By Dave Spadaro
For a team that made so many significant moves in the offseason to surround quarterback Carson Wentz with weapons, and to arm the defense with an improved pass rush and front four, the Eagles felt the nagging tug of feeling they needed to do more to the roster to compete for the top of the NFC East in 2017.
Trading for cornerback Ronald Darby last week may have been the move to put the Eagles in line to win the division for the first time since 2013.
Yeah, the price was steep — wide receiver Jordan Matthews averaged 75 catches and 12 yards per reception in each of the three seasons he was here, and a third-round draft pick in 2018 is significant — but the Eagles acquired a legitimate, solid, on-the-rise cornerback in his third NFL season whose contract extends through the 2018 season. Darby has big-time speed, he’s not going to back down from any receiver, and he’s started since his rookie season.
“You look around the league and it is a corner-deficient league,” Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said. “It’s hard to find those guys. It’s hard to find guys who have been solid starters in the league and can play at a high level, and teams that have them aren’t really ready to move them.”
“He’s got rare speed. His production on the ball, he doesn’t have a high interception number, but his (pass breakup) number is incredibly high. He’s played a variety of coverages. He won a national championship at FSU (Florida State University).”
What the Eagles think they’ve learned through the early portion of the preseason is that they have an offense with a lot of firepower, complete with a terrific offensive line, a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz and the potential to be devastating in the passing game and punishing in the running game.
They think they have a front four on defense that is about eight or nine players deep and that can scare the bejeebers out of quarterbacks and disrupt any and all offenses.
But they also knew they had a glaring hole at cornerback, one that became more apparent as they went through practice after practice and coached up a young group of players who, collectively, lacked the top-end speed to close on receivers with the ability to stretch a secondary.
Enter Darby, who in 2015 was considered one of the best rookie cornerbacks in the league with Buffalo. His play dipped a bit in 2016, due possibly, the Eagles hope, to the chaotic coaching and front-office football structure with the Bills.
In Philadelphia, Darby gets a clean slate and the responsibility of being the best cornerback on the team. He’s an immediate starter here and a player whom the Eagles expect to be a difference maker.
“I’m going to be aggressive, play fast and get to the ball,” Darby said, giving fans a preview of what to expect. “I have a lot to learn about the defense, but I definitely expect to come in here and do whatever I need to do to help us win games. It’s just a matter of learning the defense and then I’m good to go.”
How much of a difference does Ronald Darby make? It’s fair to think, as preseason reaches the halfway point, that the Eagles just set their sights a full notch higher in the wide-open NFC East.