The Eagles finished Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys with Rasul Douglas, De’Vante Bausby, and Cre’von LeBlanc as their only three cornerbacks, and they might need to face the reality that it won’t get much better this season.
Sidney Jones had been pulled from the game because his injured hamstring made him ineffective. It’s now the third game this season Jones left early because of the injury, and considering that it’s been a recurring problem, it’s reasonable to wonder what the Eagles can expect of Jones for the final three games of the season. It also remains unclear whether he can develop into the top cornerback the Eagles expected.
The Eagles already had a messy cornerback situation. Jalen Mills watched from the sideline in a walking boot; his season ended one day earlier when he was placed on injured reserve. Mills joined Ronald Darby, whose season ended after the first Cowboys game.
The Eagles might get Avonte Maddox back from ankle and knee injuries to help at safety and in the slot, and Chandon Sullivan was a healthy scratch on Sunday. But the Eagles cornerbacks, which have been depleted for much of the past two months, will remain a problem this season before the team tries to determine what to do at the position beyond 2018.
“There is not a lot of depth there right now,” coach Doug Pederson said.
The biggest question right now is Jones. He oozed with potential when the Eagles drafted him in the second round in 2017. He was expected to be a first-round pick before he tore his Achilles tendon at his pro day, and the Eagles were willing to remain patient during what his essentially a redshirt year as a rookie while Jones got healthy. Owner Jeffrey Lurie said it was a worthwhile gamble because Jones could become a “premier cornerback.”
But Jones has seesawed in and out of the lineup this season because of injury. He missed time during the offseason, then injured his hamstring during an Oct. 11 game against the Giants. He returned after one month, but he injured the hamstring again in his first game back on Nov. 18. He missed a game, played last week against Washington without issue, before another injury in the first half on Sunday. He tried playing in the second half, but it was clear he was not right. The Cowboys knew it, too, targeting the wide receivers Jones covered until the training staff pulled him.
“They could see I couldn’t run,” said Jones, who added it’s “real frustrating” because the injury “lingers.”
Pederson said he “wanted to be careful” with his words because he did not want to speak for Jones, but that the Eagles will “continue to evaluate Sidney each day and make sure ... that he’s right not only physically, but mentally.” Pederson said he appreciated Jones trying to play through the injury, although it hurt the team on the field. (Bausby, his replacement, was not much better when allowing a 75-yard touchdown.)
If Jones does not reach the point the Eagles want this season, he would go into his third season with the team still trying to learn what he will become in the NFL. He’s only finished six games this season and he didn’t even finish the one game he played last year.
“It's hard. It's tough to get a true evaluation,” Pederson said. “We knew the player we were getting based on what we saw in college. He's a tremendous corner. He's a good cover corner. I think for any player that's dealing with injury, you focus on that just a little bit and it can pull you away from playing at a high level at times.”
To complicate the outlook at cornerback, Darby is entering free agency with a torn ACL and Mills’ third season lasted only eight games. Pederson addressed Mills’ season-ending foot injury for the first time Monday, saying the Eagles were “very optimistic” that Mills’ health would return this season, but “it just wasn’t there.”
“We've given him every opportunity each week to continue to rehab and work it out, and it's just unfortunate that it wasn't where he wanted it to be, where we wanted it to be, and so we made the decision,” Pederson said.
Mills appeared like he was progressing, and then last week he was seen with a walking boot. Pederson said that through the rehab, MRI exams, and X-ray results, the Eagles’ medical staff thought “it was best to put him back in the boot and see if it could help promote some healing and just immobilize it for a while.”
For the next few weeks, the Eagles will try to salvage what’s left of the season with reserve cornerbacks. Perhaps Douglas proves he can be a starting-caliber player. Because the Eagles must also consider the long-term outlook at the position. They entered the season flush with young cornerbacks, and it appeared they had finally stocked the cupboard of a position that had been a problem in recent years. They might finish the season with more questions than answers.