Howie Roseman made it a clear point to address the secondary this offseason. He‘s lamented to the media that “it’s hard when you’re watching games and the ball is getting thrown over your head,” which is a doozy of an overdue revelation considering how long the Eagles have been getting gouged in coverage, but I digress.
Trading for Slay is a big-time upgrade, and adding Will Parks and Nickell Robey-Coleman to supplement the defensive backfield is an influx of capable and much needed depth. The remaining question regarding the secondary is which player will start at corner opposite Slay on the outside—the general consensus is that Avonte Maddox and Sidney Jones will compete for the job, with the former having the inside track after starting 18 games (three in the playoffs) over the past two seasons.
While Maddox has done a fine job holding down the fort on the outside throughout relative turmoil at the position over the past few seasons, the reality is that at 5’9” and with average explosiveness, he’ll never be an ideal start on the outside (though he’s proven to be good insurance). Schwartz should be the first to explain that the most ideal arrangement of his DBs has Maddox in the slot or as a third-safety where his skillset fits much much better.
If all things are equal, and both Maddox and Jones are healthy and practicing, then it’s Sidney Jones’ job to lose, plain and simple.
Beyond the calculus of ‘which DB suits what role better,’ there’s reason to expect that 2020 could be Jones’ breakout season. Here’s a quote from Jones during an interview with NBC Sports John Clark earlier in April:
“There’s a whole lot left. That’s all I can tell you. You haven’t seen nothing yet… adversity builds character, I feel like I have weathered the storm. I am ready to show what I can do and prove it.”
Obviously that’s all talk, and you hear stuff like that every offseason, but when you understand Jones’ career up to this point it puts comments like that into perspective. An achilles injury robbed him of his 2017 season, a week six hamstring injury essentially ended a 2018 rookie campaign that saw him log just 104 snaps the rest of the year, and a less severe hamstring injury similarly nagged his 2019 season.
Missing 10 games to hamstring issues over two seasons after missing a third season to a torn achilles is obviously a problem, but the point of focus for Jones this offseason is that he’s healthy, finally. Instead of rehabbing like he has for much of his pro career (both offseason and in-season) Jones has his first extended opportunity to develop his body physically and hone his on-field technique.
Offseason work is sometimes taken for granted by outside-observers, but the opportunity to develop your game/body as opposed to rehabbing/resting can’t be underscored enough. This is where most of the optimism around Jones stems from—that, and the elite coverage skills he’s shown off in the past.
We all understand the skillset that Jones possesses (or once possessed)—good length & leaping-ability, 4.4 speed, loose hips, plus mirroring-skills, good click-and-close-ability—all the tools you could want in an NFL cornerback, and much of the reason he was considered the clear CB2 in his class and a lock to go top-20 prior to the torn achilles. It goes without saying that the sort of lower-body injuries he’s had could rob a player of their quickness, speed, change-of-direction skills, etc.., and that’s the reason Jones will never live up to his potential as a true lockdown corner—the Eagles knew this when they took him—but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an above average CB2 on a good defense.
I realize it feels like a long time since we drafted him (and it has been) but the reality is you can’t give up on a 23 year old who’s just entering his third full season in the NFL—the Eagles know this. It would be unwise to move on from an asset of his skill-level given the circumstances that have derailed his career thus far.
Sometimes we see players like Jones continue to get hurt, and we never hear from them again; other times, those players manage to stay healthy through the rest of their career, and we never worry about them again. Eagles fans have been prepared to take that glass-half-full perspective when it comes to Carson Wentz and his health/“fluke” injury history—maybe we should have that same level of optimism when it comes to Jones.