Patrick Robinson showed just how valuable having a dependable player at slot cornerback can be for any team.
In the Eagles’ Super Bowl winning season, Robinson made four interceptions in the regular season then turned around the momentum of the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings when he made a truly memorable interception, darting all the way across the field for a 50-yard, pick-six touchdown that evened the score at 7-7.
Sidney Jones was supposed to be answer at slot cornerback this season, except he couldn’t stay healthy and is likely to finish the season not having played in seven of the final 10 games with a nagging hamstring injury.
Rookie Avonte Maddox was going to be part of the answer, too, except he was needed at safety after Rodney McLeod endured a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 23. Maddox could ultimately be that slot answer in 2019, but may stay at safety, too, depending on how McLeod’s knee recovers and if the Eagles decide to take on his $9.9 million salary cap hit.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz raved about Maddox when he met with reporters on Thursday, saying that Maddox reminded him of Courtland Finnegan when Schwartz coached Finnegan with the Titans.
“I had Finny early, first couple years in his career in Tennessee,” said Schwartz. “Came in and played nickel, and then moved outside to corner. Could switch back and forth. He was a good tackler. He had speed. Similar size, toughness. Finnegan didn't play safety for us, but he played safety in college, so he had a lot of those same kind of attributes.
“We'll figure out what's best for him, what's best for us, over the course of his career, but that flexibility is very helpful from a defensive standpoint.”
Maybe the Eagles have found their slot cornerback already, and in the most unlikely of places – on the unemployment line.
After a shaky start, which had to be expected after he was thrown right in the heat of battle, LeBlanc has rounded into form after being claimed off waivers on Nov. 15, two weeks after being released by the Detroit Lions.
“I think Cre'Von, in particular, has really solidified that nickel,” said Schwartz. “That nickel position is a really important position, and it's a tough position to play. You have to be a combination of a lot of things. He's been good tackler for us; he's been tough; he's been quick; he's been able to play zone; he's been able to play man. So all those things go into that spot.”
This is LeBlanc’s fourth NFL team since entering the league out of Florida Atlantic as an undrafted rookie free agent signing of the New England Patriots in 2016. He didn’t make it to the starting line that year for the Pats, but he was unemployed for only one day before the Chicago Bears grabbed him.
With the Bears, LeBlanc played 28 games in two seasons, with nine starts. He had two interceptions as a rookie, one of which he returned 24 yards for a touchdown.
Chicago released him on cut-down day prior to this season. Once again, he didn’t last long as the Detroit Lions added him to their practice squad two days later. LeBlanc spent a month there before being promoted for three games, getting onto the field for just 29 snaps in those three games.
He has been used much more extensively by the Eagles, but only out of necessity with the injuries that piled up in the secondary.
“I can see tremendous progress on my part and in the back end coming together collectively as a group,” said LeBlanc, who is just 24. “Just from me coming in a month and a couple weeks ago really not knowing the terminology or the lingo and having to get to know the guys and build those relationships and just keep my head and eyes in the playbook 24/7, day and night, and to look at where I am now, I would say I came along way.”
LeBlanc said he loves being a member of the Eagles, and it seems like the Eagles are beginning to like him more and more as the season nears its end. He is signed through 2019 for the bargain-basement price if $720,000, so there could be a home in Philly considering the team needs cheaper contracts with its back against the salary cap wall at the moment.
“It was a challenge when I got here, but one thing I will say is as long as you stay persistent and stay consistent in your craft, your work, and the will to want to be around the guys, want to communicate, want to build those relationships with the guys in the back end and with (defensive backs coach) coach Cory (Undlin), it’s like everything started mushing together,” said LeBlanc.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, but once you start putting those little pieces to the puzzle in it all begins to click. That’s how I went about it and me putting my best foot forward and showing them what I can do. I tell myself if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.”