It’s easy to fall into the trap of confirmation bias. You’ve been told by many smart analysts and scouts that player X is going to be the next big thing. You’ve told all your friends that player X is indeed the next big thing. You see flashes from him while you watch the games unfold and you automatically assume it’s because he’s the next big thing. You want him to succeed and you’re happy when Pro Football Focus says he’s succeeding. Not only because you want to be right, but because he’s on your favorite team. It’s only natural to be biased towards the players on the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Is player X really the next big thing though? In this case, that player in question is cornerback Sidney Jones. After over a year of anxiously waiting, we finally get to see if we were right about a player many considered to be a top-flight corner in the 2017 NFL Draft. Projected as the new starting nickel, it’s important that we’re right about him.
If he succeeds, the defense fills a hole and is more likely to succeed as a whole. But it’s less important to be right and much more important to be correct. It’s just as important in how we got to that conclusion; that’s why deep dives are necessary. To this point, are we correct in believing that we are right about Sidney Jones? The following film study and evaluation aims to provide answers.
A major disclaimer before we start: This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a full, final evaluation of Jones. Ideally, I want to see five full games of a player before writing him up and there are times where that isn’t enough.
For example, for a safety I need to know if he can play center-field or half field on deep zones. For Pittsburgh Steelers’ safety Morgan Burnett, there weren’t many of those reps so I sought out additional games/snaps to build enough of a sample size to make an estimation. Even then it required some guesswork based on his traits and the mental processing he displayed in other situations. For Los Angeles Rams’ running back Todd Gurley, I went back to his rookie season to find what he did well for further context on how he struggled in his sophomore campaign. This allowed me to determine that Gurley wasn’t broken, or a bust, or a fluke. Without that context I may have come to a severely flawed conclusion.
Not all players require this type of searching, but in Jones’ case there’s not much available. There’s an egregious lack of regular season snaps to evaluate, especially for a cornerback where not all those snaps involve a definitive action or technique/trait to grade.
Adding to my frustration, is the lack of available coaches film for preseason games which is critical for evaluating defensive back play. I only have the coaches film of the 2017 Dallas Cowboys Week 17 game with which to work, the other games were pulled from college and preseason. Why the league doesn’t show a wider view of the play, I’m not sure. On passing plays the broadcast view leaves out half the action and it’s my theory that this is where most of the uninformed “he’s holding on to the ball too long” or “none of our receivers can get open” takes originate.
This is a long way of saying I recognize the inherent flaws in this exercise. I’m simply trying to establish a baseline from which to base my future evaluations that will be more definitive in their findings.
The first thing that stood out to Jones on his college tape was his patience at the line and his ability to stay in the hip pocket vertically. He consistently does well to use the sideline as an extra defender while squeezing space.
This is how it's done. Sidney Jones is damn good pic.twitter.com/cVD0fj5UeB— Eliot Crist (@EliotCrist) February 25, 2017
Again, Jones is patient, stays locked in to the near hip and uses his length to continually nudge the wide receiver toward the boundary, limiting the window. This has translated for him at the line in the NFL to this point and he’s done well to limit downfield throws. Where he can struggle is with his turn out of a backpedal, but this is still a solid rep for a number of reasons. First off, hanging with New England Patriots’ wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson vertically is a tough ask for any corner due to his 4.42 speed.
The slight hop and pop-up his shoulders isn’t bad, but it does force him to really get on his horse. Anticipating a swipe from Patterson’s inside hand, Jones is patient. He doesn’t strike until he’s clear and gets a piece of the shoulder as he gets in phase. As soon as he’s in phase, he turns his head in unison with Patterson to locate the ball. If he panics or is unable to find the ball he could overrun the play. Instead, he sinks into position and gets himself in a spot to affect the catch-point, leading to a pass break-up.
Without the slight hitch in the turn he’s likely able to stack the route and prevent it from becoming as dangerous, but Jones is able to salvage the rep with a knockdown via his patience, tracking, and ball skills.
The part about Jones’ game you fall in love with is his aggressiveness married with his quick feet and closing burst. He’s always in position to plant and drive, closing down on short routes and putting himself into position to disrupt the throw or make a quick tackle.
Working as a boundary corner, as he did in the second half of the Patriots game, the explosion is obvious. Reading through the routes and to the quarterback, Jones keys on the three step drop and he’s already springing forward. He covers five yards in a second, arriving with excellent timing and location. That’s special processing, foot quickness and explosion, folks.
The problem for Jones’ is when he’s too aggressive. Against the Cowboys in 2017, he fell for the big bugaboo of the Eagles secondary, the sluggo.
Here he’s working as a boundary corner on the bottom of the screen:
Against a slant-flat concept from a three step drop, Jones is convinced he has a pick 6 coming. Unfortunately for Jones, the Eagles secondary had been abused by sluggo routes by the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders late in the season, and the Cowboys capitalized. Well, they didn’t because Dak Prescott overthrows it for an incompletion, but the play-call was correct.
I recently watched a Nike Coach of the Year Clinic with Vanderbuilt head coach Derek Mason who stressed that his players need to see it a couple times before they gamble. Jones was impatient in this regard and nearly paid for the price.
PLAYING THE BANJO...
Early in the Eagles preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, the defense was backed up to their own 1-yard line with a fresh set of downs. This is where Jones and Jalen Mills stole the show. New Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley obviously wanted to work on the teams’
rub pick routes in the red zone, and attacked Jones and Mills three consecutive times.
Defending the pick can be a tall task for defensive backs. They not only have to avoid being caught up in another receivers’ route, but they have to avoid their fellow teammate while also effectively working in conjunction to either pass off or switch on routes.
On first down, Mills recognized Browns’ receiver Jarvis Landry darting for the back of the end zone. Instead of trying to fight through the trash and switch to follow the slant by his receiver, he decided to simply get in Landry’s way. This helped Jones stay with Landry while disrupting the timing of the route, leading to an incompletion.
On second down, the Browns come out with two wide receivers stacked on a “numbers split”. This is where “bango” coverage comes in handy. With banjo, the defensive backs are responsible for either the inside release or outside release, regardless of the initial alignment. In this case, Jones is inside of Mills and is responsible for the innermost route.
Jones works through the pick from Landry and he recognizes the route coming in underneath it. Disengaging from his press, he’s able to slide underneath his initial man and make a play at the catch-point. That’s excellent processing from a young corner, who is able to make a snap decision to come off the inside route and anticipate the intention of the play.
The Browns would go back to the well on third down, running the exact same route combination from the same alignment that they ran on first down. This time, instead of Mills letting his man go to bump Landry, they have a banjo switch on. This means Jones is responsible for peeling off to the inside route and Mills is responsible for taking the outside.
Jones does more than his fair share on this switch. First, recognizing the intersecting routes, he gives Landry a hard shove, where he pings off his own teammate and right into the lap of Mills. Mills stacks the route and in having a right to his space, isn’t flagged. Jones then springs out to undercut the underneath route. It’s not necessary, as the timing of the throw is again disrupted thanks to the teamwork or Jones and Mills.
This is textbook coverage by both defenders on an extremely difficult concept to defend, showing rare maturity from the inexperienced Jones.
LIKE AN ARROW THROUGH SNOW...
One area in which Jones can struggle is run support and open field tackling. It’s not the processing aspect that hurts him; he often does well to recognize crack blocks coming to the safety and executes the “crack replace” responsibility well and he’s always willing to stick his nose in the backfield.. rather, it’s the angles in which he takes and the hesitation in which he comes downhill.
One example of that came against the Cowboys in 2017. With outside responsibility, Jones let Ezekiel Elliott get over on him.
I need a burner to post these gifs for when Chorus decides it's had enough videos for one piece. Don't mind me. pic.twitter.com/8VV5my7WUW— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) August 27, 2018
Jones must keep this play inside. With the wide receiver cracking the safety, he has a free run at Ezekiel Elliott. The issue comes when he breaks down.
He needs to be like an arrow through snow. If he keeps the play on his inside shoulder he can attack from the outside. He can do this by shortening his stride (not breaking it) and coming downhill to Elliott’s outside shoulder. A broken tackle from the outside-in turns the play inside funnels it to pursuit/support. A missed tackle that isn’t attempted from the inside-out leads to green grass for Elliott and potentially cuts the gain in half.
This is the type of flaw in his technique that led to Cordarrelle Patterson breaking his ankles on a smoke route touchdown where Jones couldn’t get a hand on. This isn’t to say that Jones is bad in run support, just that there is room for improvement. Overall, he’s had about slightly more solid reps in the run game as he’s had bad.
Open field tackling issues aside, Jones scored fairly well when factoring in all of the above factors and more. With a grade established for his traits, I used the same formula I’ve previously applied to a Ronald Darby evaluation to boil him down to a number grade. Jones scored out as a 4.41 out of 7, putting him squarely in the “starter you can win with” tier. For comparison, Darby scored a nice 4.69 out of 7, barely eking out Jones. Again, this is not a truly full evaluation of Jones, only a beginning baseline from which to work in the future.
Jones has a skill set that translates not just to the outside, but to the nickel, which has been the concern since the move inside began to unfold. The explosiveness in and out of his breaks, typewriter feet, sharp mental processing, ball skills and use of his hands all point to a package that can thrive in any scheme and from any alignment. If I had to put money on it, I would be that we were right in calling Sidney Jones the next big thing.