Rasul Douglas and Craig James have side-by-side lockers at the NovaCare Complex, which is fitting during a week when they are two (of three) healthy cornerbacks on an Eagles roster that has been decimated by injuries at the position. For Douglas, in his third season with Philadelphia, this is old hat: He’s seen injuries take apart the roster and he’s seen the team overcome all of the boo-boos.
For James, this is new territory, and he’s just trying to stay focused on the moment.
Those two, along with Orlando Scandrick (re-signed last Friday) and potentially safety Malcolm Jenkins, who slides into the nickel cornerback position from time to time if the situation calls for it, like last Thursday in Green Bay, and maybe Sidney Jones, who suffered a hamstring injury that knocked him out of the Packers game and who on Wednesday was a limited participant in practice, constitute the current Eagles’ cornerback picture.
This is very much a day-to-day survival situation, so nobody is jumping ahead here.
But it is fascinating case study on a position that is, let’s face it, as difficult to play as any in the NFL. Athletic ability can’t be taught, and playing cornerback requires a lot of natural skill – changing direction, closing speed, flat-out turn-and-run speed, and quickness. It’s a humbling position by nature because you’re going to lose at times. The best cornerbacks in the history of the game get beat.
And then they come back for more.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,” said James, who last Thursday made the win-saving play when he got his hand on an Aaron Rodgers pass and the football spun into the air for linebacker Nigel Bradham to intercept and preserve the Eagles’ crucial 34-27 win at Lambeau Field. “My life hasn’t changed since that play, except maybe I’ve got more Instagram followers. That’s social media, though. I care about football and making plays and everything here is day to day for me.”
On his second defensive snap of the game, James made the play and, instantly, everyone knew his name. He’s likely to get some substantial playing time on Sunday when the Jets come to town, and no matter what you think of the Jets, know that they’ve got a speedster in Robby Anderson on one side, a veteran in Demaryius Thomas who has battled injuries and may not play but who has 689 receptions in his career, and a crafty slot receiver named Jamison Crowder, who has always been a tough customer to cover.
“Every player in the NFL is a great player,” said Douglas, a third-round draft pick in 2017 who has consistently improved in his years here. “You have to play in this game to get better. You can get all the mental reps, be a visual learner, and that’s great, but nothing is like playing in games. The more reps I get, the better I feel I get.
“We’ve had a lot of guys in and out of the room since I’ve been here. A lot of guys have been hurt. You just keep playing, keep working on your game.”
This is not an ideal situation. Everybody acknowledges that. The Eagles entered the season feeling like they had promising depth at the position having re-signed Ronald Darby after his dip into free agency, expecting Sidney Jones to find his stride in Year 3, knowing that Avonte Maddox would take a step forward in his second season on the field, thinking that Cre’Von LeBlanc would play well in the nickel position, having confidence that Douglas would continue to make strides, and believing that, at some point, Jalen Mills would be on the field after recovering from his foot injury suffered in London last season.
But, the injuries. They just keep piling up. And nobody has an answer for what’s going on. They just keep playing.
“Next man up,” Douglas said. “That’s the way it is around here. Just go out and play.”
And that’s what the Eagles are going to do on Sunday. How it looks to start the game and what kind of shape the Eagles might be in after the game, well, we’re going to see. In 2019, the cornerback position has been a play-to-play proposition.
“We’re all going to play and we’ll help each other out and try to win a football game,” said James. “That’s really all you can do.”
Oh, we know. Cornerback has been hit hard by injury the last three seasons and, as the Eagles prepare for the Jets in Week 5 of this 2019 season, a third-year man (Douglas) is the veteran of the group, an NFL longtimer (Scandrick) is on board to resurrect his career, and the new kid, James, just wants to play well enough to stay on the roster for another week.
That’s life on the hot corner for the Eagles. They’ve gotten used to the uncertainty of the job.
“It’s been like this since I’ve been here,” Douglas said, “so I’m used to it. I’m just playing football.”