimed by another franchise until he popped up back on the Eagles like a bad penny.
In retrospect, the Lindley selection foretold a decade of questionable cornerback evaluations, free-agent signings, and trades by Roseman and his staff. It has been, in all fairness to those who fixate on the team’s struggles at wide receiver, a blind spot.
The Eagles once had some consistency at the position. From 1996 to 2009, they had essentially just five starting outside cornerbacks. But in 10 years since, there have been a dozen, the number significantly higher when injuries are factored into the equation.
Poor drafts begat free-agent signings, from extravagant to economical, that haven’t solved the problem. The Eagles found a feasible tandem in recent seasons, enough to win a Super Bowl, if not in spite of, but Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills haven’t been reliable enough to guarantee their returns in 2020.
Both could leave via free agency this offseason. The Eagles had prepared for that eventuality. But recent draftees Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Avonte Maddox, to a lesser extent, haven’t shown enough to be labeled obvious replacements.
“I’m not trying to stick my head in the sand. I know there are a couple positions here that are a focal point, and I understand the reason for that,” Roseman said when asked last week about the Eagles’ problems at cornerback. “I think that we’ve got to get with our staff and decide kind of what we’re going to do going forward, but also look at any way we possibly can improve the team, and that’s an important position.
“You see it, when you have a guy who can really kind of take over and take one side of the field, but those guys are hard to find. They don’t kind of grow on trees. My favorite joke here is that I can’t go out of the NovaCare Complex and pick one off a branch.”
Shutdown cornerbacks are difficult to find. The increasing benefit given to offenses by the league, particularly quarterbacks and wide receivers, has made the margin of error in coverage perhaps the smallest among all positions. But that doesn’t excuse the Eagles’ inability to find, at the least, a long-term starter.
Darby, who was acquired before the 2017 season in a trade with the Bills, had some highs in Philly. But he had as many lows and missed 26 of a possible 54 games, including the playoffs, because of injuries. The Eagles are likely to let the 26-year-old walk when free agency opens in March.
There is a more valid argument for bringing the 25-year-old Mills back. While he did miss 16 games over the last two seasons with a foot injury, he has been, overall, more durable and consistent.
Mills has his faults. He lacks speed and is susceptible to the long ball or to short ones when he plays soft to account for the deficiency. But he has strong ball skills, tackles well, and has the confidence and short memory necessary to play on the outside in the NFL.
He may not be a No. 1 corner, but he’s a serviceable No. 2. The same can’t be said of Jones or Douglas, at least based upon their performances in 2019. There were flashes of competence, but coordinator Jim Schwartz’s reluctance to use either at various points in the season, even after injuries, spoke volumes.
“When you talk about some of these young players, they also got some great experience,” Roseman said. “Proud of them and the way they competed. Talk about a guy like Sidney, a guy that had so much adversity in his first couple years and came in at the end of the season and really played well. Rasul is a guy who is tremendously competitive.”
But neither Jones nor Douglas saw the field on defense in the Eagles’ 17-9 playoff loss to the Seahawks. Maddox started alongside Mills and Cre’Von LeBlanc played slot corner. The Eagles defense, as a whole, performed well in the game, but Maddox was beaten for a DK Metcalf 53-yard touchdown catch, and LeBlanc allowed five catches for 101 yards when targeted.
Maddox’s more natural position is slot. He is likely to move back inside next season, although the Eagles may want to try him at safety with Malcolm Jenkins’ and Rodney McLeod’s futures unknown.
Nevertheless, of the 12 cornerbacks drafted by the Eagles over the last decade, Maddox may prove to be the best selection given the fourth-round expenditure. Mills, a seventh rounder, currently wears that dubious crown.
Mills dropped in the draft partly because of off-the-field concerns, partly because of an ankle injury. But like Lindley, he had an accomplished resumé playing in an elite conference (SEC), unlike many of the Eagles’ other drafted cornerbacks.
Lindley, likewise, fell down draft boards because of an injury-plagued senior season. Slight at 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, the Kentucky product was neither explosive nor physical enough to stay with NFL outside receivers. His career ended after a brief stint in the Canadian Football League and then the Fall Experimental Football League.
Curtis Marsh was another of Roseman’s “upside” picks, where skill production was valued higher than actual production. The Utah State product had more speed and size than Lindley, but he began his collegiate career at running back and was on few NFL boards when the Eagles drafted him in the third round.
Like Lindley, Marsh played scarcely and didn’t make an impression. He was released after two seasons, and while he had short stints with other teams, he returned to the Eagles only to be cast aside once more before his career effectively ended.
Roseman did not expend a pick higher than the fourth round on a corner over the next three drafts. Eric Rowe was chosen in the second round in 2015, the highest pick the Eagles would use on a corner since Lito Sheppard was taken in the first round in 2002, but then-coach Chip Kelly had authority over that draft.
In 2017, a year after he regained personnel control, Roseman drafted Jones in the second round. Many other NFL evaluators had the Washington product as a can’t-miss prospect. But Jones had suffered an Achilles rupture before the draft and dropped.
The Eagles gambled, knowing that he wouldn’t be ready for a year. But Roseman once again placed great worth in the potential return.
But Jones, also slight at 6-foot, 180 pounds, has yet to find his footing. He started in the slot, but a reoccurring hamstring injury cut into his 2018 season. He opened 2019 in a part-time outside role but fell down the depth chart for various reasons and didn’t play at all in four games, two as a healthy scratch.
Jones had pivotal pass breakups when called upon late in December games with playoff implications. But a couple of plays do not an every-down cornerback make. Jones doesn’t turn 24 until May, which could either buy him time with the Eagles or make him attractive to another team.
If Jones leaves, the Eagles would likely need to add an established veteran or trade for one — again. They may need to either way. Their record in free agency over the last decade has been subpar. Corners such as Nnamdi Asomugha, Bradley Fletcher, Cary Williams, Byron Maxwell, Nolan Carroll, and Leodis McKelvin failed to Band-Aid draft failures.
There is little evidence to suggest that coaching has been the problem, although the Eagles will be able to test that theory this offseason. Cory Undlin was hired by the Lions last week to be their defensive coordinator, creating a vacancy at cornerbacks coach.
The Eagles have acquired, in total, nearly 70 cornerbacks since 2010, but few have left to succeed elsewhere. Rowe and Jordan Poyer, a seventh-round pick in 2013, thrived in other environments, but mostly as converted safeties.
Chandon Sullivan, who was added to the injury-riddled secondary late last year, has flourished in a reserve role for the Packers, but the sample’s too small to suggest that the Eagles let a big fish get away.
While there are few bona fide shutdown corners in the NFL, there are many capable ones. Of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, only the 49ers can claim to have a stud (Richard Sherman) on one side. But the three other teams have at least one solid starter — Adoree’ Jackson for the Titans, Charvarius Ward for the Chiefs, and Jaire Alexander for Green Bay — on the outside.
Roseman and his staff have done well to address the most important positions on the field — quarterback and both lines. But cornerback isn’t far behind, and to not be able to find even one lasting starter has been a longtime weakness.