It was supposed to be the season during which cornerback Sidney Jones established himself. It was supposed to be a coming-out party for a second-round draft pick who spent all but 29 defensive snaps of his rookie season rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon, sidelined, waiting for the green light to play. In Year 2, 2018, Jones hoped he would rip through the shackles and get his game where he wanted it to be.
But it didn't happen.
After earning the starting nickel cornerback job in Training Camp and the preseason, Jones started the first six games of the year and had the typical ups and downs that a first-year player has – and then the season went south. A hamstring injury that knocked Jones from the October 11 Giants game after only eight snaps never really, truly got right the rest of the season and Jones ended up playing just nine games, contributing 36 total tackles and three passes defensed while playing 31 percent (322) of the team's defensive snaps.
"It was a frustrating season. I could just never get my leg where I wanted it to be," Jones said as the players cleaned out their lockers on Monday. "All I can do now is look forward. Everybody is going to have their share of adversity. It's how you handle it that separates you as a person and as a player. I am going to work hard in the offseason, get healthy, get stronger, and come back here and play my best football."
The questions surrounding Jones and what kind of player he can be in 2019 and beyond must be pretty high on the Eagles' list in the months to come. A position devastated by injuries in the season – the Eagles lost Ronald Darby (knee), Jalen Mills (foot), and Jones (hamstring) for long stretches of time – is a major focus moving into the future. Who can the Eagles count on at cornerback? Darby is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. Mills should be good to go for the spring and summer, and Jones, well, he is hopeful of being where he was – both mentally and physically – before suffering his Achilles injury in the weeks prior to the 2017 NFL Draft.
We know how critical the cornerback position is for the defense. The Eagles and coordinator Jim Schwartz and defensive backs coach Cory Undlin deserve a lot of credit for the way they worked around the injuries and for the way they developed the likes of Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, and Cre'Von LeBlanc. That the Eagles were able to turn the season around after falling to 4-6 in November and win five of their last six games in the regular season and then win in Chicago in the playoffs, it was impressive.
As the Eagles reload the roster in the months to come, they've got to keep the cornerback position at the top of mind. And one extremely critical evaluation is that of Jones, a player the draft evaluators said would have been a top 10-15 draft pick had he not suffered the Achilles tendon injury during his Pro Day at the University of Washington. Is Jones going to be a top cornerback? Can the Eagles count on him for next season to be that kind of player? Are injuries going to always keep him down?
It's fair to say that, in many ways, 2019 is a crossroads season for Jones, the 43rd pick in the 2017 draft.
"From a playing standpoint, everything comes down to getting my body right," Jones said. "That should take care of itself. That's all I have to focus on. I'm going to work hard on getting it right. The number one focus for me is getting it right in the offseason so that I can come back here and show everybody what I can do."
In the big picture, Jones wants to be an outside cornerback and build on what he started in college when he was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Pac-12 player. That he made the move to nickel and showed versatility will only help Jones in his career, but he was drafted to play on the outside and be the kind of cornerback who can cover every receiver. Jones is waiting on the next step.
So are the Eagles. And as they go through the evaluation process in the weeks ahead, what are they going to say about Jones? How much will they count on him for 2019? What priority do the Eagles place on the cornerback position as they are armed with nine draft picks as well as an aggressive and creative mentality in free agency?
"I can only control what I can control, and for me I have to get healthy and stay healthy," Jones said. "When I do that, everything else will be where I want it to be. There is no rust. I'm ready to play, and I'm excited to take the next step in my career. It's what I need to do. It's my focus."