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All Twenty Take: how much is Ronald Darby worth?

Spoiler alert: a lot!

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating through injury is difficult.

When you’re watching as a third party — not a member of the personnel department, but of the media — you have to try to connect the sparse, distant dots of presser quotes and estimated recovery times to determine how healthy a player is. The NFL season wears on every player, but those who rush back from injury — or play through it all together — bear the burden more noticeably from a performance perspective.

It’s this difficulty that created the rather interesting dichotomy for Eagles fans and analysts (this one included!) regarding CB Ronald Darby. After moving a third and WR Jordan Matthews to acquire him, we naturally assigned a talent level to the high draft pick for whom we paid a significant price. But when his performance across 2018 didn’t reach that high caliber of expectation, the predictable dominoes fell: contract year player; youth behind him.

Let’s trade Ronald Darby.

I’m still not adverse to the idea, but we need to have a conversation — because I certainly underestimated the extent to which that ankle injury limited Darby last season. Of course, we have a one (1) game sample size of contrast, but if Darby continues to put out performances like his Week 1 game against Julio Jones and Co., I’m not sure what price would be enough for the 24-year old corner.

When Darby came out in 2015, his calling card as a cornerback was the speed with which he played. From Lance Zierlein’s notes:

Former high school track star with “world-class speed.” Can change directions suddenly with few false steps. Has requisite body control to handle the strain of press-man coverage. Plays with instincts and awareness...Recognizes route development and makes early break on throws. Ball-tracker with excellent timing to high-point and disrupt the catch.

And again, from Kyle Crabbs:

Has strong straight line acceleration skills. Gets up to top speed quickly once hips are opened and has the long speed to cover ground and not yield vertically...Has the ability to regularly challenge football thanks to leaping ability and strength in playing from the trail position.

Predictably, an ankle injury would bite into that quickness — but on Thursday night, Darby seemed back to full speed.

This looks easier than it is.

Aligned at the bottom of the screen on Julio Jones, Darby is tested right out of the gate by the Falcons. Playing true man coverage with a single-high safety, Darby has to follow Julio across the field, but also protect the deep ball especially, given the lack of safety help. Because Darby’s strength is quickness and not size, he doesn’t look to press Julio — this is pure mirror coverage. Very difficult.

Twice, Darby’s body control and foot speed are tested. First when Julio releases to the inside and begins to stem vertically down the field; then when Julio snaps inside on the break. This is such a nicely run route, because Julio stays vertical long enough to convince the corner in coverage that he’s going deep, then works back inside with impossible snappiness for a man of his size.

So Darby has to open his hips, stay connected, and also gain ground on the first turn (the release) — remember, he’s oriented on keeping the deep area safe. Then, when Julio suddenly cuts inside, Darby has to turn all of that downfield momentum into speed across the field to affect the catch point. That is very hard to do, and accordingly this route would have sent many a corner flying 3+ yards downfield. Easy separation, easy catch.

And a more accurate ball still would have been a catch. (That’s true most of the time.) But Darby is there quick enough to address the catch point and help generate the pass break-up. I can tell you with certainty that the 65, 75, 85% player — whatever it was — that was on the field last season was not making this play.

Or this one.

Or this one.

That’s three passes defensed on the day for Ronald Darby — he only had two such games across his last two seasons of play (22 games) after posting four in his first season (16 games). And all three were the high-quality, traitsy plays that illustrate a return to top form for Ronald Darby.

“Let’s talk numbers,” Ben writes, in a very cool voice, probably with a fedora on, or something other dapper thing out of White Collar.

Howie is a proactive extender of contract, and if he smells a return to top-flight form for Darby, then he won’t hesitate. Signing Darby to a good deal by anticipating a ‘breakout’ season works twofold, in that you either 1) keep him on the good deal or 2) have more firepower in trade negotiations because he’s on such a good deal. As such, if cap constraints and the developing youth still necessitate a Darby trade, that new extension doesn’t hurt at all.

Do the Eagles have the space to extend Darby? Tricky question. Roseman may be stuck between a rock (Ronald Darby) and the hard place that is Brandon Graham’s looming free agency and potential extension. Philly doesn’t have, um, any cap space in 2019 — they’re $21M in the red, which is by far the worst in the league — but it’s not difficult to see how space could be created.

Nick Foles is on the books for $18M; Timmy Jernigan for $13M — and virtually all of that money could be recouped in the event of a trade/cut/denying the Foles option. Sprinkle in a likely Chris Long retirement ($5.6M), Jason Peters restructure ($10.6M), and a Nelson Agholor extension (his 5th-year option would represent a $9.4M cap hit), and Philly can open up 2019 space without much sweat.

If we’re looking to extend Darby — turning 25 in January — before he puts up a statistically dominant season, we can turn to recent extensions to get a good benchmark for the likely price tag.

Detroit’s Darius Slay was extended before the 2016 season to the tune of 4 years and $48M with $23M guaranteed. At the time of his extension, Slay had accrued three seasons of play — he started 36 games and had 4 picks and 37 passes defensed, or a pick every nine games and a PBU every game, on average. He was 25 years old.

Cincinnati’s Dre Kirkpatrick’s contract was a better deal for the team — 5 years, $50.2M (only $12M of which was guaranteed). 27 at the time of his signing, Kirkpatrick’s three most recent seasons saw 31 starts with 6 INTs and 34 passes defensed — that’s a pick every five games and a PBU every game.

Now, Kirkpatrick’s contract saw all of the guaranteed money come in the first two seasons, while Slay’s bigger numbers took three seasons to spread out. However, on Slay’s contract, Detroit was able to backload the yearly salary such that Slay’s first year cap-hit was below $5M. Expect Philadelphia to follow that model, more so than Kirkpatrick’s, if and when they build a contract for Darby.

For comparison, Darby will turn 25 this season — so he’ll be about Slay’s age. And over his past three seasons, even with the injury, Darby has started 36 games, seen 5 interceptions, and broken up 42 passes. That’s stronger statistical output than Slay, and on par with Kirkpatrick.

Philly should be able to sign Darby to the 4 year, $48M dollar deal that Slay saw — probably adjusted a bit for inflation, though Slay’s uber-productive 2017 season will help keep the price point down. But the window for that extension may be closing, if Darby continues playing to the ceiling of his natural ability in 2018.

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