The cornerback position for the Philadelphia Eagles going into the 2019 was already going to be a very complicated situation to figure out, but with the re-signing of Ronald Darby it becomes even more convoluted. The truth is that cornerback might not be a need for the team, but it is without a doubt surrounded by question marks.
Let me first make it clear that re-signing Darby absolutely made sense. For a team that was decimated at the position by injury last season, Howie Roseman needed to make sure there was plenty of depth going forward. Despite coming off of an ACL injury, Darby provides a reliable veteran who is already familiar with the team and system at a very low cost. He may have issues with consistency, but when Darby is on top of his game he’s arguably the most talented outside CB on the roster next to Avonte Maddox. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he is one of the starters on the outside once he’s fully healthy.
Ronald Darby’s new deal is one year, $6.5M.
$4.5M fully guaranteed ($3.5M signing bonus, $1M salary). Additional $2M in form of per-game roster bonuses.
Can earn an additional $2M through other incentives tied to playing time and performance. Max value is $8.5M.
— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) March 19, 2019
But therein lies a small issue going into the 2019 season: Are there now too many cornerbacks on the roster? And before you scoff at that notion, just hear me out first; because when you consider the young guys that are currently on the roster, there were already plenty of questions about who would start even without Darby being part of the equation.
Everyone has their takes and opinions on guys like Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, Jalen Mills, and Cre’Von Leblanc. Anyone can make an understandable argument for any of those guys to be a starter, and that’s part of the problem. The truth is none of us really know what any of these guys truly are talent-wise.
Let’s start with Avonte Maddox. The 4th round rookie was pushed into the lineup early in the season due to the injury to Rodney McLeod, and by season’s end he was playing the best ball out of any other CB on the roster had all year. Not only did he show his versatility in being able to line up anywhere on the field, but he also showed that his lack of height shouldn’t be a reason to overlook him as he was constantly displaying great coverage ability and ball skills. I’m most excited about his potential than any other CB we have.
Sidney Jones basically was redshirted his in 2017, making 2018 essentially his “rookie season”. At the beginning of the year he played very well in the slot and things were looking hopeful for him finally. But then he suffered a hamstring injury which severely hampered his performance the rest of the season. Also, it was evident that he still needed some added bulk to his frame. Jones had the “will and want” in run support, never being shy to come down and be physical, but lack of technique and functional strength led to many missed tackles. 2019 is a make-or-break season for Jones. He has to stay healthy and start proving to people he was worth taking a risk on in the 2nd round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Rasul Douglas started opposite Avonte Maddox towards the end of the season and made some crucial plays in key spots. One word to describe Rasul: Playmaker. He’s so good in run support and a great tackler, but the one thing that stands out about him the most is his ball skills. He’s so good at luring the QB into throwing interceptable passes, and even if he can’t pick it off he’ll be in good position to break it up. Opposing QBs weren’t targeting his side of the field late in the season for that reason. On the other hand, his coverage skills are still a legitimate concern. Something you need to ask yourself when it comes to Rasul then is how much of his coverage deficiencies are offset by his playmaking abilities?
Jalen Mills continues to be a fan favorite. He’s a leader and is so reliable in run support and in the red zone. But just like with Rasul, his coverage skills remain a concern. The difference between him and Rasul though is that Rasul makes plays on the ball and comes away with interceptions while Mills doesn’t. Getting beat on double moves constantly is something teams are willing to live with if the corner is also forcing takeaways, but that’s not the case with Mills. That’s a big reason why he was targeted so many times by opposing offenses and was the biggest liability on the defense early in the season, because there was minimal risk in throwing to his side. But for whatever reason, Jim Schwartz still loves Mills and the way he plays, so he figures to be in the mix as much as anyone.
Cre’Von LeBlanc turned out to be one of the biggest surprises for the defense in 2018. Claimed off waivers in November, LeBlanc performed very well in the slot late in the season and in the playoffs. His chances at starting might be slimmer than anyone else’s, but he’s absolutely earned an opportunity to win one at the very least.
All-in-all that makes 6 cornerbacks on the roster competing for 3 starting spots on the defense (2 on the outside, 1 in the slot). 3 guys will get significant playing time while the other 3 will get limited playing time. Competition brings out the best in players, but playing time is a crucial component of a player’s development as well. The Eagles need to find out exactly what they have in each of these guys and if they’re pieces to hang onto beyond this season. But how can they figure that out if not all of them will be playing?
I’m one of those that do believe Rasul and/or Mills can be better safeties than they are cornerbacks, but Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz haven’t showed any consideration of that being a possible move so that’s out of the equation. And with the signing of Andrew Sendejo and Maddox’s ability to also play safety, the likelihood of it happening are even slimmer.
The questions are pretty abundant when you start to really look at it.
What is the best way to use Avonte Maddox? If he is your most talented CB, do you stick him on the outside where he showed a lot of promise late in the season? Or do you keep him in the slot? Is he your 3rd safety?
How close is the coaching staff to giving up on Sidney Jones? Do they still see him as a potential star? Does the re-signing of Darby show that they’re not that high on him anymore?
Where is Rasul going to play? Is it smart to leave his penchant for takeaways on the bench?
Is Jim Schwartz still going to stick with Mills as a starter even if he continues to struggle and be a liability? Would benching him create too much of a rift in the locker room because of Mills’ leadership?
How good is Cre’Von Leblanc? Is he someone who just got hot at the right time? Is he nothing more than a 4th or 5th CB? Or has he developed into a really good player that you should be starting?
In the end, this is a good problem to have. It really is. I’d much rather have all these questions to answer and figure out as opposed to not having enough talent on the roster. There are teams worried about not having one or two reliable starters at corner, but the Eagles can now go 6 deep and still have some level of confidence in all of them. A good chunk of these questions will most likely answer themselves in training camp, pre-season, and even the regular season. And I’m expecting some of the answers that arise to surprise us.