Last August, cornerback Patrick Robinson was on the verge of getting released when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz threw the eight-year veteran a late-summer life raft, moving him inside and giving him an opportunity to make the team at nickel corner.
The rest, as they say, is history. The 5-foot-11, 191-pound Robinson embraced the slot role and ended up being one of the keys to the Eagles' defensive success on their way to their first Super Bowl title. He parlayed his outstanding play into a four-year, $20-million, free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints.
With the Eagles' season opener against the Atlanta Falcons just two weeks away, Schwartz still hasn't officially decided on Robinson's nickel replacement. The three candidates – Sidney Jones, rookie Avonte Maddox, and De'Vante Bausby – are expected to get reps Thursday, in the Eagles' third preseason game, against the Browns in Cleveland.
"Just like everything, we're still a work in progress,'' Schwartz said about the position after last week's game against New England. "Nothing has been settled there.
"Each guy brings a little bit different skill set, little bit different strengths and weaknesses, to the position. I think the competition is good. This game is going to go a long way to deciding who is going to be out there in the opener.''
Jones is the most talented. He is a potential lockdown corner who was considered one of the best cover guys in the 2017 draft before rupturing his Achilles tendon in a predraft workout.
But he never played inside until the Eagles started giving him reps there at the beginning of training camp.
"I think he's a great [inside] option for us,'' defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said of Jones. "I'm not putting him in there yet. We still have [two] games to go, and not just games, but practice. We'll see how things shake out.''
Bausby and Maddox also have limited experience inside. The 6-2, 190-pound Bausby, who was on the team's practice squad last year, got a lot of work at nickel in spring OTAs and this summer.
The 5-9, 184-pound Maddox, drafted in the fourth round, primarily played outside at Pitt. But his lack of length will make it tough for him to make an NFL living on the outside.
With Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills all but certain to be the starting cornerbacks, Jones would appear to be the front-runner for the nickel job if he remains healthy.
Schwartz gave Maddox a lot of slot reps against Tom Brady and the Patriots' No. 1 offense last week. Maddox gave up a 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Hogan on the Patriots' first offensive series, when Brady extended the play. Maddox took his eyes off Hogan, and the receiver got open in the end zone.
"It's always a learning process when you're out there,'' Maddox said. "And I definitely learned some things, particularly in the red zone. I've got to keep my eyes on my guy and play the initial route, because if the quarterback can make time in the pocket, everything happens fast.
"It was fun and challenging" Maddox said "I just have to keep working on the little things and make sure I get the little things right. If I do that, I'll be fine.''
Bausby's length would seem to make him more suited for the outside. But Robinson was just a whisker under 6-foot, Jones is 6-foot, and so is safety Malcolm Jenkins, who often drops down and covers the slot receiver.
After taking a lot of reps at nickel in the Eagles' first preseason game against Pittsburgh, Bausby played mostly on the outside against the Patriots, and head coach Doug Pederson curiously mentioned only Jones and Maddox on Tuesday when assessing the nickel job. But Pederson has little to do with the defensive side of the ball and might have just forgotten to mention Bausby.
Bausby said Tuesday that he's still taking practice reps inside and outside and gets the impression he will rotate inside with Jones and Maddox against the Browns.
"They'll get a real good look at all three of us this week,'' he said. "Next week [against the Jets] as well. Their minds [are] probably made up. But it'll be a good week for me this week.
"I still have a lot of room for improvement. But I've made progress. It's coming along.''
Even if Schwartz has decided on Jones as the season-opening nickel, he needs to come up with a Plan B in the event of an injury.
A possible, even likely, option would be to move Mills inside and plug in Bausby or someone else outside. Mills played a lot of nickel in his first two seasons with the Eagles.
"Right now, it's valuable for us to get the guys that haven't been in there [at nickel] as many reps as we can," Undlin said. "so we can make a great, educated decision when we're done with the preseason.''