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Why The Eagles Brought Ronald Darby Back

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The best Philly corner returns on the cheap to prove his worth

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Film Review

Boy, I’ll tell you: Ronald Darby’s film really is exciting to watch.

Whenever you’re evaluating a player or even a unit on film, the cardinal rule to remember: the other team is allowed to make good plays. The final result on the game log — completion, interception, PBU, touchdown — hardly tells the story of the traits, technique, and mental legwork that went into any given play.

On cornerback film, that cardinal rule is even more important to remember. Take these two reps for Darby early in the season.

On the first rep, Darby gets a nice PBU on the stat sheet; on the next, it’s a nine-yard completion.

But Darby plays both of these reps very, very nicely. The first is from an off-alignment, square to the line of scrimmage: watch how Darby starts cheating to the outside in his backpedal, anticipating the cut of Julio Jones into the boundary. His plant and drive is in phase with Julio’s, and he’s closing downhill just as Jones is looking back for the football.

Now this ball is super behind Jones — so far behind that even Darby has to slow down to make a play on it without taking Jones out and drawing a flag. That’s the part of the play you can’t control: the other team is allowed to make bad plays, in this instance.

On the second rep, Darby is using a half-turn technique to keep his hips open downfield. To play this bail style of man coverage, a corner must have dynamic change of direction and fluid hips. His ability to drop his weight with Mike Evans’ break, flip his hips into the boundary, and drive on the football stands out as a top-flight ability among all NFL corners.

But Evans here does a tremendous job working back downhill into the football, which Ryan Fitzpatrick has placed much better than Matt Ryan did in the previous clip. As Darby transitions from cover man to tackler when he recognizes he can’t make a play on this ball, he’s already moving at a high velocity and is slightly out of control. While a tackle would be nice to see here, it’s understandable why, given the ball placement and technique Darby used, he wasn’t able to gather himself and stick Evans on the ball’s arrival.

Two similar routes; two different techniques, both executed at an advanced level; two dramatically different results on the stat sheet.

Corner, perhaps more than any other position, is highly volatile year-to-year, and stats struggle to paint a full picture. Darby only had one interception across nine games this season (three INTs in eight games for 2017) to go with a solid 12 pass break-ups, but his on-field product clearly puts him in the upper-echelon of man coverage cornerbacks in the NFL.

Darby is at his best when operating from off alignments, which makes him well-suited to how Schwartz likes to deploy his corners.

As we’ve documented and lamented, much of the off-alignment puts the corners in a position where they have to close downhill and either tackle or make a play on the football. Darby receives some flack for his tackling ability, which we’ll get to, but generally speaking he’s physical and aggressive closing downhill and attacking the catch-point.

Darby doesn’t have great length or size, so he can get big-boyed at times when coming downhill (see the Mike Evans rep), but his explosiveness and physicality lend themselves to PBUs and tackles for short gains. Don’t sleep on his instincts, either — Darby is regularly on time with his click and close, and that diagnostic ability should only grow with his career (and with healthy seasons).

When forced to turn and run in off-alignments, Darby can get twisted around by good route-runners, however. You can’t backpedal forever — you’re begging to get beat deep — so when Darby opens his hips, he’s still often surrendering ideal leverage and “guessing” as to where he’s being threatened.

On a lot of these reps (Tennessee v. Taywan Taylor is eye-popping), you can see Darby’s wonderful reactionary and recovery quickness to get back in phase. That’s objectively good tape, and Darby’s ability to execute those speed turns helps him on the field. But they also make him a bit too willing to flip his hips and give his back to the receiver, which puts him in these sticky spots.

Those pre-emptive hip flips illustrate Darby’s awareness of downfield threats — Darby’s trying to ensure he stays on top of potential deep routes and doesn’t give up the big play. This stands in stark contrast to running mate Jalen Mills, who struggles with double moves. Darby actually handles such routes quite nicely. He’s a trustworthy deep zone defender in Cover 3/Quarters because of how dedicated he is to keeping downfield leverage, and he is worthy of true man-on-man coverage accordingly.

In other alignments that Philadelphia uses far less often — such as the press, or the half-turn bail — Darby isn’t as technically sound. Press emphasizes his weaknesses, such as length and play strength — and bail doesn’t let him play with his hips into the receiver, which is where he’s currently the most comfortable.

But most detractors of Darby don’t focus on his struggles in the press on the half-turn; rather, they emphasize Darby’s poor tackling. The reality of Darby’s tackling is that he picks his spots. If a player is in his third of the field (i.e. on screens and quick routes), Darby rallies down to tackle. If he’s the primary alley defender, Darby will close down and make diving tackle attempts.

If it’s a downfield situation? A hustle situation? There isn’t as much effort.

It’s worth noting that this phenomena is not exclusive to Darby; it plagues many cornerbacks. When their head is already set in the mold of “time to tackle” — i.e., their pre-snap responsibilities of screens or runs — they offer passable film; but when called upon to don the mantle, they often fall short.

Darby isn’t a bad tackler, but he is smaller and lacks power, so he dives for ankles or steers out of bounds far more often than he wraps up and drives. I appreciate his fight, but you can find the occasional rep where his lack of stick-and-drive strength shines through.

All things considered, Darby’s transitional quickness gives him route-mirroring ability that is starting-caliber in the NFL; his click-and-close explosiveness and catch-point skills are in the upper echelon of NFL starters altogether. Darby hasn’t finished a season since 2016, but he has Pro Bowl ability on the field, and if he can stay healthy (and return to health without losing his athletic ability), Eagles fans should be excited about his starting role in 2019.

Contract

Ronald Darby’s contract details were just released earlier today. As Over the Cap has it:

Once again, Howie has tagged as many voidable years as he can on the end of a contract to lower the cap hit for 2019. Teams can only prorate signing bonus money over five years maximum, so Roseman added four voidable years to Darby’s one-year deal. It’s likely that the primary goal for Darby’s camp was getting a one-year deal, so that Darby could again hit free agency in 2020 if he finally puts together a healthy season.

Darby’s cap hit for 2019 is only $2.825M, a super-silly number. It’s composed of the $1M base salary, the $700k of the prorated $3.5M signing bonus, and the per game roster bonuses which can total up to $2M ($125k/game). Darby is currently only “expected” to earn 9 of those per game bonuses (i.e. $1.125M worth of bonus money) because he only played 9 games last season. If he plays any more, he’ll take another $125k off the cap for 2019.

As Sam Lynch astutely points out, the voidable years do incentivize Philadelphia to extend Darby before his voidable years officially void (some date before 3/14/20, when the 2020 league year starts). If they do void, the remaining signing bonus money ($2.8M) will accelerate onto the 2020 cap. If they don’t, however, they’ll remain prorated over the four void years, conditional on the structure of the extension.

As it stands, while Philadelphia will likely have to pay $2.8M in 2020 for the cost of keeping Darby’s 2019 figure so low, Darby’s total deal value ($6.5M with the potential to hit $8.5M based off unknown incentives) is a total steal for his on-field ability. The one-year cost of the franchise tag for Darby would have been $16.02M — not that the tag was ever in play, but Darby’s going to cost somewhere around half that figure for his one-year rental. Over 30 corners are earning more money/year than Darby’s $6.5M figure.

Options at the Position

It would be surprising to see the Eagles bring Darby back in 2020. At that time, Jalen Mills and Cre’Von Leblanc will also be hitting free agency, and both will be cheaper options than Darby. Of course, neither plays as well either, but that’s the balance to be struck.

Rookies Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones will be entering contract years in 2020, and Philadelphia certainly expects to get at least one starter (if not two!) out of that pairing. With the youth at the position considered, if Philadelphia has at least one outside starter they like, they have the flexibility to let Darby walk in 2020.

While that would accelerate the cap hit, Philadelphia doesn’t have too much room to be signing any more mega-extensions, as they’re already accumulating dead cap in 2020 and beyond at an alarming rate — a product of Howie Roseman’s daring contract structuring as of late.

It seems more likely that Philadelphia is retaining Darby to attack a perceived 2019 window to win, and then reloading at the corner position with their rookies/cheap re-signings in 2020 and beyond.

Evaluation and Expectation

Philadelphia should expect a motivated Ronald Darby, even if he’s not healthy by Week 1 as he promised earlier today. Darby’s one-year deal serves him the ability to prove to the other 31 teams, who clearly weren’t as interested as he expected, that he’s a CB1 when healthy.

However, Darby is a snug fit for Schwartz’s preferred corner alignment, and is the Eagles’ best rostered corner by a comfortable margin. If he does indeed have a strong season, Philadelphia will certainly see if they can sign him to a multi-year extension, as good young corners are rare to find and even rarer to keep.

More than likely, however, is that Darby starts his last season as a Philadelphia Eagle opposite Rasul Douglas/Jalen Mills this season, with Sidney Jones/Avonte Maddox in the slot. If healthy, Darby has the talent to make a Pro Bowl and become another high-impact defender on an Eagles defense that struggled against the pass once S Rodney McLeod went down with injury.

And if the Eagles can indeed get quality play out of Darby for 16 games (or however many he plays, if he isn’t ready for Week 1), one of the greatest weakness of their 2018 defense will lessen, and hopefully their postseason outlook will improve accordingly.