NFL players of all stripes set individual goals before the season, most of them of the statistical variety. Sidney Jones’ No. 1 goal this offseason was one only a minority meet, but few set a bar of playing in all 16 regular season games because most know they’re only a chinstrap away from injury.
If Jones had an objective of more interceptions this season, for instance, it would have sounded trivial. When you’ve played in only 10 out of a possible 37 games, including the playoffs, in your first two seasons, availability becomes paramount.
But Jones already fell short of his goal, and it took only five games. To make matters worse, he suffered yet another hamstring strain a season after a similar injury sidelined him for nine total games on three separate occasions.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing. after being out for so long, so many snaps, and so many games and not play,” Jones said Friday, the first time he has spoken since the injury two weeks ago. “You just take it for what it is. I’m healthy now, so it’s like I’m good to go, I’m back out there.”
Healthy is a relative term. Few players are once the season begins. But many “break through that threshold,” Doug Pederson said Wednesday, when asked about Jones. The Eagles coach wasn’t calling him out, but he was relaying a message he had already delivered to the 23-year-old about playing even if you’re not in optimal health.
“We have to push them as coaches just a little bit,” Pederson elaborated Friday. “Not risk further injury. We’re not going to do that. But get them to feel comfortable and confident that everything is OK, and once they push past that barrier then we’re good, and then they learn to play that way, they learn practice that way.”
After leaving early against the Packers on Sept. 26, Jones was a limited participant in practice last week. He didn’t play last Sunday against the New York Jets even though he dressed. But after a full week of practices, Pederson said that he “fully expects” Jones to play Sunday against the Vikings.
While Jones’ hamstring and confidence in it remain concerns, the Eagles at this point need all the help they can summon at cornerback. They have been besieged by injury at the position for two seasons now, and only one of their top six cornerbacks – Rasul Douglas – has yet to miss a game this season.
Jalen Mills (foot) has been on the physically-unable-to-perform list since the start of training camp and isn’t eligible to come off until next week. Cre’Von LeBlanc (Lisfranc foot sprain) is on injured reserve and isn’t eligible to return until after Week 8. Ronald Darby (hamstring) has missed two games and counting. And Avonte Maddox (concussion/neck) has missed one and counting.
Their injuries, and Jones’, has led to the signing of previously unknown cornerbacks such as Craig James and Ryan Lewis and the return of veteran Orlando Scandrick after he was released before the season.
The Eagles have managed to win their last two games despite the losses, but Sunday presents a significant challenge with Minnesota receivers Adam Thielen and Stefen Diggs. And Jones will likely either need to be at 100 percent, or at least mentally full tilt, to keep them in check.
“That’s the first time I’m hearing that,” Jones said when made aware of Pederson’s public comments. “It’s been a battle with my body. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but you can’t just sit here and dwell on it. That’s how you go in the dump. You take it for what it is and jump that hurdle that he says was there.”
Pederson said Friday that he was pleased with how Jones pushed himself in practice this past week. But two days earlier, he said that the youngster’s confidence was something the Eagles “have to keep in mind,” otherwise he’ll continue to focus on the hamstring and not play at the required speed.
“I feel like for me, or for any player, talking big picture, you take a couple days off, a week off, there’s going to be some rust you need to knock off,” Jones said. “But once you get back in there, it’s football, you’ve been doing it since you were young. My confidence is still high.”
The Eagles considered Jones’ rookie season a redshirt year after he tore his left Achilles tendon during his pro day workout before the draft. Many analysts had projected the Washington prospect to go in the first round, but he dropped to the Eagles, who were willing to wait a year, in the second round.
Jones played in the season finale that year but left early with cramping. He played in the slot for the first six games of last season but suffered a hamstring strain in his right leg and would ping-pong in and out of the lineup for the next seven games.
When he strained the muscle again a third time in Dallas, he tried to play through it, but the results were disastrous. Douglas, who has yet to miss a game to injury in his career but had to leave last year’s game at the Saints early with an ankle sprain, said that players must walk a tightrope between playing through pain and harming the team.
“You want to play, your pride wants you to play, but you have to be a man and leave your pride behind,” he said. “You have to say, ‘If I’m going to hurt the team, I don’t want to be out there.’ ”
Jones said his hamstring strain is not as severe as last year’s. He said he injured it early against the Packers. It appeared to have occurred when receiver Devante Adams got behind him for a 58-yard catch.
“I came back out, did a couple more plays and it kept giving me trouble,” Jones said.
There have been glimpses of the talent that made the Eagles gamble on selecting Jones. He played well last year against the Colts. Now at his more natural outside spot, he shone in the Week 2 loss at the Falcons last month. But he’s mostly been either inconsistent or injured.
On Friday, he agreed with a questioner who posited that Eagles fans have yet to see the full Jones. But until he starts fulfilling his promise, outside criticism will mount for the early-round draft pick.
“It is what it is, I can’t do nothing about anybody else’s opinion,” Jones said. “That’s their opinion, they’re entitled to it. I block it out. … I got to move on with my life and take it for what it is and get back healthy and stay on the field and produce.”
Just staying healthy would be a good start.