This week was a very busy one for the Eagles' front office. The wheeling and dealing resulted in the team getting an influx of young talent on the free agent market, clearing some salary cap space and better positioning itself in next month's NFL Draft. Whenever a franchise can accomplish all three of those feats in one week, you can chalk it up as a win.
DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso would be the first to admit that their 2015 seasons did not go as well as they would have hoped in Philadelphia. For a combination of reasons, the trio just did not work out, and being able to move on and start fresh is a big positive, especially when you consider the compensation.
As we discussed on this week's Journey to the Draft Podcast presented by AAA, the No. 8 pick in this draft is a great position to be in because it puts you in a situation where one of the blue-chip prospects in this draft can fall right into your lap. Only seven players can go ahead of the Eagles' pick. If you think three of those players are going to be Laremy Tunsil (a near consensus choice as the No. 1 selection for Tennessee) and the quarterback pairing of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, that means that the Eagles will have a shot at a number of big-time talents. Whether you're a fan of linebacker Myles Jack, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, edge rusher Joey Bosa or running back Ezekiel Elliott, at least one (and maybe more) of those players will be on the board when the Eagles are on the clock. Will one of them be the pick? Maybe. Maybe not. But being at No. 8 really puts the Eagles in a better position than they were a week ago at this time to acquire a difference-maker.
There's plenty of time to talk about the draft. How about some of these players whom the Eagles brought in at the start of the new league year? The Eagles addressed a number of positions early in free agency with quarterback Chase Daniel, guard Brandon Brooks, linebacker Nigel Bradham, cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Ronald Brooks and safety Rodney McLeod. It's the last of those names that has me the most excited for 2016.
A former undrafted free agent, McLeod worked his way up the ladder with the St. Louis Rams and finally earned a steady starting gig in 2014. His versatile skill set and competitive nature made him a great fit in Gregg Williams' defensive scheme. He flashed week in and week out. Not only would McLeod make wow plays, but he was a steady, reliable player on the back end as well, a much-needed trait for a deep safety. What helps McLeod achieve that level of consistency is his ability to quickly key and diagnose plays at the snap of the ball, allowing him to always be in the right position to make something happen.
Here's a play against Pittsburgh this past season where you can see McLeod's play-recognition skills really stand out. Down in the low red zone, McLeod sees the tight end come in motion to the side of Antonio Brown and immediately reads "screen." Look how quickly he jets to Brown, knifing into the backfield for the tackle behind the line of scrimmage.
As the free safety in the Rams' scheme, McLeod was almost always lined up on the deep half of the field. They mixed in a good amount of two-high coverages (where he was responsible for one half of the field and another safety was responsible for the other), but he was most often lined up as a single-high safety between the hashes. In these situations, you could really see where his instincts and range came into effect.
In this Week 4 game against Arizona, the Cardinals are trying to get Larry Fitzgerald open downfield on a wheel route. McLeod reads this the whole way, though, and flies to the catch point like a missile, dislodging the ball from Fitzgerald's grasp after the catch, forcing a fumble and a turnover for the Rams in the third quarter.
Notice how quickly McLeod closed the gap between him and the receiver? McLeod ran a 4.60 in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day coming out of Virginia in 2012, a very below-average time for a safety. He didn't make that play based on his pure speed, but instincts help a player make up for that. That's the difference between "timed speed" and "play speed."
I detailed McLeod's ability to quickly "key and diagnose" earlier, and this play above against the Ravens is a great example of that. Baltimore is showing stretch run action to the right, trying to force defensive flow to the boundary side. Some players in McLeod's position may have taken the cheese there and started to come downhill to support the run. Instead, McLeod's first steps are patient. He doesn't leave his spot deep and stays disciplined. When Baltimore looks to pass back the other way, he's in position to defend the over route from the tight end and he easily reels in the interception. That would've been a much tougher play to make had he started pressing the line of scrimmage to defend the run. Since he keyed pass quickly, he was able to stay home and attack the ball moving forward, making the pick look easy against Joe Flacco.
One thing that also stood out to me about McLeod was how reliable he was coming downhill. The more I watched of him, the more that stood out was just how reliable he was one-on-one against running backs. In fact, after watching him, I called over to a friend of the podcast, NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell to ask him about McLeod. Cosell lauded his ability against the run, saying how he "played downhill really well from the deep safety position. He's a really good alley player in the run game." The "alley" refers to the area between the wide receiver and the tight end or offensive tackle in the offensive formation, and Cosell was really impressed with McLeod's ability to defend that area against the run. The more I watched, the more that was very apparent, even against some of the best ballcarriers in the league.
Those three tackles came against three of the toughest backs to bring down one on one in the entire league - Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and Le'Veon Bell. Were they all huge earth-shattering hits? No. But you don't need that in those situations. You want players who are going to be disciplined, approach the ball at the correct angle and get their man to the ground. Because if McLeod misses, there's nothing but green grass between the ball and the goal line. He's got to get his man to the ground at any cost, and more often than not he got the job done.
Just because he didn't lay huge hits one-on-one running the alley doesn't mean he can't do it. When he wasn't in do-or-die situations, McLeod had the ability to lay the hammer down on ballcarriers and he didn't hesitate when he had the chance.
Here, McLeod comes downhill near the line of scrimmage in a crowded box and gets the ball out against Matt Forte with a huge hit to force the turnover. Big hits showed up in the passing game as well.
Those two hits above came in two-high looks, where he played as a "split safety" in a Cover 2 or Cover 2 Man defense. Here are some where he's playing single high.
McLeod is a really physical safety with the ability to lay people out, break down and make a tackle, and track the ball down in the deep part of the field in the passing game. As I continued to talk about his skill set with Cosell, he had a really interesting comparison for him, calling him an "Earl Thomas-light" kind of player.
"In fact," Cosell said, "I was talking to someone at the Combine who made the comparison that McLeod is basically the same player as Thomas, and that he just doesn't get the same publicity. He was used basically the same way by the Rams."
Whether or not McLeod will reach that level of publicity and clout here in Philadelphia, we will have to wait and see, but there's no denying that McLeod's skill set translates very well to this defensive scheme and the "attack" mindset moving forward.
I'm really surprised, to be honest, that Houston would let Brandon Brooks, an ascending offensive lineman with good physical tools, walk in free agency, but here we are. What's most impressive right off the cuff is his combination of size (6-5, 335 pounds) and deceptively light feet. Brooks is what you would call an "easy mover" for a 330-plus pound man. His movement skills allow him to be an effective zone blocker while his mass allows him to move people in gap scheme-type of runs.
In this shot against New England, you can see both his athletic ability and strength on this "G Scheme" run against the Patriots. Brooks executes a short pull to the play side to block edge rusher Rob Ninkovich, engulfing him on contact and taking him out of the play for one of Houston's longest runs of the season.
The previous run against the Patriots was to the play side. Here's a block from the back side. On this outside zone run, Brooks is charged with blocking the backside linebacker. He does his job perfectly, getting to the second level and sealing Carolina's Shaq Thompson from the action. To be an effective zone blocker, you need to be a good athlete, but you also need to have a good understanding of angles and leverage. Brooks displayed both of those qualities on that play.
Brooks' athletic ability shows up on this screen play against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He leaks out and latches onto a safety at the third level and finishes him into the dirt. That's not a very easy thing for an offensive lineman to do, by the way, to get out in space and lock onto a moving target, engage the block and finish. That's not a common thing you see consistently from offensive linemen, and Brooks is able to do that.
In pass protection, Brooks is stout, has the feet to be able to mirror with athletic rushers inside and his smarts really stand out as well. Here against the Saints, you can see him anchor down and suffocate a bull rush, helping to maintain a clean pocket for his quarterback to provide a big pass play downfield. Brooks steps in right now as the best guard on the roster, and having him will really benefit the rest of the offensive line in a leadership role.
With Alonso and DeMeco Ryans off the roster and the team transitioning to a 4-3 scheme, there certainly is room for linebackers to be added to this defense. Nigel Bradham is the first player to be acquired at the position. His history with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz should allow him to able to slide right in and compete for a starting job.
Bradham is a very strong run defender. The two traits that really stood out to me while watching him were his physicality and his decisiveness. He's a really competitive linebacker who loves contact, but he has the savvy to know when to take on a block and when to avoid one to make the play. Here are three plays that I pulled from Bradham's 2014 season under Schwartz.
Here you see the decisiveness I referenced on this big play against the San Diego Chargers. Bradham "shoots his gun" quickly, fires through the A gap and pulls down the back for a loss down in the red zone.
On this play, New England is running a "Power" run play to Bradham's side with a pulling guard right at him. Bradham has more than enough ability to take on this guard and try to shed the block, but he executes a subtle move to avoid the block and fly into the ballcarrier for the tackle.
This last play summed up my feelings on Bradham as a whole, because you see the physicality and competitiveness really stand out. The Jets are running an "Iso Lead" play right at Bradham, with the fullback assigned to block him. Bradham comes downhill and takes on the block, but with a busted play in the backfield, quarterback Michael Vick is forced to keep the ball and run to the right. Bradham chases Vick down and makes the tackle outside the numbers, forcing the ball out and creating a turnover for the Bills' defense.
With Maxwell in Miami and a pair of free agents in Nolan Carroll and E.J. Biggers on the market, the Eagles had some holes to fill in the secondary. They brought in a pair of corners this week who have a history of Schwartz and should slide right in to make an impact.
Ron Brooks immediately brings a versatile chess piece to the back end. When I watched him in Buffalo under Schwartz in 2014, I saw a player who lined up outside at corner, inside in the slot and at times in his career he has played some safety. He plays on every special teams unit, and he'll find a way to make an impact on this team.
Here, Brooks is lined up in the slot and drops back in underneath zone coverage. He then comes up to tackle the catch for a short gain. A disciplined player with a great feel for his responsibilities in zone, he's going to be a very good fit either inside or outside for this team.
Leodis McKelvin, a former first-round pick, was the first free agent addition for Doug Pederson after being picked up on Tuesday. Another former Bill who can play inside or outside or even at safety, McKelvin's versatility gives the Eagles a lot of flexibility on the back end. When I wrote my piece on Schwartz's scheme last month, I used one of McKelvin's interceptions to highlight "Cover 2 Man" coverage. On that play, you can really see his understanding of the defensive scheme, which helped lead to the big play.
On this play, McKelvin is manned up against Houston's DeAndre Hopkins one-on-one on a deep post route. He climbs the ladder to make the interception in a contested situation versus one of the best receivers in the league. McKelvin may be getting up there in age, but he can still be an effective corner in this league, and brings a ton of experience in this scheme to this Eagles team.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.