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Is Byron Jones worth the cost for the Eagles?

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The Cowboys cornerback is rumored to garner a market-setting deal in free agency; and the Eagles are rumored to be his primary suitor.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback play in Philadelphia has been bad since the moment Doug Pederson stepped foot on campus — no two ways about it. Over that time, the mainstays have been seventh-round 2016 Draft selection Jalen Mills and 2017 trade acquisition Ronald Darby, with brief stretches of play from such cult heroes as Patrick Robinson (owner of a Top-2 pick-six in Eagles history), Rasul Douglas (I still believe!), and Avonte Maddox (I ... might believe?).

Cornerback play in Philadelphia might have finally reached a breaking point, however. With the Eagles in spending mode as they enter a new window of team-building, and the billowing smoke detailing Philadelphia’s interest in ex-Cowboys CB Byron Jones, a shiny, new, starting outside corner may be coming to Philadelphia for the first time in three years.

But as the bell of a new year rings and free agency opens, salary cap hand-wringing always tempers the excitement for prospective signings. With no player has that been more evident with Jones, whose expected cap figure is rising with every day that passes closer and closer to free agency. The latest projection came from NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, who said:

Byron Jones isn’t a huge name outside of Dallas, thanks in part to just two career interceptions. But teams expect the versatile former first-round pick to command $16 million to $18 million a year in free agency, making him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history.

$18 million. That’s $9 million for each of Jones’ career interceptions.

And that’s the bugaboo, isn’t it? The biggest CB contract on the market by Average Annual Value (AAV) belongs to Miami’s Xavien Howard, who is making just over $15M/year on the deal he signed last offseason. His 12 interceptions over the last five seasons is tied for 20th-best among defensive backs in the league, a list that’s led by Marcus Peters (27 interceptions at $14M AAV), Stephon Gilmore (18 INTs at $13M AAV), and another rumored Eagles target: Darius Slay (17 INTs at $12M). Jones simply is not picking the ball of even near the rate of the highest-paid corners.

If Jones isn’t generating interceptions — the highest-value play a cornerback can generate — then why is he worth this figure? It boils down to Jones’ unique career arc and particular deployment in Dallas’ defense. Once we understand those, the fear over Jones’ ball production should wane, and the excitement about bringing him to Philadelphia at any contract figure should return.

Ball Production Is Good; Being Targeted Is Bad

How do you intercept the football? Functionally, as a corner, you have to be able to locate the football before/in time with the receiver; fight for positioning at the catch point; actually make the catch. All difficult skills for defensive players, but important to have for top corners.

But all of that is conditional to having the ball actually thrown your direction. And if you’re really good at preventing the QB from throwing the ball your way (i.e. covering the receiver), you’re simply going to get less opportunities to make a play on the football.

Only two corners were targeted less frequently in coverage than Jones, per PFF. Some of this can be explained via the Cowboys’ other corners, as targeting Chidobe Awuzie or Jourdan Lewis is certainly preferential to targeting Jones. But baked into that very logic is the assumption that Jones is more likely to make a play on the football than Awuzie or Jordan. He’ll have the receiver more tightly covered, and can do more damage with the ball in the air. That’s why you’re avoiding him in the first place: he’s in a better position, with a better skill set, to make a play on the football.

Take it from this perspective: despite being targeted at an extremely low rate for how often he was in coverage, Byron Jones still had 6 passes defensed, per Pro Football Reference. Over the course of his five years in the league, Jones has 43 total passes defensed, which is 34th-best among defensive backs at that time. It’s not elite, but it’s exactly equal to Malcolm Jenkins’ number. Does anyone have any issue with the plays Jenkins makes in coverage?

The other thing that’s critical to understanding Jones’ production across his five-year career is the shift in his deployment. During Jones’ first three years with the Cowboys under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, Jones split time at safety at corner, primarily playing deep zone coverages. In that role, Jones’ long speed, route recognition, and ball skills were evident, and he accordingly generated big coverage plays, like this PBU against A.J. Green from a deep-middle alignment in 2016.

When Kris Richard took over the defensive backfield in Dallas in 2018, he immediately moved Jones to cornerback. Jones’ length, size, and speed was familiar to Richard, an ex-Legion of Boom coach, as the particular mold of a cornerback that would be successful in his press-Cover 3 alignment and scheme. Richard was smart.

The last two years have been the best of Jones’ career, and the period of time in which he’s found the most ball production. This should not be surprising to us: corners in general are targeted more often than safeties are, and have more opportunities to make plays on the football. 20 of Jones’ 43 PDs have come in the last two years; his 14 in 2018 were tied for 10th-most in the league.

Jones is not a five-year starter at corner without ball skills; he’s a two-year starter, a convert to the position, and is not so much lacking for ball skills as he is tremendous at discouraging targets altogether. This is excellent news.

Eliminating Half Of The Field

Do you remember this play? This was from the Eagles’ critical Week 10 matchup with the Cowboys in 2018 — the Cowboys would win 27-20 on a late Ezekiel Elliott touchdown en route to a division championship. Jones is at the top of the screen.

It’s a memorable play because you don’t see something like it often, and you don’t see something like it often because it’s really difficult to do. Jones is in isolated man coverage with Zach Ertz, which allows the Cowboys to play a shifted Cover 3 (Cover 3 Mable) over the three-receiver side of the field. This helps them have enough zone defenders to count for the extra receivers to that half of the field.

This is a common coverage from the Cowboys, and the Eagles know this. They’re going to attack the Cowboys by taking the Number 3 receiver (Golden Tate) and sending him on a deep cross or “Climb” route to the man coverage side. He’ll cross in front of the deep middle safety and behind the dropping linebacker (No. 54 Jaylon Smith), and because Jones has followed Ertz in man coverage, there will be an open intermediate window the Eagles can hit for a chunk gain.

This does not work, as we can see in the above clip. Jones drops in a half-turn body positioning, reading both the backfield action and the incoming route from the strong side. He gains depth downfield, knowing he has underneath help from Smith, and that Ertz’s shallow cross is walled off at the snap by the weakside linebacker (Leighton Vander Esch).

Wentz tries to put this ball above Jones, dropping it in a tiny bucket; it’s a tough throw, and Jones does well to play through Golden Tate’s route, reading Tate’s body positioning and deceleration without committing pass interference. This is not an interception; it is, however, an example of a pass defensed — and against most cornerbacks in this role, it would be a completion.

This is a tremendous example of how much Jones’ safety background helps his zone coverage as a cornerback. Jones has a tremendous knack for playing in the half -turn — a technique with which Eagles have tried and failed to find success, when they ask it of Mills and Darby. Again against the Eagles, now in 2019, Jones once again bails from a press alignment to a deep 3rd zone. In the half-turn, Jones can see the backfield and read any routes breaking his way. As Wentz settles into his drop right as TE Zach Ertz starts breaking, Jones passes off the deep route to his help — the middle of the field safety — to close on the Sail route from Ertz and generate another pass defensed.

Watch Jones settle his feet even as he stays on top of the nine route from WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Jones knows this route is just trying to clear him out; he knows this ball is coming to Ertz. This is an example of a baited throw — something one might argue Jones couldn’t generate, given his poor INT numbers. Jones allows “space” for this throw to remain, so that Wentz is tricked into attempting it, which gives Jones the chance to attack the ball and potentially make a play.

It is unsurprising that Jones is so adept in Cover 3 zones, given his safety background. It’s his strength in man coverage that is a monumental deal, and the reason he’s about to be paid so much. Jones is able to eliminate half of the field in a deep zone, allowing you to dedicate extra defenders to the side of the field that he isn’t policing — but he can also wipe away isolated receivers in man coverage, truly making him a shutdown corner.

This is Jones, in the press, against Buffalo and WR Robert Foster. Now, Foster isn’t a dominant NFL wideout, and this isn’t an isolated situation, but it’s important to understand what responsibilities are put on Jones’ shoulders here. To the wide side of the field, with only a single-high safety for help, inside his own 40, Jones knows this is a prime situation for Josh Allen and the Bills to attack the deep outside area of the field. Help will not arrive in time, with Josh Allen’s aggressive play style and world-ending arm strength. This is an isolation play.

Jones puts out teach tape for a press corner. He initially lines up straight on to Foster and widens at the snap, not biting on the inside release move. As Foster explodes upfield (Foster is fast!), Jones immediately turns in phase, locating Foster’s hip and pushing him into the sideline to suffocate the throwing window. This is what we expect to see from a player with so few reps in which he was targeted. He immediately closes the throwing lane.

Then, Jones gets his head turned without losing a step on Foster. He locates the football in time with the receiver and elevates for an impressive, difficult PBU. In that he pops this ball up, it should be intercepted by the closing free safety, who drops it. This play should have ended in a pick.

Jones’ ability to win from the line of scrimmage is elite. When gets beat off the line — as all corners occasionally do — Jones shows both the technical prowess and physical skill set that the Eagles’ corner room has lacked for multiple seasons. Here, he loses a release move to Washington WR Terry McLaurin (which should look familiar to Philly fans) but immediately speed turns and gets back in phase to suffocate the throwing window.

And again, as should be unfamiliar to Eagles fans — Jones is able to remain in phase on the back-shoulder fade. Against another speed demon in Robby Anderson, Jones remains tethered to the inside hip, respecting Anderson’s speed and the threat of the nine ball, but retaining the necessary leverage to slam on the breaks, read the back-shoulder break on the football, and play through the hands into the catch point.

$18 million?!

On film, Jones is a shutdown corner — one of seven or eight in the league that I would feel comfortable saying “He can take away half of the field on any given Sunday.” On the stat sheet, he doesn’t look like that — but a deeper dive and some forgivable context helps us understand why.

But, really: $18M?!

We haven’t seen the contract yet, so let’s not go counting expensive chickens before they hatch. But the reality of the perennial expansion of the NFL cap ceiling and the rampant demand for top players is that you have to beat the market to sign the guy. Jones is the best free agent cornerback to hit the open market in the last couple of seasons — and those guys almost invariably set the market.

Would Jones be worth that figure? He would, if you believe what I said above. Jones has the ability to take away half of the field, which is multiple leaps and bounds beyond that which Eagles fans have suffered through from their corners in recent years. With former DB coach Cory Undlin left for Detroit and a potential for two new starting corners in Philadelphia, it remains to be seen if the Eagles will play Jones in the press coverage that Kris Richard used to unlock him. Undlin’s replacement is Marquand Manuel, who was most recently with the Falcons under Dan Quinn — Quinn, another Seattle defensive coaching product, liked Manuel because of his experience coaching defensive backs under Richard in Seattle — he was an assistant secondary coach in 2013 and 2014, when Richard was the defensive backs coach.

Accordingly, with Jones in the Seattle Cover-3 alignment that Richard and Manuel coached together, there is no reason to believe Jones should be anything less than he was in the last two seasons for Dallas: dominant. Pay Jones what it takes to get him here; put him right across from the best receiver on the opponent’s team; reap the rewards.


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