Time is the foremost barrier between Sidney Jones and a starting position at outside cornerback.
It could happen next year, sometime this season, or even by the opener. But it is, barring an unforeseen setback, inevitable.
The Eagles didn't expend a second-round pick in the 2017 draft — knowing that Jones would likely miss all or most of his rookie season — to sit on his promise once he was ready. But a starting spot won't be handed to the 22-year old, despite the success he has already had in his first training camp.
Over the next five weeks, Eagles coaches will shake Jones as if he were a can of soda. And right now, the pressure is having him play in the slot.
"I think he's off to a good start. He's obviously got the natural ability," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It's just putting him in some uncomfortable positions to see how he reacts, like in the slot. He's been pretty good on the outside.
"But to be great, we have a high standard and high expectation for him."
It's possible that Jones may end up as the slot corner once the season rolls around. Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are the outside starters and neither is likely to surrender that designation without a fight. A more realistic permutation of the top three corners would be for Mills to move inside in nickel and dime personnel with Jones taking his place outside.
"That's been the big question," Jones said Sunday, "but it really doesn't matter. Wherever my team needs me, that's where I'm at. It's all up to them because I have no control over it as of now – maybe I do, maybe I don't. Who knows? But it's all in their hands."
Having Jones for a meaningful game has been a long time coming, even if a championship softened his absence. When the Eagles drafted him a month after he ruptured his Achilles tendon, cornerback was viewed as one of their weakest positions. But Howie Roseman's gamble paid off – at least in that they carried on without the rookie's services.
Jones, meanwhile, rehabbed and learned the defense without the burden of doing it on the job. He played in the meaningless season finale but wasn't active in the postseason. Roseman said the Eagles, in some ways, viewed Jones as a 2018 draft pick. But in many ways he's not a first-year player.
"Sitting in every meeting [last year], he made good use of that time," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said last week. "Just getting his body ready and training, knowing what he's got to go through, it doesn't seem like he's a rookie player out there."
And the Eagles aren't treating him as one. Camp is young, but on odd days he has played in the slot with the first-unit defense, and on even days he has been outside with the second team. Jones has never played in the slot at any level. There are obvious similarities to covering a receiver inside as opposed to out, but there are just as many differences.
The route tree for a slot receiver is more expansive than for a flanker. Slot corners don't have the sideline as a boundary, so they must focus more on leverage and where they can receive help. They play more underneath routes than on top. And they often must deal with shorter, shiftier receivers.
"It's a whole different ball game and it takes some getting used to," Jenkins said. "For any young player, that's going to take time and repetition."
And then there's the run game. Slot corners are quasi-linebackers and so their keys and fits are different from those of outside corners.
"I know my keys. I know my fits," Jones said. "I know everything pretty much inside and out. It won't be a struggle. … Check the film."
Jones is splitting time in the slot with De'Vante Bausby. Signed to the practice squad last September, he said he went to the Eagles coaches and asked for a shot at playing slot after Patrick Robinson left via free agency.
While Jones sat out the last three weeks of the spring with "lower-body soreness" – coach Doug Pederson's term – Bausby made headway. Jones, though, has already made an impression in camp. The same could be said of Mills, Darby, and Bausby. The Eagles have their greatest collection of young depth at the position since the Lito Sheppard-Sheldon Brown days.
But Jones' ceiling is seemingly higher than any of theirs.
"Sidney's a dog," Bausby said. "He's going to show everybody around the league he's a dog. He's got that kind of attitude in him, but he's also fundamentally sound."
His measurables – 6-foot, 180 pounds, 31-1/2-inch arms — don't pop off the screen. His last documented 40-yard dash time (4.47) is good but not great. The numbers in the other drills he did at the NFL combine were less impressive.
But Jones' coaches and teammates praise his technique, his understanding of defense, and his confidence. All three were evident Sunday during a one-on-one outside drill against Nelson Agholor. Jones bumped him at the line, gave little separation on a comeback route, and when the ball arrived, it was Agholor who had to break up the pass to deny what would have likely been an interception.
Agholor isn't exactly Odell Beckham Jr., a reminder that experience is part of the obstacle to Jones' eventually starting. The Eagles will likely slow-play his immersion into the lineup. But the future is coming and some envision a lock-down No. 1 cornerback.
"Of course. That's the goal, you know," Jones said. "If I better myself to my potential, that's what's there. … But even as confident as I am, there's always something to get better at as a player. I'm still learning. There's still bad reps out there."
Time is on his side.
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