Trading Matthews 'hard trigger to pull,' but Eagles desperate to stockpile corners

Trading Matthews 'hard trigger to pull,' but Eagles desperate to stockpile corners

Howie Roseman has spent a good portion of his two tenures as Eagles GM trying to find cornerbacks.

He’s drafted guys. He’s signed guys. And now he’s traded for a guy.

The morning after the Eagles’ preseason opener, Roseman executed a blockbuster trade, acquiring third-year pro Ronald Darby — a 23-year-old former second-round pick — from the Bills in exchange for free-agent-to-be Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick.

"This was a hard trigger to pull, when you’re talking about Jordan and a premium pick," Roseman said.

"But we’re just trying to figure out the best way to build this team and be competitive — not only during the regular season but hopefully one day to win playoff games and get even further than that. 

"And when we look at this, the corner position is a huge priority for us and having the opportunity to get a young corner who can grow with our group, it was appealing."

Roseman, the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations, said the trade was the most difficult he’s ever had to make.

“You have a knot in your stomach,” he said.

But in the end, his desire to stock the cornerback spot with young talent convinced him to ship Matthews, whose 225 receptions are ninth-most in NFL history by a receiver in his first three seasons.

Darby started 29 games for the Bills the last two years. He had two interceptions with Buffalo — both in 2015 — but 33 pass knockdowns in 29 games.

"You know you're going to need a bunch of corners to play," Roseman said. "And so the more you can have at that position, the better set up you are. 

"It is a pass-driven league and throwing a bunch of three- and four-wide receiver packages is a part of (teams') game plan. And so when we looked at it and we looked at the teams that have tremendous success, they continue to throw resources at that position." 

The Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since their cornerbacks were Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, a pair of high 2002 draft picks.

Since that duo left Philly — Sheppard after 2008, Brown after 2009 — the Eagles have stumbled with an ever-changing cast of overpaid free agents, failed draft picks, disinterested reclamation projects and fading veterans on their last legs.

The Eagles this offseason drafted Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in the second and third rounds, signed veteran Patrick Robinson and brought back guys like Jalen Mills, Aaron Grymes, Ron Brooks and C.J. Smith.

"When you look at depth charts around the league, it’s hard to find corners," Roseman said. "It’s hard to find teams that have a lot of corners, and having all these guys who are 21, 22, 23 years old. I think that’s the most exciting thing about this."

Because of the cost — a capable receiver and a third-round pick — Darby automatically becomes the centerpiece of this group.

"He's got rare speed," Roseman said. "His production on the ball, he doesn't have a high interception number but his (passes defensed) number is incredibly high. 

"He's played a variety of coverages. He won a national championship at (Florida State). You see him go against the players that we go against in our division. The Bills in 2015 played the NFC East. So you have that look. 

"When you go into the draft, a lot of those things are unknown. So you have a lot of known qualities in him. We have people in the building who have been around him and that's an important part as well. 

"There's no insurance on these things. We do what we think is in the best interest of the team. And then when you pull the trigger on anything like this, you think about the player you're giving up and the draft pick. But we felt like this was the right decision for us."

The Eagles now have a nucleus of corners who are 23 or younger: Mills, Jones, Douglas and Darby. C.J. Smith, who has had a promising camp, is 24. 

"We spent a lot of time going over this because this is obviously a big trade for our football team," he said. "You look around the league, and it is a corner-deficient league. It's hard to find those guys. It's hard to find guys who have been solid starters in this league and can play at a high level. And teams that have them aren't really ready to move them. 

"So it's something that we felt — as well as the quarterback position, the offensive line, defensive line — you can never have enough of those guys."

Before the trade, Mills and Robinson were the projected starters, with Brooks the top slot guy. Douglas and Jones — out indefinitely while rehabbing an Achilles injury — presumably are the long-term future starters. 

Where does Darby fit in? 

"All those are good problems to have," Roseman said. "They'll all be sorted out through competition, through this process. 

"Our coaches will put the best guys out on the field and in the best positions. Jalen certainly has done a great job. Big jump from Year 1 to Year 2, he's really taken it and run with it."

How bad have the Eagles' cornerbacks been?

The Eagles have allowed 25 or more touchdown passes in eight straight seasons, the longest streak in NFL history.

The last time they didn't? That was 2008, the last time they won a playoff game.

"There are a lot of priorities that go into building a team that consistently competes for championships," Roseman said. "And having a defensive back, corner position that was young and could grow together, this fits with that description. 

"Ronald's got two years left on his contract. He's played in the National Football League for two years. You have the tape of watching him go against the guys we go against. Doesn't make it any easier. We wish Jordan all the best, but we did what we thought was best for our team going forward."

Don't get hung up on Keenum, Vikings pose daunting task for Eagles

AP Images

Don't get hung up on Keenum, Vikings pose daunting task for Eagles

6:40 p.m. on FOX
Eagles +3

The Eagles are hoping the clock doesn’t strike midnight on their Cinderella story just as they’ve arrived at the doorstep to the Super Bowl.

Few expected the Eagles to be playing the Vikings for the NFC Championship, let alone hosting the game at Lincoln Financial Field. Few thought they would still have a shot at the big game once Carson Wentz was lost for the season. Yet, here they are, one win away from a trip to Minneapolis in two weeks.

It will take a tremendous effort to beat the Vikings, who matched the Eagles' win total in 2017 with 13, and were the No. 2 seed to the Eagles’ No. 1 seed in the playoffs. But should they manage to pull this one off, it will make for one of the most unlikely celebrations in franchise history.

Better than the Falcons in every way
Confidence is sky high after the Eagles dispatched the reigning conference champions in the divisional round, but make no mistake – the Vikings present a much bigger challenge than the Falcons.

That might seem obvious to some. After all, the Vikings won three more games this season. Yet, whether it’s because they were in the Super Bowl last year or the perception they have more star power, particularly under center, others view the Falcons as a superior foe. Put another way, many fans were hoping the Eagles would draw the Vikings in the NFC Championship.

Be careful what you wish for.

Clearly, the Vikings are much stronger defensively. With the No. 1 total and scoring defense, No. 1 third-down defense, and No. 2 run and pass defenses in the NFL, just moving the football, let alone scoring, could prove difficult for the Eagles. Minnesota limited five of its last seven opponents to 10 points or fewer.

Even offensively speaking, the Vikings are better. The vaunted Falcons offense that was so scary in 2016 finished 15th in scoring this season, and 23rd in the red zone. Minnesota ranked 10th and ninth, respectively.

Don’t underestimate the Vikings simply because they lack the name recognition of All-Pro players like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Minnesota is here for a reason, just like the Eagles.

Don’t get hung up on Case Keenum
I lost count of the number of times I heard a sentence begin, “If you would’ve told me only Case Keenum stood between the Eagles and the Super Bowl at the beginning of the season.” Yeah, nobody expected it, but there’s two problems with that statement.

First of all, Keenum has played well all season. The journeyman signal caller finished second in the NFL with a 67.6 completion percentage, fourth with 1.5 interception percentage, and seventh with a 98.3 passer rating. He didn’t necessarily throw for a ton of yards or touchdowns but played efficient football while minimizing turnovers and sacks. Keenum or not, the Vikings’ offense is dangerous.

Second, and perhaps more pertinent, is the Vikings could say the same about Nick Foles. It’s not like the Eagles will be taking the field with Wentz. They’re in the exact same boat.

It’s easy to denigrate Keenum, who prior to this season had a 9-15 record as a starter. The reality is he’s playing like a viable starter, even flashed franchise quarterback potential. If you’re suggesting the Eagles’ road is easy due to who’s under center for the Vikings, you might be overlooking a decent player, not to mention the obvious comparison to Foles.

A classic formula
Speaking of Wentz, so much time has passed since he was lost for the season, one can almost forget the Eagles looked like a different team with No. 11 in the lineup. The offense was far more capable of striking quickly and scoring in bunches, racking up 30 points or more in eight of his 13 starts this season.

Since then, the Eagles have taken on somewhat of a new identity, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now, they’re built on running the football and playing stingy defense, a formula that’s been delivering Super Bowl championships successfully since the big game’s inception.

The defense has been good all season, finishing fourth in total yards and scoring, but often took a back seat to Wentz’s brilliance. Likewise, the ground attack was a major aspect of the Eagles' offense all season, even if it maybe lacked the sizzle Wentz would provide on a weekly basis.

Now, as the Eagles get set to host the Vikings in the conference championship, this is very much the defense’s team, while the offense must lean on the running game. Chances are good that, win or lose, the outcome is going to come down to how the Eagles perform in those two aspects.

Nick Foles' demeanor before biggest game of his life

USA Today Images

Nick Foles' demeanor before biggest game of his life

Nick Foles stood at his locker Friday afternoon, gently crossed his arms and waited for the throng of reporters to assemble in a semicircle around him. 

Music was blaring throughout the room, so there was about a minute of waiting and small talk. A few joked, including Foles, that the rap music playing could give his interview a cooler vibe. 

Eventually, the music was turned down before Foles deadpanned: "I mean, do we have enough cameras?" 

Foles is about to play the biggest game of his life Sunday. There are thousands across the country and even in Philadelphia doubting whether or not he'll be able to play well enough for an Eagles' win. And Foles has been relaxed as ever all week. 

"Right now I just feel good. I feel calm," he said. "When you're in the moment, I just stress staying in the moment, preparing in the moment, doing anything you can right at this moment. The rest takes care of itself. That just keeps me level."

It's not just Foles. It's the entire team that's been loose this week. 

Dancing at practice, shooting hoops in the locker room. Heck, Donnie Jones and Lane Johnson have even serenaded their teammates with country songs as they walked into meetings this week. It's a group that's been loose all season; they haven't changed a thing even before the most important game of the year. 

About six minutes into answering questions about Doug Pederson's play-calling, getting into an offensive rhythm and, of course, Case Keenum, one reporter noted to Foles that he seemed really calm. 

"I feel great, honestly," Foles said. "Just living in the moment, doing everything you can to prepare and then going out on Sunday and giving it everything you have. That's all you can ever do. Sometimes when you press and try to do too much, it becomes difficult. I think we just have a great schedule throughout the week, it's something we've been doing all throughout the year and we feel comfortable with it. You just sort of stick to the schedule, stick to your preparation. 

"I trust the guys next to me. The big reason I love playing football is I trust the guys next to me, I love the guys I play with. That's probably my greatest strength. I know I can depend on them and they can depend on me." 

Can I kick it? 
Without Jake Elliott's three field goals last Saturday, the Eagles aren't able to take down the Atlanta Falcons and they wouldn't be in the NFC Championship Game. 

Elliott, the rookie kicker who the Eagles added this season after Caleb Sturgis went down, will turn 23 on Sunday. The same day he'll very possibly need to make a game-winning field goal to send the Eagles to the Super Bowl. 

Last week, before his first playoff game, Elliott talked about how he handles pressure (see story). There's certainly a lot of it in the playoffs. 

"That's one thing with Jake," Pederson said. "It doesn't get so big for him. He handles all these situations. Inside he might be a ball of nerves, but on the outside, he's cool, calm and collected. Obviously some of the big kicks he's had this season already has really prepared him for it. If it comes down to that, he can make that kick. We all have faith and trust that he'll do it. When you step away from it and go, yeah, he's a rookie, first-year kicker, but he's been exposed to a lot of veteran kicks this year, and he's got a great future ahead of him."

The one slightly concerning thing about Elliott is his propensity to miss short kicks. While he's been incredible from long distances, extra points have been a problem. Including the playoffs, Elliott has missed four extra points. The only kicker to miss more this season? Vikings kicker Kai Forbath. 

So in a game pretty much everyone thinks will be close, this is something to watch. 

Of Elliott's four missed extra points, two have gone wide left, one went wide right and the one last week hit the left upright. 

Including extra points and playoffs, Elliott has actually been more accurate from 40-plus (90 percent) than inside 40 yards (87.7 percent) this season. Go figure. 

Thanks, Howie
Earlier this week, Eagles VP of football operations Howie Roseman was named the NFL Executive of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America. Not much of a surprise. He revamped a team that went 7-9 and helped turn them into the top seed in the NFC, capable of overcoming major injuries to key players. 

While many probably thought the Eagles were going into a season of building with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, Roseman went out and brought in players that he knew could help this season. 

For the coaching staff, it had to mean a lot that Roseman believed there was an opportunity to win this year. 

"It's tremendous," Pederson said. "Howie has come a long way through the last couple years, and to be in this position, to help this football team win and succeed on the football field is a credit to him and his staff. That's the thing that he and I with the communication, the open communication of being on the same page with the types of players that we want to have in this building and the types of good character people and obviously good football players, number one. 

"But it's just a credit to him and what he's done and being able to find the guys that we've been able to coach and help us get in this position."

Quote of the Week I: "But at the end of the day, it's going to come down to is our D-line better than theirs? I mean, they got a dominant D-line, we have a dominant D-line. And we'll see who shows up on Sunday." -- Fletcher Cox

Quote of the Week II: "He speaks with a lot of passion and intensity. And there's meaning behind his words. You want to be right there and you want to feed off of that intensity. You've already got a lot of emotions and energy in yourself already, but when you've got a guy like that, you feed off of that too." -- Steven Means on Malcolm Jenkins

Quote of the Week III: "I probably eat more than any guy I've seen. My best moment was I once ate 30 slices of pizza in one sitting. You know Cicis Buffet? Yeah, shut that place down." -- Stefen Wisniewski 

Random media guide note: Brandon Graham's first job was working the grill at McDonald's.