After an injury-riddled start to his career, Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Sidney Jones remains an uncertainty. How will the Eagles address this for 2019?
“We gotta run right at 22 [Sidney Jones], and we gotta throw at 22. We’re gonna make him defend the run on the first play. We’re going after him on three of the first eight plays,” New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton instructed his coaches ahead of the Week 11 matchup against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles (courtesy of Peter King’s “Football Morning in America” column.)
And boy did he.
On the first play of the game, Saints running back Mark Ingram barreled through an attempted arm tackle by Jones for a gain of 38 yards. The Saints never looked back as they went on to defeat the Eagles 48-7. Number 22 lasted 22 plays before exiting the contest with a re-aggravated hamstring injury.
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Entering the 2018 season as the Eagles starting slot corner, Jones was ready to prove himself after a rookie season spent almost entirely on the sidelines (save 29 defensive snaps in the team’s regular-season finale against Dallas). Originally slated as a top 15-pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Washington alum tore his Achilles tendon during his Pro Day workout. The Eagles would go on to select the former Huskie in the second-round at No. 43 overall.
But the 2018 season did little in the way of affirming high-draft expectations for the 22-year-old.
In what was supposed to be his first year of full participation, Jones would once again spend more time on the sidelines, playing in just under 31 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps. Forget about answering questions; his availability – or lack thereof – only offered more.
When Sidney Jones did get on the field, his play left a lot to be desired. In nine games, Jones collected 25 tackles and three passes defensed. More telling, opposing QBs had a 99.2 passer rating when targeting him, throwing for 292 yards and two touchdowns (per Pro Football Focus, subscription required).
At only 6 feet tall and 181 pounds, Jones is best suited for an outside corner spot, void of the big bodies in the middle. However, on a Philadelphia Eagles team featuring Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills at the start of the year, Jones was tasked with sifting through the slot, minimizing his 4.47 speed and 33.5-inch vertical.
While patrolling the outside for the Washington Huskies, Jones earned second-team All-American and first-team All-Pac 12 honors. It’s also where national consensus formed that he’d be a top-15 pick.
That is, of course, until the torn Achilles knocked him down.
But Jones vows to get back up.
Speaking with reporters following the Eagles season-ending loss to the Saints in the playoffs – one in which Jones was a spectator – he offered the following:
“From a playing standpoint, everything comes down to getting my body right. That should take care of itself. That’s all I have to focus on. I’m going to work hard on getting it right. The number one focus for me is getting it right in the offseason so that I can come back here and show everybody what I can do.”
So what do the Philadelphia Eagles do at cornerback regarding Sidney Jones and the uncertainty that remains? In what was once viewed as a weakness on the team, the Eagles secondary reallotted itself nicely during the stretch run, and now offers much promise.
With the Eagles up against the salary cap, pending unrestricted free agent Ronald Darby is likely gone. While they could conceivably bring him back on a low cost, one-year prove-it deal, the Eagles have a handful of young, adequate replacements already under contract on team-friendly deals.
So that leaves Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox, and Cre’Von LeBlanc to battle for two starting outside spots and one slot corner position. That’s a relatively inexperienced crew, so keep in mind starting safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, and their veteran guidance.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz loves physical corners. It’s why Jalen Mills – despite his struggles in coverage – continues to man the outside where he has since being drafted by the team in the seventh-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Similar thinking applies to New Jersey native Rasul Douglas; another physical corner who loves playing to contact. It wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the two moved in an offseason trade.
After being drafted in the fourth-round last year out of Pittsburgh, Avonte Maddox impressed with his versatility and defensive prowess. Starting for injured safety Rodney McCloed, Maddox would go on to effectively play both inside and outside corner throughout the latter stretches of the season. He’ll definitely be back with his ability to serve the defense in a magnitude of roles.
Claimed off waivers in early November, Cre’Von LeBlanc was a pleasant addition down the stretch, solidifying the slot corner position ultimately left vacant by Jones. The Philadelphia Eagles may have found a gem in the rough as he looks to compete for a starting spot in 2019.
But Sidney Jones is a highly touted prospect and remains as such. While the injury concerns will linger, Jones is focused on getting healthy and deserves every opportunity to succeed.
There have been subtle rumblings about Jones possibly being a bust, which quite simply is not fair. It’s too soon to impose any verdict on Jones, and at just 22-years-old and less than two years removed from a torn Achilles tendon, the talent and upside remain. Injury concerns aside, there is a reason the Philadelphia Eagles were eager to select him in the second round.
According to pre-draft analysis by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein:
“Jones is a ‘casino cornerback’ who has the ball skills and instincts to tilt the odds in his favor when quarterbacks look his way. His toughness and desire to make plays on the ball are remarkably similar to his friend and offseason workout buddy, Marcus Peters. Jones has lockdown corner talent but unfortunately, teams will have to wrestle with his draft positioning as there is no guarantee that Jones can come back with the same quickness and speed as before.”
Those questions remain.
Jones may have been knocked down by a torn Achilles, but he vows to get back up. The Philadelphia Eagles will give him that chance.
“I can only control what I can control, and for me I have to get healthy and stay healthy. When I do that, everything else will be where I want it to be. There is no rust. I’m ready to play, and I’m excited to take the next step in my career. It’s what I need to do. It’s my focus.”
If Jones follows through with his offseason proclamation, 2019 will provide a season of answers. At this point in Sidney Jones’ career – good or bad – that’s all the Philadelphia Eagles can hope for.