Eagles Training Camp Preview: Cornerbacks
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - One year can make a big difference in the NFL, as big as say 7-9 versus Super Bowl champions and no position group on the reigning champion Eagles highlights that better than cornerback.
There was a lot of hand-wringing outside the walls of the NovaCare Complex this time last year with the knowledge that Sidney Jones would likely be redshirting the majority of his rookie season with a torn Achilles and the assumption that a 2017 seventh-round pick, Jalen Mills, was expected to be the top option at the position.
The pieces fell into place to create a wonderful puzzle, however, starting with the acquisition of Ronald Darby in August and the move of veteran Patrick Robinson to the slot. Mills, meanwhile, progressed rapidly between Year 1 and 2 and Rasul Douglas, a rookie third-round pick, held his own when forced into action.
Things feel a lot more comfortable this time around even with Robinson bolting for New Orleans in free agency.
Jones is back, presumably healthy although he did miss a number of practices at the end of the spring with what Doug Pederson described as hockey-like lower body soreness, while Mills is now a given and it's fair to expect elevated play from both Darby, who is in his walk year, and the now second-year Douglas.
The elephant in the room is the slot where Robinson parlayed a career year into a big-money deal with the Saints.
SLOT-ING SIDNEY IN
After a redshirt rookie season in which Jones made only a brief cameo in the meaningless regular-season finale, the talented second-year cornerback should be ready to make an impact on Jim Schwartz's defense.
Jones, who turned 22 on May 21, was regarded by most scouts as the most physically gifted corner in the 2017 NFL Draft, a certain top-20 pick until a torn Achilles at his pro day sent the University of Washington product tumbling out of the first day and into the second where Philadelphia made a calculated 76ers-like gamble, selecting Jones at No. 43 overall content to play the waiting game.
That part of this process ended this spring when the Eagles began Phase 3 of OTAs with their first on-field practice with all of the veterans and Jones was a full go, working with the first-team defense in the nickel.
The interesting part was where Jones lined up. The assumption that Mills would be the left corner in the base defense and then slide inside in the nickel was incorrect. Mills stayed at LC opposite Darby and Jones was simply inserted into the slot, the former domain of Robinson, who may have been the best nickel back in the NFL last season during Philadelphia's run to a championship.
It's a position Jones admitted he's never played before when speaking with reporters and not necessarily his full-time role moving forward. In fact, with his physical traits, it's almost assured Jones will be playing the majority of the time outside the numbers sooner rather than later.
“They want everybody to try it out,” Jones explained. “It’s something very new to me."
Jones occasionally practiced inside at UW but he's never played in the slot during an actual game. What did help him was all the mental reps he got during his rookie campaign while rehabbing the Achilles.
“Every week I was preparing like I was going to play,” Jones said. “I don’t feel like a rookie, because I understand [the defense]."
Jones also believes working through such an ill-timed injury has made him a stronger person and player.
"How are you going to react to the adversity? What are you going to do after that [injury]? That’s kind of what drove me."
The slot position is a difficult one at the professional level because often a team's best route runner will be placed inside and given the freedom to run option routes. Defenders need savvy, short-area quickness, and an ability to avoid rub routes while also holding up in run support.
Jones stressed knowing the assignment on any given play and where the help is coming from is paramount.
“Communication is very key," he said. "You have to communicate.”
Jones immediately flashed in his new position, undercutting a Nelson Agholor route to pick off a hurried Nick Foles, who had Fletcher Cox breathing down his neck.
"I have high expectations," Jones said. And the Eagles have even higher expectations when it comes to Jones.
“Now that he’s had a full offseason with [secondary] coach [Cory] Undlin and Schwartz’s defense, he’s definitely going to be in the mix,” Pederson said.
You get the feeling that Plan A is still to start Mills on the outside and move him inside when the Eagles defense goes into the nickel with Jones, the most talented corner on the roster, then taking over outside the numbers opposite Darby.
A NEW CONTENDER EMERGES
Schwartz and Undlin spent the spring rolling bodies into the slot in an effort to figure out what they have and one stood out, practice squad returnee De'Vante Bausby, a lightning-fast, 25-year-old player who has bounced around the NFL's P.S. world for parts of three years from his hometown Kansas City Chiefs, to Chicago, back to the Show Me State and finally as a key part of Philadelphia's scout-team operation during the 2017 Eagles' Super Bowl campaign.
“I need to put it all together," Bausby admitted when talking with reporters at his locker during the spring. "It’s been four years. I feel like I’ve got everything right now, I've got all the information I need. Now I need to put it together out there on the field."
Now it's about meshing that information with a bigger body -- Bausby is up to 190 pounds on his lanky 6-foot-2 frame after entering the NFL at under 180 -- and the physical gifts that put him on the radar in the first place, things like a 37.5-inch vertical leap, exploding 11 feet on the broad jump, and capping everything off at Pittsburg State's pro day with a "wind-aided" 4.22 40-yard dash.
"It’s definitely been a roller coaster," Bausby said of his NFL career. “It’s been tough but I’ve kept believing that better things are in store down the road. It’s time for me to take advantage of the opportunity."
Originally an undrafted free agent, Bausby has already caught the eye of many in Philadelphia by becoming the Steven Means of the secondary, players who excel on the scout team and get others ready to perform at a high level on game day.
"His contributions were behind the scenes last year, but we have a lot of guys that have an impact on Sunday that might not be playing," Schwartz explained. "He worked the offense hard. I think those guys have respect for him, and I know our coaches have respect for him."
Count Alshon Jeffery among that group who respect Bausby. The Eagles' WR1 told the 25-year-old that he was better than any corner on Washington's roster after a game against the Redskins last season although Bausby did concede that Josh Norman wasn't on the field.
“Alshon used to tell me, ‘Hey, Baus, you’re way better than those guys,’” Bausby said. “That was good to hear. But it’s time for me to prove it. Time for me to prove I belong."
Bausby got quite a bit of work with the first-team defense in Robinson's old nickel spot, more than any other player at least when the media was allowed to observe and often flashed the one thing that has become a theme when Schwartz talks about his CBs: the willingness to compete.
"He was ready to play for us last year if need be," Schwartz claimed. ".... He's a very, very competitive player. He's got good size, but his competitiveness stands out. You guys will see that [in training camp]."
Like most of the Eagles' young corners Bausby doesn't have much experience playing inside. He acknowledged his cups of coffee with the Chiefs, as well as Chicago, were spent trying to take advantage of his blazing speed and turn him into an outside corner. Schwartz, however, craves versatility and complete players so Bausby's easiest path to the field in Philadelphia will be the slot, something Bausby quickly realized once Robinson left for New Orleans in free agency.
“After we lost P-Rob, I kind of knew they were going to be looking for a new nickel guy," Bausby said. “I wanted to get a shot at it."
And that's all it is right now as Schwartz mulls his options.
As with Mills, who turned from uneven, often overmatched rookie into a Pro Bowl alternate by his second season, the Eagles are hoping for a similar trajectory from Douglas, who got thrown into the deep end of the pool at times during his rookie campaign.
The 2017 third-round pick out of West Virginia played before he probably should have after Darby went down in the season opener against Washington with a dislocated ankle. For the next month the lengthy 6-foot-2 New Jersey native was a starting CB in the NFL, overwhelmed at times but aggressive and forgetful, traits Schwartz loves in his defensive backs.
By his second game as a professional Douglas was playing in 74 percent of the team's defensive snaps in Kansas City and then was a full-time player for the two weeks after, playing 100 percent of the time.
The results weren't great but it was also far from terrible. In what turned out to be a Super Bowl season, Douglas did his part by holding his own. From Week 5 on Douglas' role lessened incrementally as Mills and Robinson held things down well before Darby ultimately returned at Dallas on Nov. 19.
When it was all said and done Douglas finished his inaugural season playing in 41 percent of the defensive snaps and amassing 39 tackles with two interceptions and 14 passes defended, solid production for a third-round selection. When the rotation was shortened on the back end in the playoffs, however, Douglas was active but did not play on defense.
With Robinson gone there is now an opening with a lot of moving parts. At one point this spring Darby was moved inside to the slot with the first-team defense with Douglas handling the work at RC.
Typically Schwartz like his players to be as versatile as possible but with his size, Douglas has been one of the few CBs on the team that the defensive coordinator is keeping outside the numbers.
“I like myself outside, but I can play anything," Douglas insisted.
Schwartz intimated that Douglas may ultimately get an opportunity at safety as well where the team is the lookout for someone in the Corey Graham role as the third safety who enables Schwartz to move Malcolm Jenkins all over the formation.
“Some guys, we’ll keep strictly outside, but we have a significant portion that will cross-train," the defensive coordinator explained. "We even have some guys that will cross-train safety position and corner. “Again, going back, that was a big part of our success [last season] … having Malcolm be able to play a lot of those and fill in at a lot of different positions. We value versatility."
DEEP END OF THE ROSTER
Rookie Avonte Maddox is a lock to make the team but is a project. At 5-foot-9 Maddox almost has to play inside at the pro level because players like Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Mike Evans exist but the Detroit native played outside at Pitt and needs time to learn the differences of playing inside.
"It's different," Maddox admitted to 973espn.com. "There's a little bit more to it [than playing outside]. You need to be aware of all of your surroundings."
Also, don't sleep on another former practice squad player, D.J. Killings.
LCB1 Jalen Mills - Jim Schwartz favorite who has gone from seventh-round pick to entrenched on this defense.
RCB1 Ronald Darby - A good season will get Darby big money on the free-agent market next year.
LCB2 Sidney Jones - Lower-body soreness in the spring concerned some. Has the ability to be a lockdown corner.
RCB2 Rasul Douglas - Imposing size vs. below-average speed.
SLOT2 Avonte Maddox - Undersized speedster who looks like a slot corner.
ON THE BUBBLE:
SLOT1 De'Vante Bausby - Schwartz indicated he would have been ready to play last season.
SLOT3 D.J. Killings - Should get the opportunity to make a run at a roster spot in camp.
PRACTICE SQUAD HOPEFULS:
CB5 Chandon Sullivan - Numbers say he should have a good shot at earning a P.S. spot.
CB6 Randall Goforth - Returning after an ACL shut down his rookie campaign.
CB POSITION GRADE: 7.0
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-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen