Cornerback. While the addition of Ronald Darby via trade upgraded a position that desperately needed new blood, cornerback could again be the weak spot of the Eagles defense. Darby has speed and decent ball skills, but he regressed last season and was available for a reason. Jalen Mills is entering his second season after a rocky rookie year. Jim Schwartz believes that experience will aid the confident corner opposite Darby, but does Mills have the talent to be consistent throughout the season? Patrick Robinson moved inside to the slot after the Darby trade, but the journeyman veteran has liabilities. Depth is a problem, as well. Rookie Rasul Douglas has potential, but he needs work. C.J. Smith is a nice story, but he wouldn’t make many 53-man rosters. The defensive front can help offset the lack of talent at corner with a dominating pass rush, but even that may not be enough.
If the quarterback is young and talented, and if the wide receivers are better, and if the offensive line is deep, and if the defense’s front seven has promise, and if the safety tandem is among the best in the NFL, and if Ronald Darby is at least a viable starting cornerback, and Jim Schwartz is an experienced and well-regarded defensive coordinator, and the special teams are again excellent, what’s left? A head coach, Doug Pederson, who still has to prove that he’s more than the amiable Andy Reid disciple the Eagles settled on last year. The Eagles added talent throughout their roster during the offseason. They haven’t won a playoff game since January 2009. If they don’t take a significant step forward this season, it’s not hard to see where the fingers of blame will point.
That would be cornerback. The acquisition of Ronald Darby certainly strengthened this unit. It gives them a legitimate cover corner with the skills to go mano-a-mano against the league’s top outside wide receivers. But there still are questions. Their other starting corner, Jalen Mills, is fearless. But he got beat far too often as a rookie and needs to become more consistent. With Darby on the other side, opposing quarterbacks are going to pick on Mills, and he needs to be able to hold up. There also are questions inside. The NFC East has three of the league’s best slot receivers in Cole Beasley (Cowboys), Jamison Crowder (Redskins), and Sterling Shepard (Giants). They have moved Patrick Robinson inside, but the jury still is out on him. Safety Malcolm Jenkins probably will drop down into the slot in certain early-down packages.
Apart from cornerback, the most pressing concern to emerge from training camp and the preseason was the between-the-tackles running game, which was a liability last season and does not appear to have gotten appreciably better despite the additions of veteran free agent LeGarrette Blount and fourth-round draft pick Donnel Pumphrey. The combination of second-year guard Isaac Seumalo and veteran center Jason Kelce is going to be one of the variables on which success hinges. The Eagles need to be able to run the ball on first down and in must-have situations. Perhaps Blount proves to be the answer; at this point, though, it’s a significant question.