Avonte Maddox

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at defensive back?

Are 2018 Eagles better or worse at defensive back?

Arguably the Eagles’ biggest offseason departure, Patrick Robinson jumped to the Saints in free agency, leaving a massive void at nickel cornerback. On the bright side, the secondary could receive a boost from Jones after the 22-year-old corner essentially redshirted his rookie season because of injury.

Is the influx of young, unproven talent in 2018 enough to make up for the loss of a veteran starter who was playing at a high level last season? The Eagles will soon find out.

Better

More talent at cornerback

Apart from Robinson’s exit, there’s reason to be bullish about this group of corners.

Naturally, Jones stands out. The Eagles wound up with a potential steal in the 2017 draft after Jones, a potential top-ten pick overall, fell to the second round with a ruptured Achilles. He spent all last season rehabbing the injury, only appearing in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Cowboys, and finally expects to be healthy and ready to contribute full-time in year two.

Jones isn’t the only cause for optimism. Fellow class of ’17 member, Rasul Douglas, has a full season under his belt and should continue improving. The Eagles also spent a fourth-round choice on Avonte Maddox, a potential plug-and-play option in the slot. Even returning starter Ronald Darby stands to benefit from offseason program and with last year’s dislocated ankle behind him.

Worse

Nickel cornerback

No matter who takes over in this spot, there’s likely to be some drop-off. Not only was Robinson a savvy vet with previous success in that role, which isn’t currently the case for any of the candidates. He also posted a opponents’ passer rating among 61.8 opponents passer rating in coverage in the slot, third-lowest among qualifying corners.

The Eagles will enter camp with a competition to take over in the slot, with Jones, Maddox, Darby, Jalen Mills and even De’Vante Bausby all getting looks. Surely somebody from that collection of players will do okay. Just don’t expect the level of dominance Robinson brought to the job.

The same

Safety duo

With all the changes at corner, it should be reassuring to know Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod return, lending stability on the back end. Jenkins is coming off his second trip to the Pro Bowl in three seasons, while McLeod remains quietly solid as the unit’s centerfielder.

Corey Graham is still a free agent as of this writing, but it’s highly probable he or another vet will sign with the Eagles at some point to fill the third safety job. Whenever that comes to pass, the position will look roughly the same as it did a season ago.

The unknown

Sidney Jones

While the buzz surrounding Jones is certainly understandable, the harsh reality is he’s essentially a rookie coming off a major injury. Top-ten talents miss, too, even when they show up to the NFL with both of their Achilles tendons fully intact.

One positive is Jones didn’t look like he was in over his head in very limited action for the Eagles last season. At 6-foot-0, 181 pounds, and with 4.4 speed – if healthy – he certainly has the tools to play at this level. Then again, Jones already missed a bunch of practices during OTAs, calling his durability into some question.

Until Jones gets on the field and proves it, he’s a first-year player recovering from a serious injury. Everything else is merely a projection.

Better or worse?

This is a close call. The Eagles appear to have more overall talent with the additions of Jones and Maddox, and continued development of others in the system. In theory, more talent usually makes for a better unit. Then again, it’s unclear whether any of those players can perform at a high level in the slot, where Robinson was one of the stingiest defenders in the league last year. Without a clear-cut solution there, it’s difficult to escape the feeling the Eagles got a little WORSE despite being deeper.

De'Vante Bausby an unlikely name in Eagles' nickel CB mix

us_bausby.jpg
USA Today Images

De'Vante Bausby an unlikely name in Eagles' nickel CB mix

The competition for the Eagles’ nickel cornerback job is wide open, but the favorites for the vacancy had been Jalen Mills, Avonte Maddox and Sidney Jones.

Until Tuesday, when Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz added a dark horse candidate to the mix: De'Vante Bausby.

The inclusion on a list of players getting a legitimate look in the slot is unexpected. Mills is already a starter, and Maddox and Jones were high draft picks. Bausby is on his third NFL team since going undrafted out of Pittsburgh State in 2015, has appeared in only four games as a pro and spent last season on the Eagles' practice squad following his September release from the Chiefs.

Despite his lack of pedigree, the Eagles liked what they saw from the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Bausby.

“He was ready to play for us last year if need be,” Schwartz said. “He did a great job not just on the practice field, but in the meeting room, being up on the game plan. We were fortunate that we didn't have so many injuries there that he needed to go, but he was ready, and he had the confidence of the coaching staff.

“He sort of spread his wings a little bit, working in some different positions. He's a very, very competitive player. He's got good size, but his competitiveness stands out. You guys will see that.”

Schwartz went on to praise Bausby’s work with the scout team.

“His contributions were behind the scenes last year, but we have a lot of guys that have an impact on Sunday that might not be playing,” Schwartz said. “He worked the offense hard. I think those guys have respect for him, and I know our coaches have respect for him.”

Thanks to his efforts with the practice squad, Bausby has created a path to a spot on the Eagles’ 53-man roster – and he doesn’t plan on letting the opportunity slip away. Realizing there was an opening for a slot corner, the 25-year-old spent the offseason learning the ins and outs of the position.

Bausby even went so far as to contact Patrick Robinson on multiple occasions since the veteran vacated the job when he signed with the Saints in March.

“We had a hole in the defense when he left, so we needed a nickel,” Bausby said. “I was studying real hard with the film this offseason, and any question I had, I would give him a call.

“I met up with him twice. I asked him, ‘Why do you do this? Why do you do that? How did you do this or how should I do that,’ and he just filled me in.”

Though the vast majority of his NFL experience is on the outside, Bausby is adapting quickly to life on the inside.

“It’s me vs. you,” said Bausby. “I’m just going to keep it that simple and try to deny you the ball. That’s it.”

It’s been a long road to get back to this point for Bausby, who admits the practice squad was hard at first. He got a taste of real game action in 2016, appearing in four games for the Bears and playing significant snaps in two, but fell out of favor and has been trying to find his footing in the league ever since.

Bausby will get one more shot at cracking the lineup with the Eagles in training camp this summer – and from the sound of things, he’s earned it.

“You just have to know there’s a light at the end of tunnel,” Bausby said. “Keep your head down, keep grinding and stay patient and good things will come in the end.”

Eagles will look at several corners for slot position

usa-ronald-darby-jalen-mills-sidney-jones-eagles.jpg
USA Today Images

Eagles will look at several corners for slot position

The Eagles’ biggest loss on defense this offseason was slot corner Patrick Robinson, who overcame a shaky preseason to deliver exceptional play in the secondary for the Super Bowl champs.

Robinson, now 30, signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Saints this offseason, and one of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's most important tasks this summer is finding his replacement.

Schwartz, meeting the media for the first time since the Wednesday before the Super Bowl, added some clarity Wednesday to the muddled slot picture.

“You’re going to see a lot of different guys in there,” Schwartz said. “You’ll see Jalen Mills at times, you’ll see some other players like D.J. Killings, who was here last year, (De’Vante) Bausby’s been in there, Sidney (Jones) was in there. … It’s sort of cross-training a lot of different guys.”

The slot might not always start, but he'll play 65 to 70 percent of the snaps. Let's look at the main candidates. 

Mills: Has started outside the last two years but has the skill set to move inside with Jones and Ronald Darby starting outside.

Bausby: Schwartz was effusive Tuesday in his praise of Bausby, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder who has spent time with the Chiefs, Bears and Eagles over the last three years but has played in only four NFL games. Bausby, who spent last year on the practice squad, worked with the first group at practice Tuesday.

Killings: Spent training camp last year as a rookie with the Patriots and the last four months of the season on the Eagles' practice squad.

Jones: Last year’s second-round pick out of Washington is getting looks both inside and outside. 

Schwartz said Rasul Douglas, last year’s third-round pick, will stay primarily outside. 

Darby, who came to the Eagles in the preseason trade for Jordan Matthews, is a lock to remain outside.

The most likely scenario is Darby and Jones outside with Mills in the slot, but it appears Jones will get plenty of looks inside during the summer. The Eagles know Mills can play outside if needed, and they believe Jones can play either.

The only lock is that we will see just about every corner on the roster working inside at some point.

Even the corners who play strictly outside will get reps in the slot in case teams line up a receiver in the slot while the Eagles are in base defense, with just two corners on the field.

“That’s part of their learning process, learning those techniques,” Schwartz said. “Some guys we’ll keep strictly outside, but we have a significant portion that we will cross train. We even have some guys that will cross train safety position and corner. 

“That was a big part of our success (last year) was having Malcolm (Jenkins) be able to play a lot of those and fill in a lot of different positions.

“We value versatility and that’s a big part of the training this time of year.”

In addition to Mills, Darby, Jones, Douglas, Bausby, Killings, the Eagles have rookie fourth-round pick Avonte Maddox from Pitt and undrafted Chandon Sullivan from Georgia State on the roster, as well as second-year pro Randall Goforth.

That’s a lot of cornerbacks. And all nine are 25 or younger. And only Darby (36 starts) and Mills (17) have more than five career starts.

“Nobody’s earning any starting jobs now,” Schwartz said. “Now’s the time for individual improvement, now’s the time to start talking about some scheme stuff and anticipate some changes and really just to set the table for training camp.

“Training camp is when the competition will get fierce and the pads will come on and things like that. The only people that anyone’s competing against right now is themselves.”