A healthy Ronald Darby will be a significant addition to the Eagles' defense, but Jim Schwartz indicated that he doesn't want to fast-track Darby's return to the left corner.
The team's defensive coordinator took a similar stance Tuesday toward the signing this week of veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. The assumption is that Ellerbe will replace Joe Walker as a base-defense thumper, helping paper over the loss of Jordan Hicks for the season, but Schwartz said he'd decide where Ellerbe fits after Ellerbe is back in football shape and after he has learned all three linebacking positions in the Eagles' scheme.
Darby, 23, practiced fully with his teammates Monday for the first time since he dislocated his right ankle in the season opener, a month after the Eagles acquired him from Buffalo to be their top corner. Jalen Mills has played the left side in Darby's absence, with rookie Rasul Douglas and vet Patrick Robinson taking over Mills' former spot on the right. On Monday, Darby was back at his old post, opposite Mills, and the upshot seemed to be that he will start Sunday night at Dallas, though his snaps might be limited.
"There's really nothing set in stone right now, because we don't 100 percent know he's going to be back," Schwartz said. "He's trending the right way, was back on the practice field yesterday, was back on the practice field last week, doing some scout-team stuff. That'll sort of start to develop as we go. We've got contributions from a lot of different guys this year. I would expect that to stay the same. But when we do get him back, it'll be nice to get him back."
Robinson presumably will move back into the nickel role when Darby is ready, but Douglas, who recently has been playing outside when Robinson moves down to the slot, wouldn't seem to have a defined job. Douglas indicated Monday this wouldn't be a problem for him.
Schwartz said Douglas won't disappear.
"The way those DBs work, it's just a matter of time before they're out there – everybody has a role somewhere along the line," Schwartz said. "We'll try to keep that in place and keep a lot of people involved. We've done that by necessity and also by plan so far this year."
Schwartz confirmed that when Darby is ready, Darby will go back to the left corner and Mills will move, but he also said the sides weren't that important.
"[Darby] has played the left a long time. They can all play both sides. This is further on down the line, but if we get in positions where we want to match a receiver [the corner moving around the formation with him], he has the ability to do that," Schwartz said.
Defensive backs coach Cory Undlin was markedly enthusiastic about getting Darby back, in a recent interview with the team website.
"Tough, competitive. The guy can change direction. He can run. Flip his hips. He can play square. He's patient," Undlin said.
Ellerbe's role, Schwartz said, is "another one yet to be seen. He's a veteran player. He's played different positions. He's played different schemes, so a lot of times getting those guys up to speed is really just a matter of getting terminology right and things like that."
The Saints released Ellerbe in August, as soon as his broken foot healed. He was often injured during the two seasons he played in New Orleans.
"He hasn't been on the field for a pretty long time, so there's a semblance of getting back in football shape, too," Schwartz said of Ellerbe, who turns 32 in two weeks. "We'll let that play out and see where it goes. But it's good to have a veteran player there, that has a lot of experience.
"I think we'll start him probably learning all three positions. And then also the nickel and the nickel SAM position."
It would seem simpler to have Ellerbe learn one position first, so he could start contributing sooner.
"If he was a rookie, it might be a little bit different, but he's a veteran player, and he's played all those positions in the past," Schwartz said. "When you come in halfway through the season, he's going to have to be available wherever it comes up."
Linebackers Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks have been outstanding, crucial cogs even more since Hicks suffered his season-ending Achilles tear last month against Washington. But the Eagles don't have proven performers behind them, and Walker's work in the base package has been no better than OK – pass coverage pretty good, struggles to get off blocks against the run.
Asked how he thinks the defense has done in base without Hicks, Schwartz sidestepped the question.
"I think it's not just about replacing one player," he said. "It's the output of the whole group. It's the output of the whole defense. I think they've done a pretty good job so far. We have a long way to go."