It seems inconsequential to write about NFL free agency in the shadow of a global pandemic, but the Eagles desperately need able-bodied cornerbacks.
Even the coronavirus, it seems, won’t stop them from signing a free-agent cornerback when the new league year opens Wednesday.
The probability that the Eagles could dramatically transform their roster in days exists. And acquiring top free-agent cornerback Byron Jones would qualify as transformative, if not on the field, certainly in how the team allocates its salary cap.
The Eagles haven’t been high-stake players in free agency since 2015, and when general manager Howie Roseman has run personnel, not since 2011. Roseman has signed his share of free agents since that disastrous “Dream Team” offseason, but he has managed to avoid overpaying top-of-the-market talent.
Dire times call for drastic measures, however, and he is expected to be in the bidding for Jones, who spent his first five seasons with the Cowboys. Roseman indicated last month at the combine that the Eagles’ approach to free agency will be different than it was in previous seasons, when they focused on signing veterans to shorter-term deals.
Jones will likely warrant a long-term commitment and an investment that could make the 27-year-old the highest-paid corner in the league. He will have suitors. The New York Giants and Redskins have been reported as teams of interest. Competition could drive Jones’ yearly salary to upward of $17 million.
Is he worth it? In terms of cost-benefit analysis, probably not. Jones, by most assessments, hasn’t been a top-tier talent for an extended period. He’s not a shutdown corner, although those types are an endangered species in today’s pass-happy NFL.
But Jones has performed significantly better than any Eagles corner in recent history, and the existing options on the roster have given little reason to expect a sudden improvement. Roseman and his staff must evaluate whether he is a fit, both in scheme and in character, but on the surface, he should be an upgrade.
Jones has desirable size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds). He’s athletic. His combine performance five years ago was freakish, as he set the world broad-jump record of 12 feet, 3 inches. He is versatile, having played outside, in the slot ,and at safety.
He spent the last two seasons exclusively on the outside. Jones was voted to his lone Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro in 2018. His numbers declined – he went from 67 tackles and 14 pass breakups in 2018 to 44 and 6 in 2019 – but he also saw fewer targets (from 83 to 53, per Pro Football Focus).
Jones is a sure tackler for his position – he missed only four attempts from 2018 to 2019, per PFF – and has missed only one game in five seasons. If there’s a justified knock on Jones, it’s the lack of forced turnovers. He has only two interceptions and three forced fumbles in his career.
But it’s not as if the Eagles had been getting significantly more production from their corners in terms of impact plays. In the last two seasons, the Eagles’ top five cornerbacks averaged just over one takeaway per year.
As with Jones, it would be easier to overlook the low number of turnovers if Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Avonte Maddox had compensated with better overall effort, but the group has been among the worst in the NFL by almost any measure.
The Eagles allowed 16 pass plays over 40 yards last season, including their lone playoff game. No other team allowed as many over that span. They permitted nine receivers in 10 games to average 6.2 catches for 138.8 yards and 1.3 touchdowns in 2019.
Pass-defense efficiency involves the rush almost as much as the coverage, and the Eagles weren’t as strong in that regard as they were in previous seasons. But any rational evaluation would place more fault on the secondary, specifically the corners.
Injuries have played a role in the unit’s struggles. But when healthy, Darby, Mills, Jones, Douglas, and Maddox fell short the last two years. Darby has the most natural talent of the group, but he missed 23 games to injury over three seasons and when active was often inconsistent.
Mills has been the most dependable, although he missed almost a year of football with a foot injury and will become an unrestricted free agent in days. The Eagles could elect to bring him back, but they won’t pay him No. 1-corner money.
Jones and Douglas, selected in the second and third round of the 2017 draft, have given little indication that either can be trusted to start long-term. Jones hasn’t been durable and has struggled with confidence. Douglas has been susceptible to deep passes.
Maddox has been fine in the slot and may be pegged to return there – a move to safety is also possible – but playing on the outside doesn’t suit the third-year corner.
The Eagles have other decisions to make that could potentially affect their maneuverings at cornerback. They have to decide if they’re retaining starting safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. They have to decide if they’re spending more on other positions of need like wide receiver.
But the groundswell of expectations from league sources suggests that Roseman will spend the bulk of his free-agent dollars on cornerback and use the draft to stock the bare receivers bin.
Jones isn’t the only available cornerback. The Eagles could be in on second- and third-tier free agents like James Bradberry, Trae Waynes, Kendell Fuller, Logan Ryan, Bradley Roby, Eli Apple, Chris Harris, Jimmy Smith, or Xavier Rhodes.
But Jones checks off so many of the Eagles’ boxes. It will cost them, and there’s a good chance that he won’t play up to his salary. But that’s the price of doing business in free agency, and of drafting poorly.