Jalen Mills definitely has noticed a difference in Ronald Darby this spring.
“He has more pep in his step,’’ Mills said of his fellow Eagles cornerback. “He’s finally 100 percent healthy. He’s moving a lot better. Has a lot more fluidity. Hopefully, he’ll stay that way.’’
Darby, who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo last August for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick, dislocated his right ankle in the second quarter of the Eagles’ season opener against the Washington Redskins.
He managed to return in mid-November after missing eight games, but he admitted that the ankle hampered him the rest of the season. He had some good games and some not-so-good ones. But he soldiered through.
“It was tough,’’ Darby said. “Dislocating your ankle, then coming back and playing the same year after sitting out for two months. You can’t complain about it. That’s why you’re here: to play.
“I had my ups and downs. You always want to play better. There were times I was happy with my play, and there were times when I wasn’t.’’
Darby is entering the final year of his rookie deal, so he really needs to stay healthy and make everybody, including the Eagles and other potential employers, happy with his play in 2018.
“There’s a lot riding on this year,’’ he said. “I’m just going to go out there and have fun. At the end of the day, the Lord makes no mistakes. So I’m just going to go out and play to the best of my ability and let the chips fall where they may. I’m going to go out and play fast, play confident, and just have fun.’’
When the Eagles acquired Darby last summer, it was assumed he’d be with the Eagles for a while. And that still very well may be the case.
But it’s also possible that he could be gone after this season. The Eagles have invested a lot of cap space in their offensive and defensive lines and also will have to give quarterback Carson Wentz a lot of money in the next year or two.
If some of their other young cornerbacks, including 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones, play well this season, they may think twice about investing a lot of money in a contract for Darby.
“That’s something I can’t control,’’ Darby said. “I’m just focused on having a good season.’’
A second-round pick by the Bills in 2015, Darby had an outstanding rookie season, holding opponents to 11.6 yards per catch, intercepting two passes and registering 21 passes defensed, which was the second most in Bills history and the fourth most in the NFL that year. He made the league’s all-rookie team.
He didn’t play nearly as well in his second season, however. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60 percent of their passes when they targeted him. His yards allowed per catch average jumped to 15.7 and his passes-defensed total dropped to 12. He had no interceptions.
The Eagles needed corner help last summer. They felt Darby’s disappointing sophomore season was an aberration, and were willing to trade away Matthews — a productive slot receiver who had caught 225 passes and scored 19 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons — to get him.
Darby opened the season as the Eagles’ starting left corner, which is where he played his first two years with Buffalo.
After Darby got hurt in Week 1, Mills moved from the right side to the left, with Patrick Robinson and rookie Rasul Douglas splitting playing time on the right side. Robinson moved inside against three-wide-receiver sets.
When Darby returned in Week 11 against Dallas, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz opted to keep Mills on the left side, where he was playing well, and play Darby on the right side.
Darby said the switch was a tougher adjustment than he anticipated.
“It was new for me playing on the right side,’’ he said. “My whole career, especially in Buffalo, I was the left corner. Coming back off the injury and moving to the right side was something I had to get used to.
“You start to become dominant on one foot rather than the other. Almost like being righthanded, and then out of nowhere, somebody says, ‘All right, now start writing with your left [hand].’
“To be honest, it’s just like that. But it’s going to help me in the long run. Once I master playing on the right side, I already know how to play on the left. So I’ll be able to go both ways. Everything happens for a reason.’’
Darby said he’s much more comfortable on the right side than he was last season.
“Having spent all of the OTAs and [mini] camp on the right side, I’m able to react a lot faster to things, and break a lot faster on things,’’ he said.
Darby finished last season ranked 41st among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus. His numbers weren’t bad. Opponents completed just 55.3 percent of their pass attempts against him. He allowed just 12.4 yards per catch, had 11 passes defensed in eight games and gave up only one touchdown pass.
In the Eagles’ three playoff games, opponents completed just 51.4 percent of their passes against him, but he gave up two touchdown passes.
He didn’t play very well in the Eagles’ 41-33 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Then again, nobody else on the back end of the Eagles’ defense did, either. Tom Brady was 8-for-12 against Darby, averaging a hefty 16.1 yards per completion against him.
“That was just a crazy game,’’ Darby said. “Going back and forth pretty much the whole game. Fortunately, we stopped them when we had to.’’
Darby said his right ankle didn’t completely heal until about three months ago.
“I took some time off after the Super Bowl,’’ he said. “I just hung out and chilled. Once I started training again, I started to feel a lot better.’’
With Robinson gone – he signed with New Orleans in March — the Eagles need to find somebody to play inside. Schwartz has rolled almost all of his cornerbacks, including Darby, in there at some point this spring.
Darby would prefer to stay outside and likely will. But he knows that decision is above his pay grade.
“I’m just here to play football,’’ he said. “I’m not going to tell the coaches no. That’s why I’m here. That’s my job. Whatever the team needs, that’s what I’m going to do.’’