The goal for the Eagles is to have competition at every roster position, to make it difficult – intensely difficult – for the coaching staff and Howie Roseman and the personnel department to reach the 53-man roster late in the summer. The cornerback room is an example of what the Eagles want as the spring conditioning program heads into its fourth week.
Taking care of business in free agency and bringing Ronald Darby back into the fold meant the Eagles entered the NFL Draft with a full stock of cornerbacks on the roster. They’ve still got a loaded room, and with four or five the traditional number of corners on a 53-man roster, the Eagles are going to get what they want this summer from that group.
With Darby, who is still recovering from the ACL injury that prematurely ended his 2018 season, the Eagles have everyone back from last year, when injuries ravaged the room, but at the same time provided opportunities for others to step up. And they did just that.
While Darby and Jalen Mills had their seasons ended prematurely, players like Rasul Douglas and Cre’Von LeBlanc and Avonte Maddox took their turns in the pressure-cooker environment of the regular season’s stretch run and the playoffs. As challenging as it was at that time, the players stepped up, gained confidence, and played good football.
We’ll see the benefits of those reps in the months to come.
“It was definitely a positive for me to play and get some experience,” Douglas said at the end of the season. He started nine games overall and played 52 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular season and 84 percent of the plays in the two postseason games. “You really can’t replace being out on the field when the action is live and fast. I feel like I improved a whole lot.”
Douglas sure did, and now he’s in the offseason program a different player. He’s more sure of himself. He’s more comfortable in the defensive system. He’s gained waaaay more confidence. And Douglas is, certainly, in the mix among the crowded field at cornerback.
“I’m proud of the way those guys played. That wasn’t an easy situation,” Darby said shortly after re-signing with the Eagles. “They came together and played good football.”
Now? There is no depth chart at this time of the year, of course, and the Eagles’ way is to give reps to everyone and let the cream rise to the top. Let’s take a look at some of the players.
An established veteran, Darby has the speed and the tools to play at a high level – he just needs to get healthy and stay healthy. A foot injury robbed him of nine games in 2017 before he recovered and played a huge part in the Super Bowl LII victory, and then last year he suffered the knee injury. Darby signed a one-year contract in March and said he hopes to be ready for Training Camp.
Douglas has started 12 games in his two seasons and he’s looked more and more at home in the defense. He’s an excellent tackler and he’s got length. Douglas enters his third season with a lot of confidence in his game, for good reason.
A starter since the Eagles made him a seventh-round draft choice, Mills has the tenacity and the aggressiveness and the focus that the Eagles love. Those traits have made him a success story, and then some. Mills is still recovering from a foot injury suffered in the victory over Jacksonville in London. Once he gets back, Mills will face competition from a talented group around him.
In his second season, Maddox looks to take a big jump from an impressive rookie season during which he played the outside cornerback position, the nickel spot, and safety. Added together, Maddox played 520 snaps (52 percent of the defense’s snaps) in the regular season and another 135 snaps in the two playoffs games. He started 11 games. He’s a versatile player and if he takes the next step, it’s going to be tough to keep him off the field. Does he play cornerback or safety? If he’s a cornerback, does he play inside in the nickel or outside? Hey, it’s only May. The coaches will determine this in the summer.
Claimed off of waivers from Detroit midway through 2018, LeBlanc was a revelation as he stabilized the nickel cornerback position combining his athleticism, fearlessness, and tenacity. Maybe LeBlanc, who played in Chicago for two seasons and then with the Lions for a month on the practice squad and then a month on the active roster before he was released, has found a home. If nothing else, he’s given the coaching staff another viable option to add to the mix at cornerback. Credit a strong pro scouting department headed up by Dwayne Joseph for identifying LeBlanc and bringing him here, and defensive backs coach Cory Undlin for developing him and preparing LeBlanc for ready-to-go duty as soon as he joined the Eagles.
In his third season, Jones looks to build upon the good football he played prior to suffering a hamstring injury that sidelined Jones for most of the season. Jones initially earned the nickel cornerback spot and then was injured and ended up playing only 322 snaps in the season. What happens now with Jones? He’s healthy and he is eager to show what he can do. But, as is the case all around here, there is competition. Jones has to earn his playing time.
Here is a young veteran who has played in 32 NFL games with three starts and who will have a solid foundation in the defense after joining the Eagles late last season and playing 21 snaps in the playoff loss at New Orleans because of injuries. Hawkins has some size and experience. He, too, is in the mix.
A veteran of the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos, Maston signed a reserve/future contract with the Eagles in January and is now going to see if his skills translate to the NFL. Maston began his college football career at Bakersfield College before transferring to Boise State.
Talk about learning the business side of the NFL … since signing with Dallas as an undrafted rookie in 2016, McKinnon has been with the Cowboys, Titans, Dallas again, Washington, the Giants, Cleveland, and now the Eagles, having signed a reserve/future contract in January. He would love to find some stability. To do so, McKinnon has to beat out a lot of talent in a crowded field, exactly what the Eagles hope to have at every position by the time the pads go on at Training Camp.