The Inquirer/Daily News beat reporters are previewing the Eagles’ offseason. Free agency will begin on March 14, and the draft will be April 26-28.
Schedule of previews:
Tuesday, Feb. 20: Quarterbacks/specialists
Wednesday, Feb. 21: Offensive line
Thursday, Feb. 22: Running backs
Friday, Feb. 23: Wide receivers/tight ends
Monday, Feb. 26: Defensive line
Tuesday, Feb. 27: Linebackers
Wednesday, Feb. 28: Cornerbacks
Thursday, March 1: Safeties
Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, D.J. Killings, Randall Goforth, De’Vante Bausby, Elle Bouka
After a few seasons with a revolving door of Band-Aids at cornerback, the Eagles are suddenly rife with young, promising players at the position.
Jalen Mills emerged as a starting cornerback last season, starting every game except Week 17 and proving to be a key piece on the Eagles defense. A 2016 seventh-round pick who was a contributor as a rookie, Mills raised his game in 2017. It wasn’t without mistakes — it seldom is at cornerback — but Mills proved that he deserves to be an NFL starter. He never backed down from a challenge, such as covering Julio Jones on the goal line in the playoffs. He was a willing tackler, which was important with the way Jim Schwartz wanted his cornerbacks to play. And he also proved capable of big plays, with three interceptions, including one in a road win against Carolina. The depth chart will become more crowded when Sidney Jones enters the mix, and Mills has the versatility to play the slot if needed. But he played well enough this season to be a starting outside cornerback.
The Eagles acquired Ronald Darby during the preseason to be their top cornerback. A Week 1 injury sidetracked Darby’s season, but he returned in November and showed flashes of why the Eagles are so bullish on him. There were some inconsistencies, but he also made some big plays down the stretch and finished with three interceptions in eight games. He’ll have the benefit of a full offseason entering a contract year. The Eagles surrendered a third-round pick and Jordan Matthews for Darby, so it shows just how high the team is on him. He’s an outside cornerback — not a slot — and look for him to lock down one of the two starting spots next season with the potential of being a breakout player relative to his 2017 performance.
Rasul Douglas started five games as a rookie after the Eagles selected him as a third-round pick. There were growing pains, but the size and playmaking ability were apparent. Douglas has starter potential, although a crowded depth chart might make him the fourth cornerback in 2018. That’s still a valuable role, though, and he’ll be on the field.
The reason I said fourth cornerback is Jones’ expected emergence into a key player. Jones, the Eagles’ second-round pick in 2017, missed almost all of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon. He has the potential to be the Eagles’ top cornerback. Of course, he needs to show he can return to form after a significant injury. But there will be benefit from his rookie season, having been in meetings and spending more than a month on the practice field. Jones should compete for a top-three cornerback spot next season, which means he’ll be on the field for most snaps on defense. I’m curious to see if he can lock down one of the top two jobs and be an every-down cornerback. That will require his supplanting Mills or Darby.
Put that quartet together, and the Eagles have more young talent at the position than they’ve had in years. Darby is 24, Mills is 23, Douglas is 22, and Jones is 21. Unless the Eagles re-sign Patrick Robinson, they will need to figure out who plays inside. But that appears a strong group to go into the season with at this point.
The rest of the cornerbacks under contract will try to make the team during the spring and summer, but you can’t put them down for roster spots right now.
The Eagles signed Robinson last March to a one-year, low-cost contract. He was expected to be a veteran in a young cornerback room and perhaps serve as a placeholder for a year while young cornerbacks developed. For a period in training camp when Robinson played as a first-team outside cornerback, it looked as if he might even be on the roster bubble. Then the Eagles traded for Darby, Robinson moved to the slot, and he emerged into one of the key players on the defense and one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL. That’s a key position, and it should be viewed like a starter. Robinson played 69 percent of the snaps, led the team in interceptions, and excelled in the postseason.
He’s the type of player the Eagles should want back if it’s simply about preserving their roster and success from 2017. But Robinson, 30, might be in line for more money than the Eagles paid last season. And as noted, the Eagles have unusual depth. However, it’s unknown whether the young cornerbacks can hold down the slot role as Robinson did. So this is an important decision. He’s a good player and a good fit in the locker room, although paying him with the four young cornerbacks the Eagles have in place might be more of a luxury than a necessity.
If the Eagles were to bring in a veteran cornerback, it would make sense to just keep Robinson. But if they did a sign a veteran, don’t expect it to be a headliner such as the Los Angeles Rams’ Trumaine Johnson or New England’s Malcolm Butler. They could search for someone with cornerback-safety versatility or a return threat or give someone a one-year, “show-me” deal as they did with Robinson last year, but I’d be surprised if they used a notable portion of their already-tight cap space on an outside free agent at cornerback
The Eagles were aggressive at cornerback in the draft last year, taking Jones and Douglas on Day 2. And Jones is almost like a bonus to this year’s draft class because he played only one game as a rookie. Still, you can never rule out the Eagles’ looking for a young cornerback in the draft — especially if Robinson departs.
You can forget about the top cornerbacks in the class (Alabama cornerback/safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, Iowa’s Josh Jackson). Think more about Day 3, or a cornerback/safety hybrid if it’s an earlier pick. My guess is they’d also look for someone with return ability or special teams value, if possible. Virginia Tech’s Greg Stroman fits that description; the versatile defender played offense, defense, and special teams in college, and he finished as an all-ACC cornerback who excelled as a returner.