Ronald Darby is a tough nut to crack.
Darby was an early pick for the Buffalo Bills in 2015. As the seventh cornerback and 50th player off the board, he seemed like a great return on the investment early, winning PFF's Defensive Rookie of the Year award and only losing out on the actual award to fellow corner Marcus Peters.
But Darby's play declined in 2016, and when Rex Ryan was replaced by Sean McDermott, Darby lost his tenure. He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick. It was a seemingly huge bargain for a talented 23-year-old corner with two years left on his rookie deal.
But in Philadelphia, Darby both got worse and banged up. He only strung together 17 regular-season games in his first two seasons with the Eagles, dislocating an ankle and tearing an ACL. He played through the Eagles' 2017 playoff run and into their Super Bowl victory, but without any spectacular degree of success and looked slower back from injury in 2018 before the ACL sidelined him indefinitely.
After the significant injury and shaky play, the free-agent market was bare for Darby, and he ended up returning to Philadelphia on a one-year, $6.5-million deal that was heavily conditional on games started. But for the third season in a row, Darby missed significant time and sat out the final five games with a hip injury that put him on injured reserve.
Now, Darby enters the market a banged-up 26-year-old who has gotten worse with each successive season. But with the flashes he's enjoyed, and the historic awfulness of the Eagles' medical staff considered, is there a chance he can reclaim some of his former shine?
Where He Wins
Darby is at his best as a click-and-close off-cover corner operating downhill. Darby's calling card in Florida State was his speed, and accordingly, he thrives as a flat-foot defender who is reading the backfield and either driving on a short-developing route or turning and running with a downfield concept. Darby has struggles overlapping zones downfield, which means a predominate zone system must try to keep him closer to the line of scrimmage. However, he can be successful in a squatting Cover 2 role and may find an NFL role in the nickel if a positional switch is necessary for him to see playing time.
Darby played more frequently into the line of scrimmage in tight-man and soft-shoe press roles in Buffalo, where he found most of his NFL success. It may be a worthy endeavor to push Darby closer to the line of scrimmage, as he has the requisite speed to survive in press coverage, but his average size invites concerns for his ability to match bigger receivers.
Potential Red Flags
As discussed above, Darby's health is nearly prohibitive to signing him into a starting role. He has never played a full season in five years. Through his first two years, he only missed three games, but the last few seasons have been harrowing for a corner who wins with quickness and explosion.
Darby's recent play is also the worst of his career, so a team is banking on him regressing back to the mean of his performance arc if they sign him. Darby struggles mightily with identifying and addressing the football in the air and regularly gives up contested catches down the field because of his inability to play the football against bigger competition. He was a liability in the Eagles' Inverted Cover 2 zone approach in 2019 and regularly gave up deep plays given his lack of instincts for zone overlapping, and accordingly must be played in man cover roles.
Darby was worth $6.5 million on a one-year deal last season and hasn’t done much of anything to warrant anything better. Previous contracts signed that likely encompass Darby's value include:
- Kevin Johnson (26 years old): One year, $3 million with the Bills (2019)
- Jason Verrett (27 years old): One year, $3.6 million with the San Francisco 49ers (2019)
- Terrance Mitchell (25 years old): Three years, $10 million with the Cleveland Browns (2018)
Darby figures to max out around $4 million per on his next deal, which seems like a shockingly low number for a player of Darby's draft capital and peaks but that's the simple reality of being that banged up. Such value would put Darby as the CB3 or CB4 on a team likely looking for a veteran depth player to protect an oft-injured starter or help challenge a younger starter. Darby is also likely to pursue a one-year deal to have a fully healthy season and cash in next year when his stock is more steadied.
Potential Landing Spots
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs are in desperate need of corner help at every turn, and with a potential huge contract coming down the mountain for Patrick Mahomes, they should go bargain-bin hunting for their CB help. The Chiefs are also likely to draft a rookie to potentially start at corner anyway, so Darby makes sense as a free-agent acquisition who is good enough to start, but not good enough that a good rookie couldn't beat him out — and all of a sudden, they have depth. The Chiefs and Steve Spagnuolo like to play man coverage behind their pressure packages, so Darby is a scheme fit as well.
The word on the street is that the Dallas Cowboys are letting go of Byron Jones and the Eagles are interested. Why not complete the swap and sign Darby in Dallas? Darby is no Jones, but he does give Dallas consistent man cover ability that it’s currently lacking in its young corners. Much like Spagnuolo, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan wants to send blitz packages and play tight man coverage behind it, and Darby's poor ball skills on his own could be hidden by the inaccurate passes forced by a pressure-based defense.
The Detroit Lions attacked the free-agent cornerback market aggressively last season, and it … didn't work. Rashaan Melvin played like an aging veteran corner (which he is), while Justin Coleman, the white-whale contract at nickel CB, enjoyed an up-and-down season at best. With Darius Slay potentially still on the trade block, the CB room remains in desperate need of man cover starters and man cover depth. Darby provides either, depending on the performance of those in front of him.