Eagles

Eagles 2018 training camp battles: Nickel cornerback

Eagles 2018 training camp battles: Nickel cornerback

As we get near the start of the Eagles’ 2018 training camp, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the key position battles to watch this summer. 

Today we’ll look at slot cornerback. 

Names to know

Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, De'Vante Bausby, Malcolm Jenkins

What to watch

This should be interesting during training camp. The Eagles need to find a solid replacement after losing Patrick Robinson in free agency this offseason. Robinson, the veteran journeyman, was having a terrible training camp last summer before he was moved into the slot following the Ronald Darby trade. But once he got into that nickel corner spot, he thrived and went on to have a tremendous year. Losing him is big, but the Eagles actually have depth at the CB position, a departure from training camps in previous years. 

The Eagles have a few options in the slot. The only corner who hasn’t had time inside is Rasul Douglas; the team isn’t going to put him there. Even Darby took some reps inside during the spring. But Darby is likely going to stay outside too. 

That leaves Mills, Jones and Bausby battling for the spot. It appears that Mills is probably going to be a starter, but there’s a decent chance that he could line up at outside corner in the Eagles’ base package and move inside in nickel. That’s a lot to ask, but he has been in the defense for two years now and would be able to handle that extended responsibility. 

Jones is really talented and it would make sense to find a way to get last year’s second-round pick (who would have been a first-rounder without an Achilles tear) on the field. That will either come outside in the nickel package or inside. Jones took some reps there this spring and looked good. Ultimately, the team will want to make him a starter, but for now, it can bring him along slowly with a lot of depth at corner. 

Bausby is a name you might not be as familiar with. But after spending last year on the practice squad, he turned some heads this spring. He and D.J. Killings are long shots to win this spot, but Bausby isn’t a long shot to make the roster. I just can’t see Bausby keeping a talented player like Jones off the field, no matter how much the coaching staff likes him. 

The last possibility is to move Jenkins into the slot, which the team will do with certain bigger receivers and tight ends. But it seems very unlikely he’ll take over that role full-time, especially with more depth at corner than safety. 

Prediction

I think the three guys who will be on the field are Mills, Darby and Jones. The real question is how this manifests itself. If I were Jim Schwartz, I would start Mills and Darby and then slide Mills inside in the nickel package, leaving the second-year player to play at his strength position outside. I think Schwartz isn’t going to take my advice on this, though. I think it’s slightly more likely that Mills and Darby stay outside and Jones plays inside when the Eagles use their nickel package. 

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Darren Sproles can still help Eagles as long as Doug Pederson doesn't get carried away

Darren Sproles can still help Eagles as long as Doug Pederson doesn't get carried away

You probably know the reasons why it didn’t make sense to bring Darren Sproles back like they did on Friday evening. He’s too old. The team needs to get younger. They can’t rely on him to stay healthy. 

How’s this for one reason the Eagles were right to bring him back? 

He can help. 

Yeah, I know Sproles is 36. I know he’s played just nine regular-season games in the last two years. I know he had a minor hamstring injury that turned out to be a not-so-minor hamstring injury last year. 

I also know that the Eagles are better today than they were yesterday. Because as long as Doug Pederson doesn’t get carried way, Sproles can still help the Eagles in 2019. 

That is a key point, though. During his three years as head coach, we’ve seen Pederson at times rely on Sproles a little more than he probably should. If he does that this time around, it might not help. But if the Eagles can settle Sproles into a role where he’s a punt returner and a change-of-pace guy on offense (primarily as a pass-catching threat), this can definitely work. 

Pederson loves Sproles. He hasn’t tried to hide that. At the owners meetings this offseason, when asked about Sproles and the possibility of a return for one more season, Pederson said openly, “I would love to have Darren back.” 

Now that it has happened, it’s up to Pederson to not run his favorite veteran Swiss Army knife into the ground. 

And because the Eagles will enter this season with a former Pro Bowler in Jordan Howard, a second-round pick in Miles Sanders and a Super Bowl hero in Corey Clement also on the roster, it should suppress the temptation to over-play Sproles. 

Sproles will be the Eagles’ punt returner. He can play on third downs. He can be used as a utility-type receiver hybrid on offense. 

I’m thinking somewhere in the range of 8-10 touches max per game is about right.  

Nick Foles got an overwhelming amount of credit for helping the Eagles push their way into the playoffs last season, but Sproles deserves a ton of credit, too. After many had written him off when his severe hamstring injury lingered, Sproles came back in early December and gave the Eagles a spark that helped propel them into the postseason. 

In the last five regular-season games last year, Sproles had 110 rushing yards, 138 receiving yards and three offensive touchdowns. 

The Eagles were 5-1 with him in the regular season (4-1 down the stretch) in 2018 and 6-2 overall. 

And without him, they probably don’t win that Dec. 23 game at home against the Texans. In that one, Sproles became the oldest Eagle ever to have over 100 yards from scrimmage in a game. 

Sproles comes into this season just 162 all-purpose yards behind Tim Brown for fifth in NFL history. If he can stay healthy, he should have no problem easily overtaking Brown in 2019. 

And he might just help the Eagles make another run in the process. 

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Will Zach Ertz be a Hall of Famer?

Will Zach Ertz be a Hall of Famer?

Zach Ertz is the latest in a series of stories looking at the Hall of Fame chances of current or recent Eagles who are still active in the NFL

Friday, July 19: Fletcher Cox
Today: Zach Ertz
Sunday, July 21: DeSean Jackson
Monday, July 22: Jason Kelce
Tuesday, July 23: LeSean McCoy
Wednesday, July 24: Jason Peters
Thursday, July 25: Darren Sproles

Numbers: Has 437 catches for 4,827 yards and 29 touchdowns in his first six seasons.

Postseason numbers: Caught 31 passes for 316 yards and two TDs in six career playoff games, including the game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots.

Honors: Ertz made his first two Pro Bowls in 2017 and 2018.

Favorite stat: Ertz is the only player in Super Bowl history to catch a fourth-down pass on a game-winning fourth-quarter drive.

Records and rankings 

• Ertz set an NFL record in 2018 with 116 catches, breaking the mark of 110 set in 2012 by Jason Witten.

• Ertz’s 437 receptions are most in NFL history by a tight end in his first six seasons. He broke the record of 434 set from 2010 through 2016 by Jimmy Graham.

• Ertz’s 116 catches broke the Eagles single-season record of 90 set in 2007 by Brian Westbrook.

• Ertz already ranks third in Eagles history in receptions, behind only Harold Carmichael (589) and Pete Retzlaff (452).

• He doesn’t turn 29 until November, but Ertz already ranks 31st in NFL history in career receptions by a tight end. He’s only 153 out of the top 10. At his current rate — 5.8 catches per game since becoming a full-time starter in 2015 — that’s only 26 games away.

Analysis 

Maybe it’s silly to project Ertz as a Hall of Famer before his 29th birthday, but if he can stay healthy and keep stringing together the type of seasons he has been, it’s going to happen.

Since becoming a full-time starter four years ago, Ertz has averaged 86 catches, 914 yards and 5 ½ touchdowns.

If he keeps up that pace for six more years and plays until he’s 34, which most top tight ends are able to do, he’ll have 953 catches, 10,311 yards and 62 TDs after the 2024 season.

Not to mention a game-winning late fourth-quarter TD catch in a Super Bowl.

If he does that, nobody is going to keep him out of Canton.

Verdict: Will be a Hall of Famer.

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