Next in our ongoing series, we will be taking a look at the cornerback position. The Eagles traded for Darius Slay and inked him to a contract extension this offseason. Slay represents the best corner that has been on the Eagles’ roster in the Doug Pederson/Jim Schwartz era. But was it enough to address the concerns at the position?
Eagles Positional Breakdown Archives
The Eagles’ defense gave up too many home run plays in 2019. According to Jimmy Kempski, the Eagles allowed 16 pass plays of 40+ yards, the most in the NFL. From misalignment to broken coverage to lack of speed, the Eagles were on the cutting edge of inventing new ways to give up big plays. This was largely attributable to the Eagles cornerbacks.
When the offseason came, everyone knew the Eagles would be in the cornerback market. After losing out on free agent Byron Jones, the Eagles traded for Darius Slay and made him the highest-paid corner in the league.
Where the Eagles struggled against #1 wide receivers in 2019 (allowing ten 100 yard performances on the year), Slay shined, only allowing one 100 yard performance.
Slay is a true shutdown corner and the best defensive back that the Eagles have had on the roster in some time. It’s not all sunshine and roses though, as Darius Slay has seen both his play and his health decline over the last several seasons.
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Darius Slay is also a terrible tackler, although it could be argued that his tackling woes stemmed less from lack of ability and more from lack of effort once it became apparent that the Lions weren’t interested in paying him. Slay turns 30 soon and the Eagles are betting that he will be able to bounce back and be one of the elite cornerbacks in the league again this season.
If Darius Slay is traded to the Eagles…— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 19, 2020
he’s done OUTSTANDING vs Amari Cooper.
Cooper vs PHI (5 gms, 44 targets):
• 4 TDs
• 11.1 YPA
• 98 yds/gm
• 64% catch rate
Cooper vs DET (2 gms, 12 targets):
• 0 TDs
• 3.5 YPA
• 21 yds/gm
• 33% catch rate
From 2019 meeting ? pic.twitter.com/1a6Z6MSfkQ
Avonte Maddox was highly productive for the Eagles in 2018 and demonstrated his versatility playing in the slot, outside, and even at safety. Maddox is a very athletic player but dramatically undersized, which puts him at a disadvantage outside. He is a natural fit in the slot, but the Eagles are overloaded with slot cornerbacks. Therefore, Maddox will likely slide in as the starting outside corner opposite Darius Slay in 2020.
Teams will undoubtedly try to exploit Avonte Maddox’s size. However, if Schwartz is committed to moving Darius Slay around in the defense, he can still minimize the size matchup disadvantages by having Slay shadow the bigger receivers. If the Eagles take that approach, I could see Maddox really thriving on the outside.
Nothing about this offseason makes sense for Nickell Robey-Coleman. NRC is a top-5 slot corner in the NFL, coming off of a very good season for the Rams… and he was released by the team. Then his best offer in free agency was a 1-year deal worth $1.35 million with the Eagles. It is a bargain of a deal for Philadelphia and allows them to shift Avonte Maddox outside and keep Sidney Jones off the field.
Sidney Jones has rapidly become a story of what could have been. Heralded as a potential top-10 pick coming out of college, an Achilles tear sent him tumbling down draft board before the Eagles finally called his number in the 2nd round. After sitting out the majority of his rookie season, expectations were high for Jones in 2018, and he never really produced.
Jones has struggled with a plethora of soft tissue injuries and has been called out by coaches and teammates alike for his lack of toughness. It seemed like he was turning a corner at the end of the year when he made a few big plays to close out games in Weeks 16 and 17, but in the playoffs, he didn’t play a single defensive snap. The Eagles don’t trust Sidney Jones, and barring an injury to someone in front of him, I don’t see him getting much of an opportunity to earn that trust back.
The Eagles were openly shopping Rasul Douglas this offseason and seemed very likely to cut him if he hadn’t agreed to take a pay cut. Douglas is a severely limited player athletically and that was never more evident than it was last year. He is a very physical cornerback and has good ball skills. However, his lack of long speed kills him and makes him a square peg in a round hole in Jim Schwartz’s off-ball defensive scheme. Douglas is purely depth this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even wind up on the 53 man roster.
Cre’von LeBlanc has been a nice surprise for the Eagles. He looked good in spurts last season and made a lot of plays in the slot. He likely would have been the starter in the slot if the Eagles hadn’t signed NRC. As it stands now, LeBlanc will likely be the backup slot corner for the 2020 season.
Position Grade and Final Thoughts
Something had to change for the Eagles’ secondary after last season, and change it did. The top two corners from last season are no longer corners for the Eagles. Ronald Darby is gone and Jalen Mills is a safety. The team made significant upgrades with the addition of Nickell Robey-Coleman and Darius Slay. Even if Slay doesn’t fully rebound, he will still be a noticeable improvement over Ronald Darby.
However, major questions remain. How good can this unit be? How good do they even need to be? With the Eagles’ pass rush expected to take a step forward in 2020, will the revamped secondary be up to the task of just covering long enough for the pass rush to get home? Overall, I think the Eagles took a step in the right direction with the secondary. They certainly still have plenty of work to do with their cornerbacks, however.