Which Eagles’ cornerback will cover Cowboys’ Cole Beasley in the slot?
The most viable options are moving Avonte Maddox down from safety, where he has played well, or throwing new corner Cre'Von LeBlanc into the fire after three practices in the defense.
Can the Eagles reach under some seat cushions and come up with a nickel this week?
On Friday, the team officially declared nickel corner Sidney Jones out for Sunday night's encounter with the Dallas Cowboys, Jones still recovering from a hamstring injury suffered Oct. 11 against the Giants.
Dexter McDougle, who filled in for Jones against Carolina and Jacksonville, was released this week when the Eagles claimed corner Cre'Von LeBlanc on waivers from Detroit.
So, Dallas's Cole Beasley, one of the NFL's better slot receivers, is headed to town. Who's gonna cover him?
"I'm not going to disclose the nickel," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday. Then Pederson hinted that Jones – who had already said he was pointing toward next week and New Orleans – might still play this week, Pederson speaking a few hours before the Eagles announced Jones wouldn't play.
Players have been told not to divulge what the setup will be, but there are two obvious paths: 1. Bring former backup nickel corner Avonte Maddox down from safety, where the rookie has been doing very well, and replace Maddox with veteran safety Corey Graham, who has missed the last three games with a hamstring injury, but is now healthy. Or, 2. Keep Maddox where he is and throw LeBlanc into the nickel spot, on the strength of three practices in the Eagles' defense. LeBlanc said he played a lot of nickel for the Bears in 2016 and 2017.
There might be other scenarios if you really want to think outside the box – Malcolm Jenkins at nickel with Maddox and Graham as the safeties, for example – but Jenkins has pretty much flatly denied that will happen.
The most likely outcome is Option 1, an assessment we arrived at mostly because LeBlanc does not seem to think he is looking at a lot of snaps in his Eagles debut.
"I'm feeling pretty good … Learning what I need to know, just in case," LeBlanc said Thursday. "If anything happens, if I do get thrown in there, I know my stuff."
The Eagles tossed McDougle into the fray against Carolina five days after signing him, but McDougle was an Eagle for eight games in 2017, he wasn't learning the defense from scratch.
The only way the LeBlanc option really makes sense is if the Eagles play a lot of man-to-man defense this week (which they don't, typically). As Jenkins noted, "man is man," in pretty much every defense. You don't really need to coordinate with anyone or know a lot of terminology.
LeBlanc agreed. "All you gotta do is cover the guy in front of you," if you're playing "man," he said. "It's not that hard, it's not rocket science."
LeBlanc said he faced Beasley when LeBlanc was in Chicago, and he characterized Dak Prescott's leading receiver (36 catches for 366 yards and two touchdowns) as "crafty."
Maddox, who has bounced back and forth between nickel corner and safety since joining the defensive lineup at Tennessee back on Sept. 30, talked about having studied Beasley on film this week.
"Big challenge," Maddox said. "Quick, fast, can get open, got great hands, good moves. You just gotta be patient with him, watch a lot of film on him."
Maddox noted that Beasley is "definitely a big third-down guy." Beasley has 14 third-down receptions this season, 105 in his career (out of 290 overall receptions), a 36.2 percent third-down catch percentage, which the Cowboys say is the second-highest in the NFL since Beasley's rookie year of 2012.
Asked if he considers himself a safety or a corner this week, Maddox said: "I'm a defensive back."
The biggest problem with moving Maddox down and replacing him with Graham at safety is that the Eagles would be depending on Graham, who is 33, to play pretty much every defensive snap. He struggled badly at Tennessee in his first game as a starter this season after Rodney McLeod's season-ending knee injury, and then Graham went down early against Minnesota.
Graham excelled in a more limited dime safety role last season. Can he hold up and play well as a starter?
If Graham gets hurt again, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's options are limited. Starting corner Jalen Mills (foot) will miss an NFL game because of injury for the first time in his three-year career. Schwartz hasn't wanted to use special teams safety Deiondre' Hall on defense – Hall has one defensive snap in seven games. Safety Tre Sullivan has eight defensive snaps in four games.
Maybe if that were to happen, Maddox would have to go back to safety and LeBlanc would find himself chasing Beasley, in his welcome-to-Philly moment.