Heading into this season, the thought among many NFL analysts and fans alike was that the secondary was one of the Philadelphia Eagles bigger strengths.
With Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills playing on the outside, Sidney Jones in the slot, and Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins patrolling the two safety spots, the defending Super Bowl champions seemed ready to take flight.
However, things quickly went south for the Eagles’ secondary as they lost McLeod, Darby, and Mills to debilitating injuries over the course of the season. McLeod saw his season come to an end in Week 3 thanks to a torn MCL, while Darby suffered a torn ACL weeks later against the Dallas Cowboys.
Thankfully, Mills did not fall victim to a season-ending knee injury but was sidelined with a nagging foot injury. Therefore, Jenkins was the only healthy member of the secondary left to try to keep things together.
In addition to those injuries, the Eagles were constantly killed by the big play through the air, which was a symptom of their early season struggles.
Before getting hurt, Mills became the poster-child of this growing issue, which drew the ire of many fans, who called for second-year cornerback Rasul Douglas to get more playing time.
Douglas would eventually get his shot, along with rookie cornerback Avonte Maddox, Sidney Jones, and a host of other cornerbacks as they tried to save the season.
After getting torched by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the span of a few weeks, the Eagles’ secondary finally got their act together and became a takeaway machine.
Thanks to the leadership of Jenkins, who played all 1,180 snaps this season; this rag-tag group grew confident in their abilities and showed that they were a force to be reckoned with down the stretch.
Douglas became one of the Eagles’ best tacklers at cornerback and proved he deserves a shot to start next season, while Maddox, who the Eagles drafted in the fourth round of last year’s draft, showcased his versatility at both (outside/nickel) cornerback and safety.
If McLeod is not ready by the time the season starts, then expect Maddox to be starting in his place.
According to Pro Football Focus, the rookie from Pitt allowed a league-low 0.56 yards per coverage this season (18 receptions on 33 targets for 218 yards over 391 coverage snaps). That is rather impressive when you consider who was behind him in the rankings (Patrick Peterson, Xavien Howard, and Chris Harris Jr.).
Along those same lines, Cre’Von LeBlanc was just as impressive down the stretch for the Eagles and in the playoffs. LeBlanc, who was picked up early in November, started off rough, but eventually picked things up.
Before the NFC Divisional Round game against the Saints, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz sung the praises of LeBlanc.
“I don’t know where we’d be without [CB] Avonte [Maddox]; I don’t know where we’d be without Cre’Von. Our scouts, midway through the season, [Vice President of Player Personnel] Joe Douglas came to me and said, “Hey look, there’s this guy that just became available and our scouts have a good feel for him.”
LeBlanc became almost a folklore hero to Eagles fans and only further that narrative with an opening game interception on Brees. The 24-year-old cornerback still has one more year left on his deal but made it known he wants to be around for a long time.
“Oh for sure, I love it here, the fans, the coaches, the guys on this team, it’s truly a brotherhood. I’d love to be around that forever,” he said on Philly’s 97.5 The Fanatic.
Finally, we cannot forget about Tre Sullivan, who played a considerable amount of meaningful snaps down the stretch at safety in the Eagles’ big ‘nickel’ package. The former UDFA out of D-II Shepherd University was ranked as the best safety after Wild-card weekend, according to Pro Football Focus with a 90.3 grade.
Even though it was not easy to watch the Eagles’ secondary at times this season, they should be that much more improved next season. A lot of young guys played many meaningful snaps, which will make life easier for the players, who missed time with injuries.