Twelve months ago, the cornerback position on the Eagles was, pretty clearly for all to see, as unsettled as could be. The team had just spent two draft picks on cornerbacks, throwing Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas into a mix that included Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, and Ron Brooks. The picture now looks so much different, and for the better.
"I give Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas and their staff a lot of credit for building this up and bringing in the competitive players they've brought here," defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said on Monday. "There has been a lot of change. I'm blessed to be in a room with a bunch of good players and a bunch of great, great young men. The more that I do this I think that has just as much with a player and how he is going to fit in – not just his athletic ability but his mindset and how he comes to work every day. I'm blessed to be in a room with so many high-character guys that care about each other and this football team as a whole and doing whatever they can to help this football team win."
The makeover started with the draft selections of Jones and Douglas last spring. Jones, after a season of rehab to recover from Achilles tendon surgery, is all the way back and competing both at the nickel cornerback position and on the outside. Douglas is an outside cornerback here and he's made some terrific strides since his rookie season. The trade with Buffalo for Ronald Darby paid off last season and should be even more Eagles-friendly this year with Darby having been part of the program for an entire offseason.
Then there is a group of developmental players the Eagles had on the practice squad/Injured Reserve last season – De'Vante Bausby, D.J. Killings, and Randall Goforth – who are showing up in the spring and increasing the level of competition. Adding Avonte Maddox in the 2018 draft's fourth round gives the Eagles a whole lot more from which to choose.
So how it is going to look when the roster is all said and done? Who starts on the outside (Darby and Mills are taking the starting reps now)? Who replaces Robinson, after his strong 2017 season, as the nickel cornerback?
"We're really taking a look at everybody and we'll see who emerges," Undlin said. "That's how we're going to handle it going into Training Camp."
Here is a look at some of the candidates with Undlin's comments.
Ronald Darby: "He wasn't here for Phase 2 or Phase 3 last year and was here for only two weeks in Training Camp and then we're playing a game and he gets hurt 16 plays into the game. He came back and had a good season for us. It wasn't perfect, but nobody is perfect. The best thing for him and it's stuck, and he's now had two months, the transition that he has made with all the technical work that he's gotten. He's had a nice spring. It's only been eight practices, but very nice."
Jalen Mills:"He's getting better every single day. He's not satisfied with any part of his game. He's working a lot harder this spring as far as watching tape and studying not only himself but opponents we're going to be playing this year. We all know him. He shows up every single day. You wouldn't know if he was a rookie or if he was playing for 10 years. That's the way he's built. That's the way his mind is built. I would expect nothing but a steady incline from him as he keeps playing."
Sidney Jones: "It's just great for him to be out there. He's getting better every day. Phase 1, 2, and 3 have been great for him to be out there playing inside and outside. I love where he's headed."
Rasul Douglas: "Nice, steady incline from him. I think, a year after he was drafted, he's a different player. He just looks more confident, he looks more at ease out there on the practice field. He knows the defense now, so he has all the terminology wired. The way he has been working and grooming with the young guys has been impressive as well. He's been demanding on the field, which is good to see. It doesn't shock me. I'm confident of him being a high-level player on the outside."
Avonte Maddox: "He's very competitive and he keeps coming. He has a lot to learn but it seems like he's picking things up quickly. We'll see when we get him on the field more and the pads go on in Training Camp. He's like all the rookies – learning tons every day."
De'Vante Bausby: "The biggest thing is he's running our defense now after working on the scout team all last season. He's doing a great job, really standing out. I'm looking forward to seeing him in this minicamp and then in Training Camp. He's shown up a lot when he's had the chance to play nickel."
Ah, nickel. That's one of the pressing questions for this defense: How do the Eagles replace Robinson, who is now in New Orleans? Undlin says "there is no leader in the clubhouse," as the Eagles rotate the reps and take a look at every candidate for the job. It's likely not to be weeded out until later in the preseason. The good news is that Undlin could very well have a difficult choice, because the Eagles have some strong candidates.
That, in fact, is the key takeaway here: In a league where cornerback depth is at a premium, the Eagles have upgraded one of the game's most important rooms. They have a wealth of cornerbacks. The competition in Training Camp is going to be worth watching.
In a span of 12 months, the turnaround is encouraging. The Eagles have an enviable situation at cornerback, much to Undlin's delight.
"Great group of players and competitors and men," he said. "I don't know who is going to end up where, it's exactly what we want: A lot of good players bringing out the best in each other. These players want to be great. That makes my job a lot easier."