The speculation that Jordan Matthews could be traded turned into reality on Friday, when the Eagles dealt their starting wide receiver to the Buffalo Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby. The Eagles also surrendered a 2018 third-round pick, paying a steep price to try to rectify shortcomings at cornerback.
Darby, 23, was a 2015 second-round pick by the Bills who started 29 games the last two seasons. He has two career interceptions and 33 passes defended. The Florida State product is 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds and instantly upgrades the Eagles’ secondary; he will start at cornerback. He also has two years remaining on his contract, which was part of his appeal to the Eagles.
Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations, didn’t think there would be opportunities this summer to find a young, starting outside cornerback who was not a pending free agent. That made him willing to pay the price.
“It goes to the player that we got, the position that we’re acquiring, and how difficult it is to find those guys,” Roseman said.
But the Eagles had to move on from Matthews, who arrived in 2014 and has been productive since day one. In three seasons, Matthews, 25, totaled 225 catches, 2,673 receiving yards, and 19 touchdowns. He was the team’s top receiver the last two years and is respected in the locker room for his work ethic and character.
“Hard to pull the trigger on a trade like that when you’re giving up that kind of player and person,” Roseman said.
Multiple Eagles sent messages on social media about Matthews’ departure, including quarterback Carson Wentz, who wrote “couldn’t ask for a better teammate & friend.” Tight end Zach Ertz wrote, “honestly don’t think a teammate had a bigger impact on my life.”
Matthews is a free agent at the end of the season, and his name has been in trade rumors since the combine in March. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles scout, left training camp this summer believing that Nelson Agholor would be the team’s slot receiver this season and did not know where that left Matthews. That ramped up speculation that Matthews could be shipped elsewhere.
Roseman said the Eagles have not actively shopped Matthews, but he acknowledged that when a player’s name surfaces in media reports, other teams call. The Eagles could have tried signing Matthews to a contract extension, although Roseman noted the team has several expiring contracts this offseason. Alshon Jeffery’s is one of them.
“It wasn’t that [Matthews] wasn’t necessarily in our long-term plans,” Roseman said.
The Eagles made an offseason commitment to upgrading their wide receivers, which made trading Matthews easier to bear for the offense. The key is Jeffery, who is the team’s No. 1 wide receiver and will require a significant salary to stay in Philadelphia. The Eagles have been cautious in their handling of Jeffery, who missed practices this week with a shoulder injury and did not play in Thursday night’s exhibition opener against Green Bay. Roseman continued to insist that Jeffery will be ready come opening day on Sept. 10.
Veteran Torrey Smith also has a starting spot on the outside. Without Matthews, the Eagles will likely not stick to one player exclusively in the slot. Agholor would seem to be the biggest beneficiary, and the team is hopeful that the underachieving 2015 first-round pick can rebound this season. But the Eagles can also use tight Ertz and tight end Trey Burton in the slot, along with running back Donnel Pumphrey and rookie receiver Mack Hollins.
After an impressive preseason debut on Thursday when he totaled four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, Hollins bolstered the optimism that was already present concerning the fourth-round pick. He could find a role with the receivers this year and develop into an eventual starter.
As much as the Eagles emphasized wide receiver this offseason, they did a poor job addressing cornerback. The position appeared to be a glaring weakness, which is why the acquisition of Darby is critical. Journeyman Patrick Robinson was the only veteran added to the group, but he’s been inconsistent this summer. The Eagles drafted Sidney Jones in the second round and Rasul Douglas in the third, but Jones could miss the season with an injury suffered before the draft and Douglas is a project.
Acquiring Darby helps them both short-term and long-term. He can start immediately, but he’s also the type of player who can grow with the other young cornerbacks. Jones and Douglas are 21; Darby and Jalen Mills are 23. That’s a young core the Eagles want to build around at the position.
“It’s a unique opportunity to have a bunch of young corners at that position,” Roseman said. “You look around the league, and it is a corner-deficient league. It’s hard to find those guys. It’s hard to find guys who’ve been solid starters in this league and played at a high level. Teams that have them aren’t really ready to move them.”
Roseman said this deal would not have occurred if Darby was a pending free agent like Matthews. However, the additional year also raised the price for Darby. That required the extra third-round pick in the deal. The Eagles are now missing their second- and third-round picks for the 2018 draft. They have three fourth-round picks, one of which could turn into a third if New England cornerback Eric Rowe plays at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps.
Roseman admitted that the second night of the draft could be tough to watch next year. But it’s the price the Eagles were willing to pay – along with one of the most productive, respected players on the team – to address the cornerback position.
“It’s hard to think about that Friday and think about the fact that potentially…we don’t have a pick,” Roseman said. “By the same token, we want to set ourselves up for a lot of Sundays where we have good days.”