In a league where teams scuffle to stock the roster with quality cornerbacks, the Eagles have aggressively addressed the position the last couple of years and now, as they step back and look at cornerback as a group, they like what they see. There are still questions, but the possibilities are tantalizing.
"Competition across the board," head coach Doug Pederson said. "That's what you want. We've got a lot of young players there and they're going to bring out the best in each other."
By using a fourth-round draft pick on Saturday on Pittsburgh's Avonte Maddox, the Eagles brought yet another prospect into the mix, adding to a group that has been almost completely overhauled in the span of 12 months. Only Jalen Mills, a seventh-round draft pick from 2016, was here before last April's draft that started the rebuild. Taking Sidney Jones in the second round and Rasul Douglas in the third round began the transition, and trading for Ronald Darby set the Eagles up for 2017. Of course, the Eagles signed Patrick Robinson late in free agency last March, and he emerged as a vital component in the cornerback room as a top-notch nickel corner last season.
Robinson signed with New Orleans as this year's free agency period opened. Maddox is here as a candidate to replace Robinson, but there are certainly no guarantees. Not many would have predicted after watching Robinson in Training Camp last summer, for example, that he would blossom as he did during the season.
So there are no givens at cornerback looking ahead. Just a lot of talent and a lot of youth and open competition. Let's take a look at some of the candidates at cornerback, where the Eagles could keep five, maybe six, on the 53-man active roster in 2018.
A two-year starter who continues to improve, Jalen Mills is going to fight. We've seen that from him. Mills is a worker, he's a physical cornerback and he's got an air of confidence that is refreshing. Mills may not have the requisite short-area quickness to play inside against the likes of Cole Beasley, but if the Eagles see a bigger body lining up in the slot, Mills could be a candidate to slide inside. Where does Mills fit into the picture now? He's the returning starter. He goes in as a starter, understanding that the best men win the playing time. Mills has answered the bell for two seasons. His plan is to start, so we should see the best of Mills in the summer as he takes another step forward.
Understand that Ronald Darby was acquired by the Eagles in the 2017 summer and learned the defensive scheme very quickly and then suffered a severe ankle in Week 1 at Washington. After missing two months, Darby returned to the lineup and had his moments in the second half of the season and in the playoffs. Darby should be even better having a full season in the system, now that he's fully healthy. Darby has the speed to match up with any receivers in the league and his athleticism is a big plus.
A second-round draft pick last year who would have been a first-round selection had he not suffered a torn Achilles tendon last March, Sidney Jones knocked off some rust playing in the regular-season finale against Dallas. Now he understands the tempo of an NFL game. He worked through any mental trepidation. Jones is 100 percent healthy. So now we get a feel for just how good he can be. Is Jones ready to compete for a starting job? Is he the shutdown corner of the future here? Supremely talented, intelligent, and a hard worker, Jones appears to have all the tools. It's going to be exciting to watch him this summer.
Raw and unrefined coming out of West Virginia, Rasul Douglas played a lot of quality snaps in the defense last season, mostly when Darby was injured. Douglas' playing time waned later in the season, but he's very much in the team's plans now. Douglas is long and physical and he tackles well. If it's true that players make their most improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, Douglas is in for a big jump. He's going to push for playing time.
At just under 5-10 and about 190 pounds, Avonte Maddox is a smaller body in the cornerback room. But he showed at Pittsburgh that he's got short-area quickness and can run down the field and stay with speedy receivers. It's likely that Maddox will get an early look as a nickel cornerback, so how quickly he picks up on the nuances of the scheme, the way receivers use their veteran tricks to create separation, and all of the parts of the game that are more subtle are going to be key to how fast he factors into the defense.
Undrafted and then signed by New England last year, D.J. Killings joined the Eagles on the practice squad last October. The Eagles thought enough of him that they reportedly bumped up his pay when they learned that another team last season wanted to add him to the active roster. He could get some looks inside in the nickel. Killings is going to make a push here.
In the NFL since 2015, De'Vante Bausby has been with Kansas City and with Chicago, and saw some game action with the Bears in 2016 before returning to Kansas City last summer. Bausby has size at 6-2 and 190 pounds, so he may be more suited to an outside-only role. Bausby has to open eyes once the Eagles get on the field and stay consistent to win a job here.
It's hard to know much about Randall Goforth, who joined the Eagles as an undrafted rookie from UCLA last year. He tore his ACL in the summer and spent the season on Injured Reserve. He's here for a reason. The Eagles clearly see something in Goforth, and in all of these cornerbacks.
A huge question-mark position a year ago, cornerback is a position of strength now. There are questions, but the Eagles have depth in talent and in youth and in possibilities. This is going to be one of the most enjoyable positions to watch in the summer to see how it all shakes out.