Earlier this week, I dove into the film of Jalen Mills’ box and slot snaps against the New England Patriots. This was a microcosmic view of the future of one player on the Eagles’ secondary, as Mills is the leading (but not only) candidate to replace (but not replicate) Malcolm Jenkins, and the Patriots game was one (small, incomplete) example of what he could look like in (some of) his new responsibilities.
It’s important to step back and take a macrocosmic view of the Eagles’ secondary as well. The unit has never been good under Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz. In 2016, Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll served as positional holdovers from the Chip Kelly era at corner, while Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins did everything they could to keep their heads above water in the new defensive system. PFF put this unit at the bottom of their rankings for the season, and appropriately so.
In 2017, the corner position was revamped: Ronald Darby was acquired via trade, Patrick Robinson via free agency, and Jalen Mills was promoted internally. This was perhaps the best the Eagles’ secondary has been in the last four years, and while it wasn’t great, it was enough to ride to the Super Bowl. Darby was lost and replaced by rookie third-rounder Rasul Douglas for the middle chunk of the season, as rookie second-rounder, Sidney Jones, was coming off of an Achilles injury and was unavailable.
The Eagles kept the same starting outside corners in 2018, with rookie fourth-rounder Avonte Maddox stepping in for Patrick Robinson (and Rodney McLeod, and Jalen Mills, and Ronald Darby at various points). More than 10 players took snaps at corner for the Eagles in that injury-riddled season, with only Douglas staying available and healthy for an entire year. The Eagles’ pass defense suffered once again, especially with McLeod lost before Week 1, and no sufficient free safety on the roster to replace him.
The story remained largely the same in 2019. Only 9 players took snaps at corner, but 6 were on the field at safety. McLeod wasn’t the same player off of injury, Mills wasn’t the same player off of injury, Darby wasn’t the same player off of injury (for the second year in a row), and Maddox regressed off of his exciting rookie season. Once again, Douglas was the only consistently healthy and available corner.
The only significant acquisitions made in the secondary over those two offseasons — 2018 and 2019 — were projected depth pieces. Maddox has performed over expectation as a fourth-round selection, but was forced into a variety of starting roles in 2018 and didn’t overwhelm at nickel corner last year. Andrew Sendejo, added in the 2019 offseason, didn’t play well enough to be worth the comp pick the Eagles acquired by cutting him. The biggest money the Eagles spend in free agency on the secondary over those two years was on Ronald Darby, who they returned in 2019 despite his questionable health and play in the previous two years.
The story may look better in 2020, but don’t be fooled. The Eagles’ traded third- and fifth-round selections for Darius Slay, the disgruntled Detroit vet, and promptly extended him. Slay, even if he has started on the downturn of his career — which I don’t believe he has — is the best cornerback to play under Pederson in Philly. This is great news.
But everything else is bad. To help open cap space for Slay’s extension, the Eagles cut the only bright spot on the backend before Slay in Malcolm Jenkins, who had taken 2,075 of the possible 2,075 snaps on defense over the last two years, and played at Pro Bowl levels in both seasons. They grabbed Nickell Robey-Coleman as a late veteran add to potentially fill the slot job that Maddox is vacating, and signed Will Parks to a one-year prove-it deal after missing out on the larger safety market. Their only secondary draft pick was a fourth-round safety in Clemson utility piece K’Von Wallace.
In summary, the Eagles started to have problems at cornerback back in 2018. Their problem was two-fold: their starters weren’t very good, and their backups weren’t much better when they were healthy, which was infrequently at best. In 2018, they did little to improve the situation. They hoped that Mills’ confidence would lead to growth; that Darby would return to form; that Sidney Jones would put together a good camp and win a starting job. It didn’t work, so in 2019, they did it again. It didn’t work, so in 2020, they moved Jalen Mills to safety, replaced Darby with Slay, and cut their best secondary player in the process.
They entered this offseason with gaps at CB1 and CB2 and left with gaps at CB2 and SAF1. They didn’t get better; they just shuffled the deck.
It’s inarguable that the biggest issue with the 2019 Eagles was the state of their WR room. But the character of that problem is different than the one in the secondary. The Eagles made investments in their wideouts in 2019 — they spent a second-round pick on J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and took a high-upside swing on DeSean Jackson with a cheap trade from Tampa Bay. The issue wasn’t one of negligence; the bets they made simply didn’t pay off. DeSean went down, Alshon went down, Arcega-Whiteside was never ready to play, and the personnel department had to scramble for stopgap options accordingly.
The Eagles solved their WR problem in 2020 the same way they did in 2019 — they spent resources at the position. A first-rounder, fourth-rounder, sixth-rounder, and swap of sixth-rounders became Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, Quez Watkins, and Marquise Goodwin. (For comparison, a third, fifth, and fourth became Wallace and Slay.) Just like last year, these were some good bets, and hopefully they work; if they don’t, the Eagles will be in trouble.
But in the secondary, the issue is negligence. The Eagles keep making the same, bad bets. They are presumably hoping one of Jones, Maddox, Douglas, or Trevor Williams wins the starting job opposite Slay. Not a single one of these players is both a plus-starter and regularly healthy, which puts the Eagles on the exact same road they have traveled before. To replace Jenkins, the Eagles have once again put chips on Jalen Mills’ number despite the fact that he’s never been a quality starter, with two players who have never been starters in the NFL (Parks and Wallace) as backup options.
It’s inarguable that the biggest issue with the 2019 Eagles was the state of their WR room, but I think it’s equally beyond debate that the biggest issue with the Doug Pederson-led Eagles altogether has been the continued bargain-binning in the secondary. Sidney Jones, while a quality prospect back in the day, has yet to do anything in the league to prove he can be a consistent depth piece, let alone starter. Why is he getting another crack at the starting job? Rasul Douglas has been in the locker room for three years now, has never been able to climb up the depth chart, and doesn’t seem like a scheme fit — so why is he still holding a roster spot?
When forecasting the Eagles’ 2018 and 2019 seasons, it wasn’t hard to circle the secondary as the biggest concern on the roster. Sometimes, there was uncertainty at guard or linebacker or wide receiver, yes — but in both years, there was reasonable doubt as to the Eagles’ likelihood of fielding three functional NFL corners. In 2020, what stands out as the biggest area of concern on the roster? To me, it is once again the secondary — which means the story of this season could very likely be the story of many seasons past for Philadelphia: a good offense regularly forced into shootouts by a defense that can’t hold their own against the pass-happy offenses that define the top teams in the league.