Eagles

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."

How simply navigating locker room can be a difficult task for some Eagles

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Tom Finer | NBC Sports Philadelphia

How simply navigating locker room can be a difficult task for some Eagles

As soon as a towel-clad Jaylen Watkins walked out of the showers and into the Eagles' locker room Thursday afternoon, his shoulders slumped and he let out a near-silent sigh. 

He approached the horde of reporters near his locker stall before he locked eyes with one who was standing directly in his space. The two chuckled as they awkwardly sidestepped each other to swap positions. 

The media contingent that covers the Eagles is one of — if not the — biggest in the entire league. That's great news for fans, who have plenty of options. 

It's not great news for Watkins, who just wants to get changed. 

See, Watkins' locker is positioned just to the left of team leader Malcolm Jenkins'. Jenkins holds court with reporters a couple times per week, which can be a slight inconvenience for Watkins and Patrick Robinson, who also shares a wall with him.

And Watkins knows whenever there's a political story in the news, reporters are going to want to talk to his outspoken teammate. 

"I guess that's what comes being next to Malcolm," Watkins said. "You get good insight on stuff, but you also have to deal with the baggage that comes with him." 

NFL locker rooms are weird places and it's not because of the nakedness. After all, locker rooms are meant for changing. But trying to change while a group of media members slowly infringes upon your personal space makes it a little strange. 

But for three 45-minute windows each week, reporters fill the room. On any given Wednesday or Thursday during the week at the NovaCare Complex, there can be as many as 30 to 40 media members in attendance. It's just a part of the deal in Philadelphia.

For Shelton Gibson, this is all new. 

The rookie receiver said reporters weren't allowed in the West Virginia locker room. They met with players in a different space.

Being placed next to Torrey Smith has been a great thing for Gibson and the two have become close. But Smith is one of those guys who draws a crowd. 

"It's funny," Gibson said. "Last week I was looking at it. It's just like, you can't interrupt. You're not hoping that he'll hurry up or anything. It's just funny because it just be a big ass [crowd] around your locker." 

While Watkins normally stands behind the media scrum, waiting for his moment to pounce, Gibson has taken a different approach. While waiting for the crowd to disperse, he takes walks. He'll find a teammate in another part of the locker room to visit. Sometimes, though, he will hang around as Smith gets interviewed. He wants to see how the veteran handles it all and he always comes away impressed. 

In the middle of the locker room, on the right side, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham are neighbors. Two of the best defensive players on the team, they are both pretty popular interview subjects.

So just about every week, one of them will walk out of the showers and see a seemingly impenetrable wall of camera and recorder-holders in their way. As veterans, though, they're beyond patiently waiting. 

"It's cool, man, because I just tell everybody to move out the way," said Graham, one of the more jovial players on the team. "That's all. That's my cue to have a little fun with the reporters." 

Watkins has dealt with this long before he was placed next to Jenkins. In fact, during his first training camp in 2014, he was in a popup stall in the middle of the floor. The locker on the wall nearest to him belonged to LeSean McCoy. It used to be annoying, especially when he didn't have a good day of practice, but there's not much he can do about it. 

After practices, the coaching staff will tell the players if that day is a media day. When Watkins knows it is, he hurries into the locker room as fast as he can and if he's lucky, he gets out before Jenkins gets in. 

But sometimes it backfires. Sometimes when Watkins goes to the cold tub and for treatment, he'll get back in the room at the same exact time Jenkins is about to start answering questions. 

And then the waiting begins. 

"So I just kind of stand by the side and let it happen," Watkins said with a shrug. "I'm used to it now."

5 statistical Eagles milestones within reach Monday night

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USA Today Images

5 statistical Eagles milestones within reach Monday night

Five statistical milestones within reach Monday night, when the Eagles host the Redskins at the Linc:

• Carson Wentz has thrown 13 touchdown passes this year and needs just three more to match his total from the entire 2016 season. He threw four against the Cardinals and three against the Panthers, and with three TDs Monday night against the Redskins, he would become the first Eagles quarterback in 64 years to throw three TD passes in three straight games. Bobby Thomason did it against the Steelers, Giants and Colts in 1953.

• Zach Ertz has 54 career catches against the Redskins. The only player to catch more passes against the Redskins in his first five NFL seasons was Cardinals split end Sonny Randle, who caught 56 from 1959 through 1963. So with three catches Monday night, Ertz will have more catches than anybody has ever had against the Redskins in his first five years in the league. 

• The Eagles have allowed 80 or fewer rushing yards in four straight games for the first time since 2010. If they hold the Redskins to 80 yards fewer — and the 'Skins had only 64 in the opener — it will be the first time the Eagles have held five straight opponents to 80 or fewer rushing yards since 1992, when they had a five-game streak. The last longer streak was in 1991, when they held seven straight to 80 or fewer rushing yards.

• The Eagles have scored 28 or more points in four straight games for the first time since 2004. If they score 28 Monday night, it will be their first five-game streak since one over the 2003 and 2004 seasons. The last longer streak was a six-gamer in 1953.

• LeGarrette Blount goes into Monday night with four straight games with 12 or more carries and a 4.5 or better yards-per-carry average. The only player in his 30s to put together five such games in a row is Fred Taylor of the Jaguars, who did it against the Jets, Texans, Eagles, Titans and Texans again in 2006.