De'Vante Bausby and Sidney Jones have been battling since the spring for the Eagles’ nickel cornerback spot, and Rodney McLeod has been watching like an avid football fan.
“It’s been great competition, whoever’s out there,” the Eagles’ starting safety said. “It’s fun to watch. Those guys are all really pushing themselves, and that’s making everybody better.”
Bausby is the wild-card in this young Eagles secondary. He’s 25, which makes him the oldest cornerback on the roster, and he’s bounced around the league for three years, including last year on the Eagles’ practice squad.
Jones is the second-year pro that the Eagles stole in the second round of the 2017 draft who spent most of last year red-shirting after suffering an Achilles injury.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has said virtually every DB on the roster will get at least some reps as the Eagles work to replace standout nickel Patrick Robinson, who the signed with the Saints this offseason.
(Here’s a fun story I wrote about Robinson last December.)
But so far in training camp, it’s been exclusively Bausby and Jones, who have taken turns in the slot and working outside.
“Switching day in and day out is hard for those guys,” McLeod said. “You’re working inside one day, outside the next day, you never get too comfortable.
“But it only helps you being able to do both and having these guys be able to play both inside or outside, whatever’s asked of them, it only helps the team. I’m just excited to see this competition unfold.”
We’ll likely see more combinations as camp goes on, but it’s likely that by the time the dust settles Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Jones will be the Eagles’ top three corners.
It’s just a matter of who lines up where.
Mills and Darby were so good playing outside on a Super Bowl team you would think Schwartz would prefer to keep them where they were.
There’s always a chance Schwartz could move a starting corner — Mills, most likely — inside in clear passing situations and have Jones play outside.
Malcolm Jenkins will get some work in the slot in specific situations, and Rasul Douglas, a third-round pick last year, and Avonte Maddox, a fourth-round pick this year, are also in the mix.
But the bottom line is that Doug Pederson and Schwartz love competition, and McLeod said the competition at nickel is raising all the corners’ level of play so far this summer.
“I think that was one thing that helped us last year was the competition we had early in OTAs and training camp with the corners,” he said.
“And then when we lost guys that depth really helped us out. That’s what we’re creating right now. That was our biggest asset and our biggest friend for the season. Whoever ends up wherever, they’re all getting better every day.”
The slot corner isn’t technically a starter, but Robinson played the fifth-most snaps on the entire defense last year (44 per game, 69 percent of the defensive snaps), and as the NFL continues to grow more and more into a passing league and 11 personnel (three wides, one running back, one tight end) grows more and more prevalent, the slot becomes more and more critical every year.
“I think you’ve got to be savvy, man, to play the slot,” McLeod said.
“You have to have some dog mentality in there.
“You have to be able to do a little bit of everything. You have to be well-rounded. You have to be able to cover, you have to understand zone concepts, understand pattern matching, understand routes, you also have to be good at communication.
“A lot of times you’re running the show, whatever coverage we’re playing, so you have to be able to take control. You’re also like a mini-linebacker, so you have to be ready to get in there and play the run as well.
“That position kind of goes unnoticed, but you’ve got to be able to do a lot of different things.”
When will Schwartz settle on a set lineup?
“Hey, I’ve seen us make a trade right before Game 1 and go with Carson Wentz at quarterback so there’s no telling,” McLeod said.
“One thing I see is that we’re pretty familiar with each other. We have great chemistry regardless of who’s in there and they all communicate real well.
“Whenever that decision comes we’re going to be ready to go that Thursday night (Sept. 6 against the Falcons).
“I don’t know what they’re going to end up doing, but it’s going to be fun sitting back and watching it unfold.”