Development is not linear. This phrase applies to life and football. You see cases that support this theory all over. For instance, college football is king for once hyped players seeing their stock tumble.
Remember when Matt Barkley and Landry Jones were future first rounders? How could you forget? Barkley was the golden boy at USC until his senior season tanked his outlook. Jones never took the next step that some projected. It happens. Why? Because development is not linear. Nor is it guaranteed.
We often forget this when setting expectations for first round selections or players entering the “prove it” years of their first contract. Case in point, last year I wrote about three young players that needed to step up in 2018. That list was comprised of Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, and Derek Barnett.
It’s fair to say that none of the those three took the leap desired. It’s not entirely their fault as all of them finished the season on injured reserve. Even with the injuries, it’s hard to say any of them would’ve taken a significant leap.
Mills was same old Mills; this time on the downswing of his typical volatile results without any of the high-spots outside of a solid outing in Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts. Darby flashed more frequently, but came up short of his sustained string of solid performances in 2017. Barnett showed improvement against the run and flashed as a pass rusher, but his season was cut short before we could come away with anything definitive.
Without those three taking a leap while eventually being sidelined with injuries, the defense predictably struggled to replicate its success from 2017. They dropped from 5th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA to 15th, and considering all of the other injuries around them it could’ve been a lot worse. The fact that it wasn’t worse is a good sign. With some more favorable luck the Eagles starting eleven will remain mostly intact, but they still need a young core of players to fulfill their potential.
Who can I jinx this year? I could probably pick the same trio. Should I pick the same trio? I just might. The following are the three defensive players for the Eagles that need to step up in 2019.
It’s his second year appearing on this list, but it’s important to remember that he’s only 23 years old. I know, it’s a fresh take: Derek Barnett is incredibly young. He’s also entering his third year after being selected with the 14th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. You’ll excuse me if I don’t want to wait for him to celebrate his 26th birthday or so before the Eagles see a significant return on their hefty investment.
My take is and has been that Barnett’s ceiling is a plus run defender with a single-digit sack ceiling. That’s not a bad thing; hitting 8 or 9 sacks while being stout against the run is a win. Just ask Brandon Graham. Sacks are a tricky thing and shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all when it comes to evaluating success. Again, just ask Brandon Graham. If Barnett can amass a respectable amount of pressures and hits it’ll be a big boon for the Eagles’ defense.
If the Eagles are going to feel confident enough in Barnett that they’ll pick up his fifth-year option without hesitating, this is the year where it needs to come together. They’ll have to make that decision by next April. This year, 55% of a potential fifth-year options were exercised. That looming decision only amplifies the need for Barnett to show he doesn’t just have first round potential.
I’ve already declared myself the conductor of the Sidney Jones hype train. All reports indicate that he’s having a monster training camp. That should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s worth noting. Jones is showing the quick twitch ability to break on underneath routes and the ball skills to make plays down the field. It’s everything the Eagles saw in him when they drafted him. In fact, it’s what they saw when they were targeting him as a first round selection before his untimely pro day Achilles tear.
We’re still not sure who will be starting on the outside or at nickel. It’s a muddied picture with the cornerback group, but if Jones is able to put together an impressive preseason, it will be hard to keep him off the field. The Eagles will give him the shot to prove he was worth the wait. It’s on Jones’ shoulders to prove their patience paid off.
This makes three of the top three 2017 NFL Draft picks for the Eagles on this list. If all three hit this year, that’d be a hell of a haul. Rasul Douglas was slow to crack the lineup and has mainly been forced into action via injury, including a short-lived stint at safety. When he’s had the opportunity, Douglas has capitalized.
When Darby came out against Atlanta in Week 1, two plays later ‘Sul would snatch a key red zone interception while covering Julio Jones. He’d notch three interceptions on the year and his loss due to injury in the Divisional Round was felt. Against the New Orleans Saints, ‘Sul surrendered a 39.6 QB Rating when targeted (1st of 29). His replacement, Josh Hawkins, would allow a 150.7 rating (29th of 29).
Douglas isn’t the same fluid mover as Jones, Darby, or Maddox. He’s a longer, stronger press corner with more upside and ball skills than Mills. Having a type that’s different like that can prove useful when deciding how to match up against opposing teams with bigger wide receivers.
Barring a hold out or potential extensions, the duo of Jones and Douglas taking strides in 2019 would give the Eagles two dependable, starting cornerbacks at the combined cap hit of $2,884,987 in 2020. Add in Avonte Maddox – assuming his development is, in fact, linear – and you’ve got three capable starters in the secondary for well under $4M. That’s a massive win for a team that is no longer paying their quarterback on the cheap.