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What to do about the Eagles neglected Cornerback position?

It’s official, the Philadelphia Eagles stomach- churning roller coaster ride of a season is over! After winning the last four straight do-or-die games, the Eagles limped into the playoffs as the NFC East champions at 9-7. The storylines were booked, Carson Wentz’s first playoff appearance with practice squad wide receivers, the heroic story of Boston Scott and an injury list that spans the length of a football field. And we all know what happened after that, Carson Wentz goes down in the first quarter… and well we won’t relive the rest.

With the season in the rear view mirror now, the Eagles can look to another very important offseason. The needs are growing and the age of one of the oldest teams in the NFL remains concerning. One of the biggest needs for the team, largely Jim Schwartz and his defense, remains the cornerback position. Last offseason with Jalen Mills and Cre’Von LeBlanc’s injuries sparking concern for their 2019 availability and a quantity over quality room of cornerbacks, Howie had the opportunity to address and chose not to. During the season the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jalen Ramsey became available and Howie chose not to pull the trigger. Now, we welcome 2020 and enter the offseason with a glaring need remaining.

Current Situation:

Three of seven 2019 CB’s are set to become free agents this offseason: Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Craig James. The other four remain under contract with respectable contracts: Rasul Douglas ($931 322), Cre’Von Leblanc ($1 121 875), Avonte Maddox ($816 478) and Sidney Jones ($1 953 665). There is a very real chance that the Eagles walk away from the three free agents.

Ronald Darby has struggled with injuries and consistency in his play for the short time he has been in Philadelphia. Although he is only 26 years old, he finished 2019 with a 45.9 PFF grade and with coverage, burn rate, catch rate and passer rating allowed ranking in the 70s among CBs, he just isn’t living up to the expectations the Eagles had when they traded for him. They gave him the one year prove it deal in 2019 and prove it he did not.

Jalen Mills came to the Eagles undrafted and instantly became a fan favorite calling himself the Green Goblin and dying his hair green. He struggled much of the end of the 2018 season and the start of the 2019 season with a foot injury, but finally worked his way into the lineup in the middle of the season. He was one of the stronger CBs for the Eagles in 9 games with a positive coverage rating (#26 among CBs) plus ranking top 20 in catch rate allowed. More importantly, he had the lowest burn rate among Eagles CBs. If he were to comeback, it would need to be on a cheap, team friendly deal and prepared to cede a lot of work as they revamp the secondary.

Image Credit: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Craig James came into cover the early and oft injured secondary. All we can really say there is thank you for your time, but we need to upgrade! There is certainly no reason to move on from the remaining four. Cre’Von Leblanc has proved a nice replacement for Patrick Robinson since 2018 in the slot. Douglas was ranked by PFF as a top 25 cornerback throughout the early part of the season and was admirable in stepping into the CB1 role. He, like every member of the secondary, struggled at points and many believe a move to safety maybe more suitable for Douglas. Should the secondary be addressed this offseason this move could be more seriously considered. Maddox suffered a scary injury early in the season, but he shone at moments for the Eagles secondary. If he can return to full health in 2020 plus return to his rookie 2018 form where he ranked top 5 among 128 cornerbacks in: passer rating when targeted, yards allowed per coverage snap and coverage snaps per reception allowed, he could find himself a very important piece of the 2020 secondary. Finally, Sidney Jones the 1st round pick, that fell to round 2 due to a freak Achilles injury. The man who never seemed confident in the feet under him. The hero of the secondary over the last 4 weeks of must-win games in 2019. Needless to say, those last four weeks MUST continue into 2020 in a big contract year! Now the question remains, what do we do with the final two to three roster spots at the CB position? There are plentiful options!

Free Agency:

This year’s free agency class is loaded with quality slot corners like Chris Harris and a majority 30 plus year old players. The reason I mention age, Howie Roseman just spoke to the Super Bowl window closing earlier this week and using all draft picks and getting younger! The reason I mention specifically slot corners, we majorly need outside, man to man, shutdown corners! The last time the Eagles made a concerted effort to invest in the position was Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Understandably, the Eagles and their fans are nervous to throw money at the position after that, but its needed! Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense relies on pressure on the QB from the front 4, but when the CBs are getting burned and playing 5-10 yards off allowing for quick passes underneath, the front 4 have a hard time getting the time to create that pressure.

Target #1, we are all too familiar with, former Dallas Cowboy Byron Jones. He will be 27, going on 28 years old and is looking for a significant raise on his $6 266 000, 2019 team option and it looks like the Cowboys won’t have the financial resources to compete with their impending free agents of 2020 and 2021. Jones may not wow you with his speed, but his intelligence in reading routes makes him a top end man to man corner. Due to his football IQ, QBs think twice about targeting his direction, he had the 4th lowest target rate among corners and allowed only 33 receptions on 79 targets. What stands out the most, he has allowed 5.1 yards per target ranking #2 in the NFL and ranks 12th with only 10.6 yards per reception. The stats are truly jaw dropping, #4 in coverage rate, only a 1.4% burn rate and #4 in catch rate allowed at 47.8%. The market for Jones will be hot and aggressive, the Eagles have $40 million in cap and if the spending gets crazy there are alternatives.

Target #2, Bradley Roby. Roby is an aggressive man to man coverage corner. This speaks to his higher burn rate at 4.4%, his aggression can cost him from time to time, but an aggressive corner like Roby is something we don’t have amongst our plethora of corners. Douglas was aggressive, but gave up the stats to prove it when he got burned. Roby has incredible athletic metrics (90th percentile or better in 40 yard, agility and catch radius), so burnt didn’t necessarily mean TD or massive gain as he could make up for getting burnt by catching up to the receiver. Roby’s targets allowed, receptions allowed, yards allowed and yards per reception and target all ranked in the top 20 among CBs. Roby may not have the football IQ of Byron Jones, but he has the ability to play man coverage and stand his own ground and come at more of a bargain then Jones. I would love to see Roby in the midnight green next season!

Final target, James Bradberry. Bradberry has already stated he feels like one of the best CB’s in the league and has made it clear he wants to be paid as such, rumors are his asking price is $14 million per year. Can’t fault the man he does cover Julio Jones, Michael Thomas and Mike Evans 2 times a year and puts up above average numbers. He does have high targets and receptions allowed, but his yards per target and per reception rank 11th and 16th respectively. He keeps the play in front of him and doesn’t allow the play to go beyond the line he draws. He only allowed 1 TD last season and his 11 breakups ranked 8th among CB’s (the year prior he ranked 3rd with 13 break ups). The cost for him is significant, but as we see throughout the NFL, if you want a good shutdown, defense altering CB you either pay big bucks or plan B, you be the one to draft the CB everybody wants!

Image Credit: Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire

2020 Draft

The 2020 draft class has been praised for the talent across the board from the deep WR class to the Tua vs. Burrow QB debate plus Chase Young and the always intriguing RB classes. At the top of the draft also sits some incredible shut down, man coverage CB’s. It is in the Eagles best interest to not only add through free agency, but also consider drafting at the position with the impending free agency of guys like Sidney Jones and the uncertainty at the position for the future.

Unfortunately, the Eagles will likely miss out on the two top CBs in the class, Jeffrey Okudah (highly touted, projected top 5 talent) and Kristian Fulton (considered a prototypical man coverage CB). However, beyond those two the Eagles have a realistic opportunity at grabbing the next top CBs with their 21st pick in the draft. The first one being the younger brother of Minnesota Vikings WR Stefon Diggs, Trevon Diggs out of Alabama. Diggs is considered very physical in man coverage, with impressive length (6’2) and great athleticism for the NFL level. As with most aggressive, sometimes overly aggressive CBs, it can lead to penalties and blown coverage, but as I spoke to above with Bradley Roby, the Eagles don’t have a CB with this type of physical and athletic profile. These are the types of corners who can open up a couple extra seconds for the d-line to get pressure on the QB.

C.J Henderson, out of Florida, is another option at pick 21 considered to be a sticky and pure man coverage CB. He has strong football IQ especially in zone coverage and route recognition, as well as some strong ball skills. The knock on his physical nature and tackling is concerning, but similar to that of Byron Jones, sometimes football IQ can win out at the CB position as QB’s will avoid throwing your direction. He is considered a 2nd round talent, but doubtful he falls to the Eagles pick in round 2.

Another talent to watch is, Bryce Hall out of Virginia, who was considered one of the top CB’s prior to a major ankle injury ending his season in October. Based on the last time the Eagles took a shot at a guy coming off a major injury, Sidney Jones, the Eagles maybe hesitant to take that risk again, but his physicality, length and ball skills will intrigue. However, man coverage is considered to be a weakness and the number of CB’s the Eagles have who play in zone and off coverage out number those capable of being physical, shut-down, man corners. The class is fairly deep at the CB position, so the Eagles can certainly draft a CB on day 2 and 3, but it will take some significant scouting and no guarantees they fit the opening day starter mold we need filled.

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Trade

I will make this section brief as this will be Howie Roseman’s last resort. He chose not to trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick, traded for a 2020 1st rounder, who blew up in Pittsburgh and has emerged as a potential Defensive Player of the Year. He also chose not to go after arguably the #1 cornerback in football, Jalen Ramsey, who was ultimately moved to the LA Rams for two 1sts and a fourth round pick. It is rare for such defense altering CB’s to be put on the trade block and Howie missed on both, but with his recent comments about the super bowl window closing and needing to get younger it makes sense for Howie to not mortgage the future and the haul for Ramsey was significant, plus the need to extend him. His current market value is $16.8 million, making him the highest paid CB, but the aggressive cornerback market and rumors of Ramsey’s own consideration of value, could put that number closer to $20 million per year. There are some high end man coverage cornerbacks in the market place like: Darius Slay, Adoree Jackson and Quinton Dunbar. Trade seems like the final, desperate alternative for Howie and building through free agency and adding younger and cheaper pieces through the draft seem the current Eagles offseason direction.

Final Thoughts

Howie Roseman has made it clear how important this offseason is for the Eagles and keeping the Super Bowl window open. Roseman has made it clear some names Eagles fans have grown to love may not be back next year and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was in reference to Darby and Mills, among others. There is no doubt that the cornerback position needs work and despite missing out on some home run deals during the regular season, Howie chose a good time to hold his swing as this offseason has some great free agent corners to look at plus a strong cornerback draft class.

To consider the offseason a win for the secondary, Roseman needs to give up on Darby and only bring Mills back on an extreme friendly team deal, which is highly unlikely. He will also need to sign at least one free agent, the most realistic I believe is Bradley Roby, and draft one of the man coverage, shutdown corners with their first or second round pick, my choice being Trevon Diggs with CJ Henderson a close second. There are a number of needs so it will take a monumental offseason for Howie to “win”, but a healthy roster and Howie filling the proper needs with youth and quality draft picks and free agents will be considered a win and give the Eagles a chance to regain the NFC East crown in 2020.

What to do about the Eagles neglected Cornerback position?

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