Okay, quick: answer this poll.
Which most accurately reflects the Eagles’ current draft needs, in order of importance?
This poll is closed
DT, OT, CB, RB
OT, CB, RB, DT
CB, DT, OT, RB
RB, DT, OT, CB
(I’m hoping it looks relatively undecided/unclear)
See, Philadelphia’s in a tricky spot when it comes to Draft needs right now — especially for a team laboring around .500. What do I mean?
Well, the biggest need on paper is probably defensive tackle — they don’t have a starter next to Fletcher Cox, and we know how much rotational depth matter to Jim Schwartz. But on the field, the weakness has always been the secondary for the defense. And they have young pieces there; players they won’t move on from because they are cost-controlled and still developing. So which spot takes priority?
On the offensive side of the football: the weakest position on paper is undoubtedly RB, as Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi will both hit the road after this season. But do you really draft a RB — generally a position run by committee, with many free agents available yearly — over OT, where Jason Peters’ play has begun to significantly decline and Halapoulivaati Vaitai offers a low-ceiling option in a long-term starting role?
This doesn’t even mention linebacker — Jordan Hicks is a free agent; Nigel Bradham’s play has been shaky to say the least — or wide receiver, where Philly has multiple free agents, soon-to-be-free-agents, and players returning from injury. Will the Eagles need EDGE if Brandon Graham walks? A third safety to account for all the time Malcolm Jenkins spends in the box?
There are many finicky questions to answer, about the dance between positional value and pure need. That’s the nature of the NFL Draft, I suppose.
But Philadelphia has an opportunity for some clarity now, amidst a season muddied by injury and positional shifting: with Jalen Mills officially joining Ronald Darby on IR, Philadelphia will start both of their 2017 CB draft picks for the foreseeable future.
For the immediate future — with the division on the line against Dallas — that may not be great news. But this season will end eventually — whether later tonight or in a miraculous February repeat — and when it does, the Eagles will have far more data on their corner position than we expected coming into 2018.
What if Darby had stayed healthy for the entire season? Then it would have been much easier for Philadelphia to decide whether or not to re-sign him, as his contract expires this year. But how would they have considered the costs and benefits to letting him walk and starting Sidney Jones on the outside in his place?
Jones, in his first year starting in the NFL, has taken 256 snaps at corner; 198 of them from the slot. We know well and good that the nickel corner is a starting position on an NFL defense — but in the past two games, Jones has taken 54 of his 58 outside snaps; both the majority of his snaps in those contests. Because he’s basically a rookie, Jones is going through the typical growing pains of a cornerback, and is in desperate need of improved size via an NFL training program.
If Jones has the ability to be a starting outside corner for Philadelphia — a hugely important position, given how Jim Schwartz deploys his Cover 3 — he’ll have to show that potential over the final four (and more?) games of season .
And what about Rasul Douglas? Sul also benefited from a Darby absence last year, seeing 8 starts in his rookie season. He wasn’t well prepared for that early spotlight, and with another year of training camp under his belt, Sul is suddenly back in a starting role, with three starts in the last four games.
Unlike Jones, Douglas offers no slot potential — he profiles as an outside corner through and through. With Mills and Darby undoubtedly sidelined for the remainder of the year, you’d like to see Schwartz adjust his deployment slightly to better model what his defense would look like with Douglas as a full-time starter: corners lined up in the press, able to disrupt with length and size at the snap.
From Douglas, you’re looking to see just that: the ability to win as a Cover 3 corner by disrupting at the line, leverage his opponent into the sideline, and attacking in-breaking routes with length at the catch point. When he’s in off coverage, Douglas cannot be in man; it must be zone. To play him as such — something Jim Schwartz has done — is much more so an indictment on the defensive coordinator than the player.
As a typical rule, Year 3 is the year at which you can feel certain in your evaluation of a draft pick. Douglas will be entering Year 3; Jones, Year 2. If either have the intention to start on the outside for the Eagles, they’ll need to use these final four games to prove that their future there is promising. Again, neither will be cut in 2019 — but you’d like for your Day 2 picks to develop into starters by that significant Year 3 benchmark, which is fast approaching.
Now thrust into starting roles, Jones and Douglas can do just that.