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.
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.
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.
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.
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.