About two months after he decided to forgo his senior season in college and about a month before the draft, Sidney Jones ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg. He was still drafted, but he fell out of the first round — where many had him projected to go — and the cornerback missed almost all his rookie season with the Eagles.
Despite that hardship, Jones said that last season, when he missed nine games with a reccurring hamstring injury in his right leg, was more difficult.
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“That was sitting out all year. That was kind of like an acceptance process,” Jones said recently of the Achilles injury. “Second year, just not being able to do what you can do and dealing with the injury again, that’s a little more tough.”
His second season started off fine. Jones played in the first five games, mostly in the slot, and flashed some of the skill that had made him a coveted prospect. But he strained his hamstring in Week 6, again in Week 10, and a third time in Week 13, which would be the last time he played in 2018.
“It was rough, but everybody goes through adversity, everybody hits bottom at one point and time,” Jones said last month, a day after the Eagles’ season ended. “And that’s now, I guess, for me. It’s all about coming back from it.”
Jones has time to rebound if last season was indeed the nadir of his career. He won’t turn 23 until May. The Eagles invested a second-round pick in the Washington product and aren’t about to give up on him. But the clock is ticking, and Jones, before he can prove he was worth the investment, must show that he can remain healthy.
“It’s my No. 1 focus this offseason — getting right,” Jones said. “Show everybody what I can do. Facing adversity … it’s about moving forward. That’s the task at hand.”
Jones said that it was impossible to determine if his Achilles injury had anything to do with his run of hamstring strains. He seemed more willing to accept the notion that he needs to get stronger. The Eagles, he said, have said the same, but they haven’t asked him to add more weight.
At 6-foot-0, Jones is slightly above average compared with other cornerbacks, but at 181 pounds he’s among the lighter ones at his position.
“I’ll probably put the weight on, I would like to, but my body, I’ve learned it over the past years, and they told me that they would rather me be lighter and move than vice versa, because I’ve never been like a super heavy guy,” Jones said. “Even in college I was skinny, but I still handled my business.”
Had the Eagles advanced to the NFC championship game, Jones said, he would have been cleared to return. But would he have started? The combination of Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox at outside cornerback and Cre’Von LeBlanc in the slot had become a serviceable one. But it’s unlikely to look the same at the start of next season.
Jalen Mills, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, should be fully recovered from the foot injury that kept him out for the second half of the season. Maddox and LeBlanc are likely to compete for the slot opening. And with Ronald Darby, who tore his ACL in November, expected to leave via free agency, Jones should get his shot opposite Mills.
The Eagles could look for upgrades in free agency, and with nine draft picks, they could add some youth. But with five returning players who will be 25 or younger by the opener and already with experience, cornerback could be one of the positions with little turnover.
But there is still some uncertainty, mostly with Jones. Of the five returnees, he potentially has the highest ceiling. His combination of length — with above-average height, arm length (31-1/2 inches), and hands (9-3/8 inches) — and speed (a 4.47 40-yard dash) gives him a solid base to cover NFL receivers.
Jones didn’t stack up favorably against cornerbacks in other measurables at the 2017 combine, finishing in the bottom 25 percent in weight (a then-186 pounds), vertical jump (33-1/2 inches), three-cone drill (7.02 seconds), and 20-yard shuttle (4.28 seconds). But his college film showed that he more than compensated with his instincts and understanding of scheme.
There were glimpses of that ability last season, particularly in the first three games. Jones was targeted 14 times over that span and allowed only eight catches for 39 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. In the next three games, however, he allowed 11 catches for 113 yards and a touchdown on 15 targets.
And then he got hurt.
Jones didn’t miss a single game in three college seasons. Some considered him the top cornerback in the 2017 draft. But on his last drill at Washington’s pro day, he ruptured his Achilles while backpedaling. The Eagles selected Jones in the second round anyway and said that they wouldn’t rush him back.
He played in the season finale against the Cowboys and left early with a hamstring strain. He practiced during the postseason but wasn’t active in three games.
When spring workouts first opened to reporters last May, Jones looked explosive. But he suffered another injury — coach Doug Pederson would label it only as “lower body” — and didn’t practice in the final three weeks before the summer break.
Jones missed a few practices during training camp, but he played in the preseason and said that he was completely healthy at the beginning of the season.
The same probably can’t be said of when he first returned from the hamstring injury against the Saints. He missed the next game and played every snap of the Redskins game, but he said he suffered a different strain to the same hamstring against the Cowboys. He tried to play through, but he was easy pickings for Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott.
“I could have probably been smarter, but the football side of me took over,” Jones said. “We had guys down. We had injuries, and I’m like, ‘OK, I can play, I can kind of play.’ So in my head I’m not thinking anything less. It’s on the line.”
Jones wouldn’t see the field again. He wasn’t the only Eagles player to miss an abnormal amount of time to a hamstring strain last season. Running back Darren Sproles sat out 10 games after reinjuring himself twice during practice.
But there’s a 13-year age difference between the two. And no one had ever before questioned Sproles’ durability.
Asked for specifics on where he can improve as a player, Jones said that once he can stay healthy “everything after that should take care of itself.”
The offseason will be a time to reflect on his struggles, but it will also provide an opportunity to turn the page.