A full participant in Thursday's practice, cornerback Sidney Jones moved a significant step closer to returning to action after missing the last three-plus games because of a hamstring injury. This is good news for a defensive secondary that can use all the good news it can get. And it's good news for Jones, who has worked hard to get back in the lineup after basically taking a redshirt season in 2017 after suffering his pre-draft Achilles tendon injury that spring.
In the big picture here – looking not only at Sunday in New Orleans but the rest of the season and years to come – Jones' development is crucial to the outlook for this football team. A second-round draft pick last year, Jones would likely have been an early-to-mid first-round draft pick had he not suffered the Achilles injury. The injury set him back a full season and then Jones worked to win a job at the nickel cornerback position – inside – this year. He had his moments through the first five-plus games he played before suffering the hamstring setback and it's fair to say that Jones had the typical highs and not-so-highs of a player on the field for extended reps for the first time in more than a full year.
There remains a high degree of just-how-good-will-he-be? with Jones. He's got all the physical attributes you want in a cornerback – he's 6-0, a solid 181 pounds, and he moves well, tackles willingly, changes direction, and appears to have a high football IQ. He needs work, for sure, and over time the game reps will sink in and Jones will play a more natural game rather than feeling around in the dark just a bit, if you will, for lack of game snaps at this level.
The Eagles need Jones to play at a high level given the second-round draft pick investment and the league's obvious open season on defenses. NFL offenses are scoring at a record rate and, let's be honest, it's never been easier to complete a pass in league history. Cornerbacks can't make contact with a wide receiver more than 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and throws down the field are either completed at a high rate or penalized (on defensive backs) at an even higher rate. In so many ways, a cornerback has the odds stacked against him.
Jones, who is going to have rust to shake off on Sunday should he have no setbacks and be good to go against the Saints, is a key figure as the Eagles shape their secondary for the remainder of the season. With Ronald Darby out after suffering a torn ACL on Sunday night against Dallas, a healthy Jones figures to have an opportunity to gain significant playing time as a potential starter on the outside opposite Rasul Douglas. When Darby was injured against the Cowboys, the Eagles turned to rookie Chandon Sullivan for his defensive debut, and he played 19 snaps and played hard, aggressive football. Sullivan, too, is a player the Eagles want to develop.
But Jones is in a different category. His talent level is high and all of the pre-draft reviews of his game suggested he could be a high-level cornerback in the NFL. The Eagles appeared to be in good position at cornerback entering the season with returning starters Darby and Jalen Mills, but both are out with injuries. Mills has not practiced this week after not playing against Dallas. He suffered a foot injury against Jacksonville in London. Douglas, a third-round pick in 2017, started against Dallas. Jones was close to playing, but not close enough to be activated on gameday.
A year ago, as Jones rehabbed his Achilles tendon, any mention of his progress was met with great anticipation from Eagles fans eager to see him in action. Jones played 29 snaps in the regular-season finale against Dallas and figured to be well on his way to a starting role in 2018 and, indeed, earned his spot in the nickel. For a player used to being on the outside, Jones impressed in his transition to the heavily trafficked inside corner spot.
His future home very well could be on the outside, but this is all very much speculative. We don't yet know much about Sidney Jones and his upside. That's why, starting Sunday (fingers crossed), the Sidney Jones Watch is back on. Darby's future is complicated with his injury and his contract, which expires after this season, making him a scheduled unrestricted free agent in 2019. The Eagles have a bunch of other young corners who are intriguing, and the hope is that two or three or four emerge and the defense can feel secure with its depth and talent at the ultracritical cornerback depth chart.
What can we expect from Jones should he play on Sunday? That's a good question. He's going to have a battle on his hands against a New Orleans passing game that has been virtually flawless all season and that puts up points at will (36.7 points per game). Know this, though: In the very large scheme of things, having Jones show that he can be a standout cornerback as he plays through the remainder of the season is an important goal for the Eagles' defense. Good cornerbacks in this league are treasured. The Eagles need to know they have one in Jones.