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Evaluating Ronald Darby’s Value

James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

A little over a month ago, NFL insider Chris Mortensen suggested that the Philadelphia Eagles were looking to deal one of their defensive backs. A month later, and three weeks away from the 2018 NFL Draft, that hasn’t materialized... yet. That doesn’t rule anything out, and it’s still very possible that Howie Roseman isn’t done making moves with an eye towards gaining more draft capital.

“I’ll be surprised if the Eagles don’t have a third round pick, at least. Listen, we know they’re heavy in defensive backs. With Sidney Jones coming back, that pick’s going to end up paying off big time. And I think one of those defensive backs could be moved for a third-round pick, possibly.” - Chris Mortensen

If a defensive back is traded, a very likely candidate is CB Ronald Darby. Headed into the last year of his contract in a crowded defensive backfield, a third round pick for Darby could be enough for the Eagles to move on from the Florida State product. Before assessing if it’s wise to move on from a young starter, I decided to dust off my evaluation of Darby to gain a better perspective.

Beware, humble brag inbound.

Last summer I entered a three-round competition with the Scouting Academy that featured over one hundred contestants. Having advanced to the semi-finals, I chose to do my next report on Darby. The round was judged by former Tennessee Titans Scouting Director Blake Beddingfield and proved detailed and accurate enough to advance to the finals, which I won.

Not-so-humble-brag over.

The point is I’ve done a ton of study on Darby’s game since he’s come to the league and have tracked his progress every step of the way. With the rumblings about a potential trade of a defensive back, it’s an appropriate time to update his scouting report with additional information from the 2017 season.

Starting with his Week 11 game at the Dallas Cowboys, in which he made his return from dislocating his ankle, Darby turned in a dazzling performance. One that earned him the second highest grade from Pro Football Focus for Eagles players that week. The game didn’t start off well, however, and a bad habit that would show up later in the season reared its ugly head.

From my scouting report leading into the season, I noted that Darby “struggles to stay disciplined with no safety help; will get baited easily on double moves.” In the above video, Darby has inside leverage, which Cowboys WR Dez Bryant threatens at the top of his route step. This gets Darby off the spot and opens up a lane, one that Bryant exploits by buzzing through vertically. If not for a Mychal Kendricks blitz, a well-timed, well-placed throw from QB Dakota Prescott would’ve likely resulted in a touchdown.

Throughout the game the Cowboys tested Darby’s ability to come up and tackle. On three “smoke” routes by Bryant, Darby accelerated downhill under control and secured a tackle for short gains. From Darby’s initial report: “Solid open field tackler; brings speed and force as a tackler with a low aiming point and wrap against all types of ball-carriers.” Solid, in Scouting Academy lingo, is better than adequate, worse than good.

As we progress through this 2017 tape we’ll see how that grade holds up, but it’s of note that PFF accredited Darby with the best tackling efficiency among Eagles corners.

The Cowboys, after having failed to get one over on Darby in the open field, decided to test him in the air on a 50/50 ball in the end zone. Darby does an excellent job of stacking the route, resulting in mutual contact not being flagged due to him owning his space. If he had not stacked and come from an angle to initiate contact, rather than forcing Bryant to run at a collision point, he would have most likely been flagged.

Darby turns his head back to the ball once he’s established an advantageous position with pinpoint timing, allowing him to locate and get a mitt on the ball for the break-up. This is textbook from A-to-Z.

On 3rd & 17, Darby displays a few desirable traits. First, the ability to burst out of his shuffle and get to the hip pocket of the post from Bryant. Second, the spatial awareness to understand where the safeties zone is going to overlap with the route, combined with the feel of the sticks, creating an opportunity to undercut the route. Third, locating, tracking, and ball skills to complete the interception.

Moving on to the Week 15 game at the New York Giants, Darby had a more uneven performance. The concepts that the Giants ran off slants gave the aggressive Darby fits and led to big plays.

On this mirrored 2x2 slant-flat concept, the Giants utilize play-action to hold the play-side LB Mychal Kendricks, creating a natural window for the slant. Giants WR Tavarres King enhances this window by getting Darby turned on a stutter release where he brings his head with him to the outside. This causes Darby to open his hips to the outside in anticipation of a vertical stem toward the sideline. With Darby displaced and turned, King is free from potential contact and releases through the area in which Darby vacated, leading to separation and a 57-yard touchdown.

From Darby’s scouting report: “Very good at the LOS; mirrors receivers patiently and forces WR to commit before opening on release from press.” This note obviously bears revisiting upon seeing this rep. You don’t want to punish a player for one deviation, but it is something to keep an eye on moving forward. If the issue continues to pop up, the grade would have to be be pushed down.

With the score 34-29 Eagles and less than a minute to play, Darby ultimately showed up in a big way.

The beginning of the route combination to Darby’s side initially looks like Double China-7, which has two dig routes from the outside receivers and a corner route from the inside slot man. It’s one of the most commonly used red zone route combinations in the NFL, adding to the deception. It would be very easy for Darby to read this early action and bite inside, but he stays patient, allowing him to stack the route, get his head turned and break up the pass. For as much guff as the Eagles corners got throughout the season for biting on double moves, this rep is deserving of more praise.

The problems come for Darby when he’s face with any kind of well executed sell. It may be a stutter at the LOS as noted previously or a wide receiver jabbing outside of his frame to sell at the top of the stem. Whatever is sold well, he will buy it. It’s his troubles with nuance and well-crafted work at the break-point that betray his top-notch athleticism, masking it with indecision.

Beyond this rep, Darby gets high marks for recovery speed, especially on vertical routes. This shows out when he is in appropriate position within the initial phase of the route stem, which more often then not is the case. If he can eliminate the initial false steps and calm his feet, he will find his recovery speed of more use on routes where he must incorporate lateral movements to stay in phase, even if he is a tick behind when he starts to accelerate out of his sink.

The aim for Darby should not to be in phase at all times but closing to affect the catch-point by relying on his rare athleticism. For example:

The final game to scout was the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots, which was a sieve of a game for Darby. Targeted 12 times, he allowed 8 receptions for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns (both to Rob Gronkowski). He had the worst cover snaps per target, coverage snaps per reception, and yards per coverage snap among cornerbacks on both teams. If not for Malcolm Jenkins, chances are Darby would’ve been blender-fed by new Rams WR Brandin Cooks for the duration.

Having re-evaluated Darby, he took knocks in mental processing, play speed, man coverage, and LOS. His open field tackling received a higher grade, and his ball skills significantly improved. His athleticism still carries his game, but refinement is needed to unlock his true athletic profile which would give him a more dynamic, well-rounded game.

Overall, Darby’s grade rates him at the high end of “solid”, verging on “good” on the Scouting Academy scale. This pegs him as a starter you can win with, and his need for further development is encouraging considering his young age (24). While development is not linear, there are signs littered throughout his film that point to a talent with Pro Bowl caliber potential. A full, healthy off-season with the Eagles should help him fill that promise, in theory.

The question now is, will the Eagles retain Darby this year and into his next contract considering how the market will price him? If not, what would it take to obtain Darby’s services?

If not for his contract situation, it’s doubtful a trade rumor would be surrounding Darby, yet here we are.

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