Sidney Jones hasn’t played this season. He won’t play Sunday. And the rookie cornerback might not play a game until next season. But the sight of No. 22 participating in drills at the Eagles’ practice Wednesday was new to everyone who knew of Jones’ potential but has not seen him play in Philadelphia.
“It’s been a long journey,” Jones said by his locker Wednesday in his first extended comments since the spring.
Jones’ 2017 practice debut came at the Eagles’ indoor facility Wednesday in their first session preparing for the New York Giants. He has been on the non-football injury list after tearing an Achilles tendon during the University of Washington pro day in March.
Before the injury, Jones was projected to be a first-round pick who could become an early starter in the NFL. The Eagles drafted him in the second round and acknowledged the possibility that he could miss his entire rookie season, but like some recent Sixers draft picks, the long-term benefits outweighed the short-term imposition. By having him practice Wednesday, the Eagles started a 21-day clock to determine whether to activate him to their 53-man roster or place him on injured reserve. Even if they don’t play him this year, they will at least get three weeks of practice evaluation.
“Who knows?” Jones said about playing this year. “It was a blessing for today. It’s been a long road just to play football. I haven’t played football since my last college game.”
He took part in individual drills and participated on the scout team, but the Eagles limited his work while he finds his footing. His teammates saw him clamoring for more action.
“He’s anxious to get out there and compete,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We’re all watching that development, hoping he gets back up to speed as soon as possible.”
Jones understands he must take it slow and return to playing shape so he doesn’t injure another body part. He said it’s a process, which can get Sixers fans across the street nodding their heads.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Jones will have a good grasp of the defense from his time in meetings and watching practices because “keeping his ears open and his eyes open has been his No. 1 job description.” But the coaching staff wanted to see how Jones will handle the physical parts of practice, understanding there’s rust. Schwartz said it will be more comparable to the first week of spring workouts than the first week of training camp – never mind Week 15 of the NFL season.
“All due respect to our trainers, they are not a challenge to cover, and he’s only been working with those guys. So we’ve got to take each step along the way,” Schwartz said.
Coach Doug Pederson wanted to observe Jones stopping and starting on the field and the coverage instincts that can’t be evaluated during the rehab process. Cornerback Jalen Mills was encouraged by Jones’ movement and coverage technique, considering it was Jones’ first day. Mills turned to safety Rodney McLeod at one point in practice and said how happy he was for Jones because that type of injury could “demolish somebody” and Jones didn’t allow that to happen.
Jones didn’t think his speed or cutting ability were hindered by the injury. Both will be important when he returns to games.
“I didn’t really notice any difference,” Jones said. “The only thing, I haven’t guarded anybody in forever, so just getting back in my stance, my press stance, getting back to the basics, and I’ll be good.”
There’s still no saying when that will be. Jones said that even if he doesn’t play this year, these three weeks will allow him to get his feet wet – Achilles included – and make the transition easier next year. The Eagles aren’t revealing their plans, but Jones said practicing this week was the “biggest” step he’s taken to date. At the very least, it offers an evaluation and a clock. If there’s an injury in the defensive backfield or the Eagles have a roster opening, they could consider him. Even if not, they’ll know more about him than they did when he was sidelined.
“Obviously it’s been our plan all along to keep him coming,” Pederson said. “And now with the last few weeks of the season like this, to get him some practice reps and see where he’s at. Again, just kind of ease him back into football shape. But it’s definitely a win-win for both sides.”
Jones has benefited from being included in all team activities, and he said other Eagles have been helpful in his recovery. Jason Peters and Jordan Hicks, both of whom have had the same injury, are among those who have offered advice. Jones has also developed a close bond with other young cornerbacks on the Eagles, including Mills, Ronald Darby, and Rasul Douglas. They are part of an Eagles secondary flush with promising talent for the first time in years.
Jones might be the centerpiece of the group, but it requires a healthy return. Wednesday was a big step. And he practiced with a perspective that he couldn’t understand before the injury.
“I was always grateful, but this actually hit [me] being that I got injured,” Jones said. “Now it’s like, it actually happened, so you really have to be grateful because it can happen at any moment.”