If it wasn’t for Craig James, Sidney Jones would still be a Philadelphia Eagle.
James began training camp as an afterthought, an undrafted waiver-wire pickup last year trying to make the Eagles as a special teamer.
Jones began camp as a 24-year-old former 2nd-round draft pick and odds-on favorite to stick as the No. 3 cornerback.
But a combination of James’ outstanding training camp and more injuries for Jones resulted in James replacing Jones on the roster as the third outside corner behind starters Avonte Maddox and Darius Slay.
The Eagles released Jones, who cleared waivers and signed to the Jaguars’ practice squad.
James has had a much tougher road than Jones, making the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2018, then getting cut last summer before winding up in Philly, where he was released two more times and had two stints on the practice squad before finally getting a chance to play.
Jones never got better and couldn’t stay healthy.
And James took advantage.
The only thing worse than drafting the wrong guy is keeping him too long.
The Eagles are confident James can be what Jones never was.
“I think Craig was one of our most improved players (this preseason),” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. “He went from being a special-teams only guy last year – and he did have to start against the Jets – but he was more of a niche special teams player. This year, came in from the first day of training camp and he really looked like a different guy.”
James didn’t play any snaps on defense as a rookie with the Vikings and only played 68 last year with the Eagles – 56 of them in that 31-6 win over the Jets and none after Week 5.
It’s not easy to break out of that special teams player old, but James did it.
At the expense of Jones.
“His coverage skills were outstanding, knowledge of our scheme was outstanding, gave us versatility, and he did all of that – and I don’t want to speak for (Dave) Fipp – but I saw him as an improved special teams player as well,” Schwartz said. “So we were really excited about Craig and what he can do. He’s tough, he’s fast, and now he has a little bit of experience in our scheme.”
Schwartz put safety Marcus Epps in the same category as James.
Epps also came over from the Vikings mid-year after having played just 12 defensive snaps last year as a rookie 6th-round pick.
He was also mainly a special teamer last year although he did get 99 reps on defense in an Eagles uniform.
“Just adding another year in the same system from the very first day of training camp not only was he improved mentally, and he’s always been good that way, understanding and the little intricacies, but he was improved physically, too,” Schwartz said. “Was faster and more explosive. I saw those guys (James and Epps) as really improved players for us and I think both of those guys will play a big part in our effort this year.”
Schwartz made it clear he doesn’t see the decision to release Jones – as well as 3rd-round corner Rasul Douglas – as being as much a reflection on Jones and Douglas being disappointing as James just being better.
Which probably is really the same thing.
“I view a lot of those roster decisions as more examples of guys that performed really well and earned their way on the 53 rather than being disappointed in someone or moving on from someone,” he said. “I’m really excited about the guys we have. Those guys didn’t make the team by default. They forced those hard decisions on us because of their play in this training camp.”