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February 29, 2020

Eagles will upgrade cornerback this offseason, and will probably opt for free agency over draft

Of course, they could always do both.

Ask any Eagles fan what the team's biggest offseason need is and you're likely going to get one of two answers: wide receiver and cornerback. 

The first answer is troubling, especially considering the Eagles have committed a considerable amount of resources to that position in the form of big guarantees to Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson and are only losing one wideout to free agency, Nelson Agholor. But after their collective performance (or lack thereof) in 2019, it's hard not to see the need for an upgrade. 

The other answer is troubling for a different reason, largely because of the number of assets the Eagles have invested in their secondary, only to be left seemingly needing upgrades year after year. However, with Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby both headed for free agency, Philly will again be looking for cornerbacks this offseason. 

And unlike in recent years, Howie Roseman and Co. could address that need in free agency, rather than waiting until the draft, where they're expected to target a receiver in the first round of a historically deep draft at the position. On player the Eagles will likely have their sights set on is pending Cowboys free agent Byron Jones, who reportedly be allowed to hit the open market

Here's more from ESPN's Tim McManus:

All signs point to the Philadelphia Eagles going hard after a top-end cornerback when the new NFL league year opens March 18, putting the likes of Dallas Cowboys starter Byron Jones in play.

The Eagles haven't handed out many significant contracts to free agents over the past couple of years, opting to search for value in the over-30 bin and elsewhere rather than paying a premium for players smack in their prime. That approach was influenced by both the team's lack of draft resources and a shorter-term roster-building view as Philadelphia tried to strike while the iron was hot following its 2017 Super Bowl run, general manager Howie Roseman explained this week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.

With 10 projected draft picks this April and more than $40 million in salary-cap space, the Eagles are looking to move into a new phase, starting now.  []

And that phase would be one that includes paying a big-name cornerback in free agency. After all, Roseman has already said that the Eagles will likely be big spenders in free agency.

But is Jones worth it? Our own Jimmy Kempski recently compared Jones to Mills, and thinks he would not only be a huge upgrade at the position but also think he's better than anything else the Eagles can get at the position this offseason: 

Jones would be a major upgrade in the Eagles' secondary. He would not only force more punts as a result of more incompletions and far better tackling than what the Eagles have gotten, but would also, in theory, give the Eagles' pass rush more time to get to the quarterback.

As noted, simply improving on the Eagles' bad corner play should be easy, as it would be difficult to be much worse. But even compared to the other top corner that is kinda-sorta available, the Lions' Darius Slay, Jones compares favorably.

And NFL Network report Mike Garafolo is already predicting that Jones will wind up back in the NFC East:

Of course, the Eagles could opt to address wide receiver in free agency instead — Amari Cooper might be available — and hope to find a diamond in the draft at corner. 

MORE: Roseman won't rule out trading up in NFL Draft to grab the right guy

Over at NBC Sports Philadelphia, Dave Zangaro took a closer look at a handful of cornerback prospects who could be on the Eagles' radar in the first round. After all, as Dave points out, the depth at receiver could allow them to wait until the second round to address that need. Other than Ohio State's Jeff Okudah, the Eagles should have a chance at any of these other high-end talents: Trevon Diggs (Alabama), Kristian Fulton (LSU), C.J. Henderson (Florida), A.J. Terrell (Clemson).

Here's a little more on Fulton, who seems to have one ability the Eagles covet:

Fulton said some teams have talked to him about playing the nickel cornerback position, which is somewhere he’s played before. Fulton said he feels comfortable inside and outside. It’s probably worth mentioning here that the Eagles always seem to value versatility when it comes to defensive backs.

While the Eagles will likely implement more zone concepts with new DBs coach Marquand Manuel, Fulton has had plenty of success in man coverage playing against top opponents in college football.  []

Still, history says the better bet for the Eagles is taking a wideout in the first round and addressing the secondary in free agency. In another recent post from Jimmy, he took a position-by-position look at how the Eagles should upgrade their roster. When it came to the receivers, he said the should look everywhere: "Free agency, trades, draft, or even some other cool way of finding receivers that I don't even know about."

When it came to cornerback, however, he felt much stronger about them using some of their salary cap space on a free agent corner:

Again, like wide receiver above, the Eagles have to find a good starter in free agency this offseason, as they cannot count on one contributing immediately in the draft. 

The Eagles are going to spend premium resources on a veteran cornerback either in free agency or in the trade market. Book it. 

#JimmyVerdict: Free agency. And sure, maybe the draft too, but that's far less important than finding a good, established player.

That's also the conclusion that McManus came to in his ESPN piece about the Eagles targeting Byron Jones: rookie cornerbacks are just too unreliable, especially when you have a history of drafting the wrong ones. After all, that's part of how they found themselves in this situation in the first place.

They are unlikely to rely on the draft to provide immediate solutions at cornerback. For one, their recent track record in this area is not good -- the fact that 2017 second- and third-round picks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas haven't solidified starting roles put them in this position to begin with -- and secondly, it's not wise to rely on a rookie to carry that much water. Importing a veteran is the answer.  []

And once you take a look at seven cornerbacks they've drafted since 2015, it becomes quite clear why the safer bet is free agency:

• 2018: Avonte Maddox (4th round)
• 2017: Sidney Jones (2nd), Rasul Douglas (3rd)
• 2016: Jalen Mills (7th)
• 2015: Eric Rowe (2nd), JaCorey Shepherd (6th), Randall Evans (6th)

It's worth pointing out that one of those players were first-round talents, so maybe the Eagles would have better luck if they used their first pick on a cornerback. Of course, that would mean they couldn't use it on one of the many talented receivers expected to go on Day 1. 

It's a decision Howie Roseman will have to make between now and the end of April, but we'll likely get some more clues about the Eagles' plans once free agency opens on March 18th. For now, however, free agency seems to be their best path forward at cornerback.

MORE: Roseman confirms that Eagles will likely be spenders in free agency

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