SIDNEY JONES was having "an unbelievable workout," Anthony Patch recalls, as the last drill began on the University of Washington's pro day, Saturday, March 11.
"He turned and he just fell," Patch recalled. "It was about 15 yards" from Patch, the Eagles' college scouting director, and regional scout Marty Barrett. "They carted him out. I didn't know what it was. I thought it might have been the foot, some lower-leg injury. Then they put the cast on it, so we knew it was pretty serious at that point."
Jones, a smooth, quick, intuitive cornerback projected to be drafted in the first half of the first round, had torn his left Achilles' tendon. Patch called de facto general manager Howie Roseman, then flew home, across the state to Spokane, Wash., thinking about what he had seen.
"Thought it'd be nice to hand-write him a letter," Patch said over the weekend, after the Eagles gambled on Jones' recovery with their second-round pick in the NFL draft, 43rd overall.
He wrote to Jones' home address in California, Patch uncertain whether Jones would stay at school or go home as he prepared for surgery. It turned out, Jones stayed at Washington, but his grandfather relayed the letter, and by that Thursday, Jones and Patch were talking on the phone.
"I'd put in there, 'Adversity hits, I know you're going to bounce back.' Just being positive," Patch said. Patch is a survivor of two bouts of brain cancer who knows the value of a message of encouragement. Patch said he added, " 'Give me a call, I'd love to talk, if you want any kind of conversation to get you through this.' "
So Jones did call, and they began a text-message relationship that was among the factors giving the Eagles confidence in drafting a player who is unlikely to be ready to play before midseason, and who might not be 100 percent before 2018. The Eagles' ultimate draft grade for 2017, when it is delivered a few years down the road, might very well hinge on whether Jones recovers to become the Pro Bowl-level corner they think he can be.
When they spoke that week of the injury, Patch said he told Jones: "These bends in the road always hit people; don't worry about your draft status. Wherever you go, you're going to make a positive impact on whatever team you go to."
Patch was impressed that Jones not only responded but responded quickly; he felt it spoke to the type of person he is. Jones texted Patch a few hours after Jones' March 22 tendon repair, done by Dr. Robert Anderson, in Charlotte, N.C. Anderson is the go-to guy for athletes these days with foot and ankle injuries.
"Everything went well and he was optimistic, for the type of injury he had . . . where the tear was, and so forth," Patch said. Anderson has said Jones' tear was higher on the calf than many such injuries. Lower, where the tendon is thickest and takes the most strain, is worse.
The Patch-Jones relationship led Jones to believe there would a home for him in Philly.
"I had a feeling that it was going to be Philly if I was still there" when the Eagles were ready to take him, Jones told a conference call Friday night.
Other teams were interested, of course, but didn't show as much personal concern. Jones called the letter "heartfelt."
"I got a few texts here and there, but nothing like a handwritten letter," he said.
Patch noted that since Jones, 20, entered the draft as an underclassman, there was no Senior Bowl interview, no real contact before the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, a week before Jones was injured. The injury scuttled plans to have him visit the Eagles. Patch's continuing dialogue with Jones ended up serving as a big chunk of the team's vetting process.
Of course, there was more to the pick than that. A source close to the situation said Jones was a Roseman favorite from the start of the process and probably would have been the Eagles' choice with their first-round selection, 14th overall, had he not been injured. The team's medical staff did a lot of research on Achilles' recoveries, and met with Roseman hours before the second round began.
"The thing that jumps out most about Sidney is his length and his feet," Eagles player personnel vice president Joe Douglas said. "He is a very smooth mover and can easily flip his hips. He can carry guys down the field. He's very instinctive and very route-aware. He has a really good gauge on what the receiver is going to do at the top of his routes, and I think he has ideal ball skills."
A complicating factor Friday night was Dalvin Cook. The Eagles also coveted the Florida State running back, though not enough to take him in the first round over what they felt was a much rarer commodity in Tennessee edge rusher Derek Barnett.
The Birds did extensive work on Cook's background - those nebulous "character issues" probably kept him out of the first round, where he was frequently projected to go. The Eagles' conclusion was that the trouble was more with people around Cook than with Cook himself. They apparently looked into trading up a little from 43 to draft him, since they feared he wouldn't last to that spot. And he didn't, the Vikings trading up to 41 to tap Cook as Adrian Peterson's replacement.
Asked if he thought the Vikings moved in front of him because they were afraid the Eagles would take Cook, Roseman answered: "Maybe."
If they could have gotten Cook at 43, would the Eagles have tried to wait until the third round and the 99th overall selection to take Jones? We'll never know. We do know they looked into bridging that gap between 43 and 99, moving closer, but couldn't work anything out.
They hedged their bet on Jones with another corner at 99, West Virginia's Rasul Douglas, who could start right away. But Patch thinks Jones will eventually justify the team's faith in him.
"The coaches, the staff there (at Washington) said he was an unabelievable kid . . . How resilient this kid is, that played quite a bit of a factor," Patch said. "He's driven, basically. He's going to come back from this type of thing."
In explaining the pick, Roseman said: "Obviously, there's no insurance for this, but we feel really confident that with our medical team, that when he gets here, he's going to be able to be the same player he was before the injury."