Jim Schwartz finally has his CB1.
That result was a point of emphasis in the offseason for the Eagles and when the Philadelphia got outbid by Miami for Byron Jones in free agency the Birds turned to the trade market and pried three-time Pro Bowl selection Darius Slay away from the Detroit Lions for a pair of draft picks and a subsequent big-money extension.
The overall complexion of the secondary is also vastly different with Marquand Manuel taking over as the position coach for Cory Undlin, now the defensive coordinator for the Lions, and Slay moving into the headliner role with safety Malcolm Jenkins returned to New Orleans after the Eagles declined his option.
The machinations didn’t stop there as the aptly named Nickell Robey-Coleman was imported to take over the slot duties and Avonte Maddox earmarked for outside work opposite Slay.
The former starter at left cornerback, Jalen Mills, was re-signed but moved to safety to replace Jenkins and the so-far disappointing second- and third-round picks from 2017, Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, will get one final opportunity to prove they deserve a second contract in Philadelphia.
LC: Darius Slay; Sidney Jones; Craig James; Prince Smith
RC: Avonte Maddox; Rasul Douglas; Tremon Smith; Michael Jacquet
SLOT: Nickell Robey-Coleman; Cre’Von LeBlanc
WHAT’S CHANGED: Plenty, starting with the addition of Slay, the planned move of the 5-foot-9 Maddox outside to play opposite the three-time Pro-Bowl selection and the signing of top-tier nickel CB Robey-Coleman.
Last season’s amalgamation of starters has either changed positions (Mills), changed cities (Ronald Darby to the Washington Football Team) or are being counted on to provide a safety net to Maddox (Jones and Douglas).
According to many observers, including ProFootballFocus.com, 2019 wasn’t Slay’s best season but don’t tell that to what is the equivalent of a heavyweight boxer on the outside.
“I think I played freakin’ fantastic,” Slay insisted on a conference call this spring despite the fact that PFF graded him as the 85th best CB in the NFL last season. “I’m not going to say an excellent level, but it was dang sure good enough to make a Pro Bowl three-peat three years in row.”
The reality is that Slay did have a down year when compared to his previous work and at 29 it has to be in the back of your mind that the decline has started.
There is context to the less-than-typical performance, however, starting with a dislike of Detroit coach Matt Patricia not to mention playing in a division loaded with top receivers which was a double-edged sword for Slay.
Much of Slay’s swagger was born from playing in the NFC North where the one-time college teammate of Fletcher Cox got to see some of the best receivers in the world twice a year - players like Green Bay’s Devante Adams, and both Stefon Diggs (now in Buffalo) and Adam Thielen in Minnesota.
“Both of those guys are very much top five [receivers] - Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs was a great, great deep threat,” said Slay. “Thielen was just an all-around type of receiver, intermediate routes. He could do it all and I got a taste of all of them.”
At times Slay was tasked with slowing all of them down, as well as working against Chicago’s Allen Robinson, and Detroit's own top-tier receivers - Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones - in practice.
“They were all different and I had to work my craft different every time I played them,” said Slay. “I got a lot better going against those guys. I appreciate going against those guys all the time. They came out to compete, We showed so much respect for each other. We were just trying to get better.
“They were great competitors and going against those guys helped me a lot. They were the best receivers in the world.”
Things don’t figure to be quite as difficult in the NFC East where Slay already got a taste of what’s awaiting him from the Lions’ 2019 schedule when Detroit had both Dallas and Washington on their schedule.
Interestingly, it was WFT rookie Terry McLaurin who got the better of Slay while the more accomplished receiver - Dallas’ Amari Cooper - was shut down.
“The rook kind of surprised me,” Slay admitted. “Faster than I thought on film. … He's a true competitor. That's what I didn't see or notice about him (on film). But going against him, he competed every play. He's going to give you his all every play.”
Conversely, Cooper was a known commodity and a top-tier route runner, something Slay was used to from his time in the NFC North and his in-depth studying on some of the best.
“Coop was tough," Slay said. "I just got the upper hand because I knew the type of guy he was. I just tried to eliminate the best route he had and Coop had been in the league so I had so much film.”
Declining or not, Slay is easily the best CB the Eagles have had during the Schwartz era and a return to form could open up the ability to travel with star receivers or lock down one side of the field, enabling Schwartz and Manuel to do a lot of layered things on the other side.
Slay and Robey-Coleman are locked in leaving Maddox to fend off Jones and Douglas for the other outside CB position.
Because he’s height-deficient Maddox was drafted to play inside even though he excelled as Pitt’s top outside CB in college. He’s also arguably been more effective in the early stages of his professional career when pushed outside by the Eagles out of necessity so the sentiment on him has changed.
“I grew up admiring the Darrell Greens and Aaron Glenns of the world, and these guys, they’re explosive, twitched-up guys who had an incredible vertical, and it’s hard to get the ball on them,” GM Howie Roseman said in the spring. “Avonte’s got a lot of those same characteristics.”
To date, Schwartz has trusted Maddox more than Jones or Douglas as evidenced by Maddox moving outside for the playoffs against Seattle.
“This is a guy who has started on the outside for us in playoff games,” Roseman said of Maddox. “He has the ability to have sticky coverage with receivers inside or out. He’s got a great mentality, and he’s got a great physical skill set.
“.. so yeah, we feel like he’s a guy who can play all over the secondary and certainly feel comfortable with him outside as well."
Jones, a perceived first-round talent who ended up in the second round because of the torn Achilles’ that ruined his pro day in 2017, essentially redshirted his rookie season in Philadelphia before being ramped up. Since then persistent soft-tissue injuries and a failure to embrace the physicality of the position have had Jones in and out of the lineup.
Conversely, Douglas, a third-round pick back in 2017, has been the most sturdy player at a position devastated by injuries as a whole for Philadelphia, perhaps no surprise due to his size and physicality.
Projected as a press-coverage and/or off coverage CB coming out of West Virginia because of his frame and ball skills, Douglas has performed at times but has also been terribly inconsistent. Speed deficiencies and miscommunication have been the two charges leveled at him most often.
Both are now entering the final seasons of their rookie deals and Douglas has been shopped around, an NFL source told SI.com, a clear indication that he’s not in Philadelphia’s plans past the 2020 season.
Jones’ resume to date is incomplete and that uncertainty, along with his prodigious physical skills, seems to be generating another opportunity, at least in the mind of Roseman.
“I think that (Jones and Douglas are) in two different situations,” the GM said.
For Jones, the instructions from the organization were clear and to that end, the Los Angeles native was working with well-regarded defensive backs coach Ronnie Braxton in the Dallas area during the offseason.
The pandemic might have really hurt Jones’ opportunity to prove some things to the staff because Roseman’s belief is that Jones would have benefited from “an offseason where instead of rehabbing he’s really working on his body and coming into camp (healthy) because we do feel like this is a guy that when we’ve seen him healthy he does have a skill set.
"He’s got to go prove it."
The words were not nearly as optimistic with Douglas mainly because the Eagles believe they’ve seen enough of the North Jersey product for a fair evaluation.
“Rasul has a body of work that’s kind of been put out there,” Roseman explained. “So for him, he’s just got to keep continuing to work on it and competing.”
ROCKY: THE LONGSHOT
Few noticed when the Eagles brought Tremon Smith onto the practice squad in December of last season but the sixth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018 offers an intriguing mix of versatility as both a cornerback and potential returner for Dave Fipp.
Smith was so good as a kick returner for the Chiefs as a rookie (33 returns for 886 yards, a 26.8 average) he was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team and Kansas City flirted with turning him into a running back before last season.
Smith was ultimately released in early September and claimed off waivers by Green Bay where he bounced up and down from the active roster and practice squad until being waived and signed by the Eagles on Dec. 4.
Smith’s athleticism and return ability is the key to gaining a roster spot.
WHO STAYS ON THE 53?
Barring injury it looks pretty clear cut with Slay, Maddox, Jones, and Douglas being the outside CBs and Robey-Coleman and Cre'Von LeBlanc handing the outside work. If Smith flashes as a returner and the Eagles need a roster spot Douglas could still be moved to a CB-needy team.
Craig James proved to be a really good special teams player last season and competed well when forced into action in limited reps, including the final snap at Green Bay which turned into an Aaron Rodgers interception. He and Smith need to make the team and will likely have two weeks of padded practice to do so it remains unlikely. Those two and the undrafted free agents -- Prince Smith and Michael Jacquet -- are candidates for the expanded PS that has now been set at 16.
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, and every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SBNation Radio. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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