Ronald Darby dipped his toe into the NFL’s free agency pool and decided, at the end of the day, that Philadelphia is the place he wants to be. He knows this defense, these coaches, and this locker room. It just made sense that Darby, after reportedly visiting Kansas City on Thursday and considering a lot of interest from a lot of teams, agreed to terms with the Eagles on Friday to return for the 2019 season. Darby suffered a torn ACL in a 27-20 loss to Dallas on November 11 at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles clearly believe that Darby, who’s been a mainstay throughout the offseason at the NovaCare Complex rehabbing his injury, has made excellent progress coming back from the injury. Darby is expected, when healthy, to join the mix at what is suddenly an extremely interesting cornerback room.
Retaining Darby, one of the more highly sought-after free agents on the market, is a coup for the Eagles and it continues an offseason theme of keeping as much of the core of the roster together – the Eagles signed defensive end Brandon Graham before he would have hit a free agent market that would have welcomed him with open arms, and extended the contracts of center Jason Kelce and guard Isaac Seumalo while answering a question about Jason Peters for 2019, while at the same time adding impact players to the group, a list that has been bolstered with the free agent signing of defensive tackle Malik Jackson and the trade to acquire wide receiver DeSean Jackson. And while not necessarily labeled an “impact” player at this point based on his emerging NFL career, veteran linebacker L.J. Fort will add depth and competition at linebacker and on special teams.
A strong free agency period adds another outstanding move with the retention of Darby, who has played well for the Eagles and helped boost the athleticism and production at a cornerback position that just 24 months ago lacked developing, young talent. Only Jalen Mills, a seventh-round draft pick in 2016, had an established track record. But then the Eagles drafted Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in 2017, acquired Darby in a trade with Buffalo, used a fourth-round selection on Avonte Maddox in the 2018 NFL Draft, and then, needing bodies during the ’18 season, claimed Cre’Von LeBlanc off of waivers from Detroit and he developed into a quality nickel cornerback for the Eagles through the postseason.
Right there are six cornerbacks the Eagles will let compete in the spring and summer and see what happens. Add in young veteran Josh Hawkins and second-year man Chandon Sullivan and the Eagles are looking at cornerback group that is going to be tough to whittle down when it comes time to cut the roster to 53 players. Let’s take a look at the players:
A starter the last two seasons, Darby has done a good job when he’s been healthy. He suffered a dislocated ankle in 2017 that sidelined him for half a season and then lost the second half of the 2018 campaign with the ACL injury. Darby has to continue to attack his rehab and get on the field and stay there. How close to 100 percent can Darby reach before September? That’s an important question that will be answered as we get closer to Training Camp.
Injured in the game against Jacksonville in London, Mills walked off the field that day and didn’t play the remainder of the year. His foot injury serious enough to knock him out for half a season, so it’s going to be a critical rehab. Let’s hope he can get on the field in the spring and make sure he’s all the way back.
Based on the way he played last season, Maddox is going to push for a starting spot, either on the outside or at the nickel position. Everything will be open when Organized Team Activities begin, so nothing is a given. Hopefully, Maddox takes that next step forward that so many players do from years one to two. He was mighty impressive as a rookie.
One of the more “interesting players to watch” on this roster is Jones, a second-round draft pick three springs ago. He was the team’s nickel cornerback early last season before hamstring injuries ruined his year. Now Jones faces a challenging time: He’s got to get healthy and stay healthy and then go out and earn playing time. Again, everything is open here. The Eagles would love for Jones, in his third season, to really take that quantum leap forward. This is a critical spring and summer for Jones.
Perhaps the most improved player on the defensive roster last year, Douglas took advantage of all of the injuries and stepped up when he had the chance to play ball. He played in a career-high 52 percent of the defensive snaps, had three interceptions, and tackled extremely well. Douglas allows the Eagles to match up with bigger receivers and he showed last year that he can cover smaller ones, also.
An example of good scouting and excellent coaching helped LeBlanc fit right into the Eagles’ defensive scheme as the nickel cornerback after he was claimed off waivers from Detroit. LeBlanc’s tenacity paid off and he picked up the system quickly and made a positive impact down the stretch and in the postseason. LeBlanc is another good fit in the scheme and he’s going to be in the mix for playing time.
Signed to the practice squad late in the regular season, Hawkins was promoted to the 53-man roster and played in the regular-season finale at Washington and then again in both playoff games as a special teamer and a cornerback. With 32 NFL games of experience, Hawkins hopes to find a home and stability this summer. He’s got to play great football to win a job on this competitive depth chart, but isn’t that what the NFL is all about, anyway?
Back and forth between the practice squad and the active roster as a rookie, Sullivan should be ready to make a roster push in 2019. He’s got talent and now he’s got the defense down and all of those first-year jitters are gone. He’s got some real work to do to crack into the top four or five here.