The anticipation to see Sidney Jones as the Eagles' starting outside cornerback has lasted a year and a half, with hopes that Jones could become the Eagles' top cornerback stretching back to the decision to draft him in the second round last year despite a torn Achilles tendon.
It might finally happen on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, when Jones said he will return after missing a month while recovering from a hamstring injury. And with the Eagles missing both Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills because of injuries, they'll likely play Jones on the outside after keeping him in the slot through the first six weeks of the season. It could be the first look of the Eagles' best long-term option at the position.
"It's a big opportunity for me," Jones said Thursday. "Obviously, that's where I was in college. Nickel, I played there and got some experience in there, so if I were able to play inside again, I'm able to do it. Outside, I can do it. It's just a great opportunity to be able to play both."
The Eagles waited through his near-season-long recovery last year before using Jones to replace Patrick Robinson this year, keeping the starters as Mills and Darby – the starters from the Super Bowl. The Eagles didn't deviate from that lineup, and they liked Jones as the slot cornerback, who plays the majority of the snaps anyway.
But Jones always profiled as a potential top cornerback on the outside, which is where he played as an All-American at Washington. He was one of the top cornerbacks in last year's draft – New Orleans' Marshon Lattimore, who is on the other sideline on Sunday, was the other – but the pre-draft injury hurt his stock. The Eagles took the risk and exercised patience because, as owner Jeffrey Lurie said, Jones "can be [a] premier cornerback."
This is Jones' chance to prove it. And it's not as if it will happen in a preseason game against deep reserves. It comes against the NFL's highest-scoring offense, with future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees scanning the field and finding a matchup that might require Jones on Michael Thomas, who is the NFL's second-leading receiver this season.
"Definitely," Jones said. "Looking forward to every matchup out there."
Jones said the Eagles have brought him back slowly in practice this week, although he was a full participant on Thursday for the first time since suffering the injury in an Oct. 11 victory over the Giants. He said that everyone is rotating into the different cornerback spots, not wanting to give away how the Eagles will use him. But coach Doug Pederson said the Eagles are practicing Jones on the outside more this week, and that they like Avonte Maddox in the slot – an alignment the Eagles can use more now because Corey Graham is healthy enough to play safety when the Eagles are in the nickel. Jones didn't require much time to get used to his old position.
"I hadn't taken a snap in outside corner in who knows how long – since the beginning of training camp," Jones said. "It's just natural."
It's not that playing the slot was a problem, though. Jones admitted the two positions are considerably different. When he plays inside, there's more traffic to navigate and he must change directions quickly. On the outside, Jones is on an island.
He doesn't mind the expectations that have bubbled since he came to Philadelphia. He offered a glimpse of what he could become during the summer and the beginning of the season. The Eagles' injuries have put Jones in the spotlight, and the Eagles need him to fulfill those expectations to help keep the defense afloat this season.
"I felt like the six weeks I was there, I was getting in a groove," Jones said. "But I'm back. I'm looking forward to everything going forward."