- Two of the standout players early in Training Camp, Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are still in search of respect even after winning the Super Bowl.
It's not the slimmed down jersey number that's making Ronald Darby look faster during the first week of Training Camp. The fourth-year cornerback has combined his incredible athleticism with a much better grasp of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme.
"I feel a lot better and a lot more confident in the defense," Darby said. "I feel as though I can play a lot more aggressively because I know how my safeties play. I know where help is going to be, where help isn't going to be. I had a whole offseason and everything to work on my ankle, get stronger, faster, so I feel like I'm right on pace where I want to be."
Darby arrived in Philadelphia last August in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. He crammed to learn the defense and then suffered a fractured ankle in the season-opening win at Washington. He was sidelined for eight games and returned after the bye week for the latter half of the Super Bowl run.
Despite playing in just eight games, he tied a career high with three picks. Two of them came in critical moments to help the Eagles secure home-field advantage for the playoffs. In the postseason, Darby played 99 percent of the snaps and led the defense in both tackles (22) and pass deflections (7).
While Darby is shadowing receivers all over the field, his counterpart Jalen Mills frustrates the opposition with his ability to read and react to the play, and by never giving up on a snap. On Tuesday, Mills was battling wide receiver Mack Hollins in a 7-on-7 drill. Hollins beat Mills off the line on a go route, but Mills recovered and when Nick Foles' pass was bobbled the corner knocked the ball to the ground.
In his second season, Mills was a full-time starter for the first time and also chipped in three interceptions, including a pick-six against the 49ers. His signature moment was battling Julio Jones on the final play of the Divisional Round win over the Falcons. Mills posted up on the All-Pro receiver helping force quarterback Matt Ryan's high throw to be incomplete.
The former seventh-round pick still yearns for respect. The Eagles have invested plenty of resources at the cornerback position in the last two years - using a second-round pick on Sidney Jones, a third-round pick on Rasul Douglas, and trading for Darby. No one has moved Mills off his starting spot.
"I never won anything big from peewee all the way to college. We had a couple itty-bitty bowl games but nothing really big like that so for me, having that feeling of winning on the biggest stage, I want it even more," Mills said.
"You've got to start fast and finish fast, you know what I mean? It's not a sprint. It's a marathon. So as far as setting the tone, just getting better and better every day, not having a high day then a low day then a high day. Every day has to be the same. We need to compete at a high level and make plays."
Darby switched his jersey number from 41 to 21 to keep the number in the defensive backs room after Patrick Robinson, who like Darby played his college ball at Florida State, left to re-sign with New Orleans in the offseason. He thought about the fact that he won the Super Bowl wearing No. 41, but wants to create a new legacy in his new number. And for all the success he had in his limited time a year ago, Darby focuses instead on the plays that he didn't make.
"We're going to keep working. We know the outcome that we want this year. We both want five or more picks, both want to be known as a dangerous duo in the league," Darby said.
"Darby is my boy. We kind of feed off each other. If I see him make a play, I know I have to make a play. If he sees me make a play, he knows he has to make a play now," Mills said. "So, I think as far as that goes, that's just a really good combo between him and me especially on this defense with how competitive we are."