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Time is right for Eagles to pursue Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones

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.

“We’re hopeful that if we go into the free-agent market, that maybe we’re signing guys that are more core guys [rather] than one- or two-year guys, and we look at it from building our team over a two-, three-year perspective as opposed to just this one-year window,” Roseman said.

That puts the Eagles into a mode similar to that of 2016 when they signed ascending players such as guard Brandon Brooks and safety Rodney McLeod to longer-term deals, rightly envisioning they would be a part of the team’s foundation for an extended period.

A return to this philosophy comes at a time when fixing the cornerback position is atop the priority list. Yielding big plays was the defense’s Achilles’ heel last season. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit allowed 15 pass plays of 40-plus yards in 2019, tied for second most in the NFL. Both starting outside cornerbacks from last season, Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby, are pending free agents.

Enter Jones (6-foot, 205 pounds), who is widely considered this year’s No. 1 free-agent cornerback and might just avoid being tagged by Dallas with quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper also at the end of their contracts.

Jones, 27, has two career interceptions but has developed into a top-end cover corner. Pro Football Focus has him rated as a top-five outside cornerback over the past two seasons. He yielded 0.39 yards per coverage snap in press-man in 2019, the second-lowest rate at that position.

With one side of the field accounted for, the Eagles’ task of filling out the rest of the secondary becomes a less stressful task.

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.

The Eagles won’t be the only team sniffing around Jones, increasing the chance that his price tag is hefty. A good comparison might be 27-year-old Xavien Howard, who received a five-year, $75 million contract from Miami last offseason that includes $46 million in total guarantees.

Roseman said he has a Plan A, B and C entering the new league year. There are other quality cornerback options projected to be on the free-agent market, such as James Bradberry, Trae Waynes, Chris Harris Jr., Bradley Roby and Logan Ryan, should the shoe not fit with Jones. Or, the Eagles could go the trade route for someone like Darius Slay.

But Plan A is always preferable, and for the Eagles, that could mean securing the top cornerback available in a year when they’re looking to make a long-term commitment.

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