You can't go back in the NFL. You can only look ahead, which is why the Eagles feel they are in much better shape now as they assess their free safety position. They have committed to youth at the position -- either rookie Nate Allen or third-year man Quintin Demps is in line to win the job, but the thinking is that they will go with young, talented and -- for their age -- experienced players at the position.
Last year, as it turned out, the Eagles made a leap of faith that Macho Harris could make the transition from a life-long cornerback to an instant safety. He was smart, he was instinctive and he could cover. Together, Harris and veteran Sean Jones were good enough to help the defense in the 11-win campaign, and yet they were a source of concern late in the season and, certainly, in the final two games at Dallas.
So, revamping free safety was clearly a priority for the Eagles entering the 2010 off-season. There were slim pickings in the free-agent market and a draft class rich with talent, so the Eagles were expected to address free safety often in the months that followed the playoff defeat in Texas.
The Eagles went out and signed versatile defensive back Marlin Jackson, oft-injured and talented, and hoped he could stay healthy and provide some leadership and toughness and some winning attitude in the secondary. Alas, Jackson went down in a spring practice, the victim of a ruptured Achilles tendon, and he lost his season before it started.
Allen was the logical next player in line. A second-round draft pick from South Florida, Allen started 39 games in college at the free safety position, and he handled the position during the latter stages of the post-draft camps. Allen calls himself a "quick learner" and as the curve grows steeper when training camp begins, we'll learn just how job ready Allen is for this defense.
But the Eagles aren't going to devote all of their energies to the talented Allen. Demps has shown a more mature and disciplined attitude and he is going to compete for the starting spot. One of the most disappointing parts of last year was Demps' regression. The Eagles counted on him to step in when Brian Dawkins left in free agency, and instead of growing into the role, Demps handled the promotion poorly and ultimately lost his spot to Harris prior to the start of the regular season.
Harris, in fact, made some Eagles history. He became the first rookie starter at the safety position since Wes Hopkins did so way back in the 1983 season. Now, if the blueprint is followed, Allen will repeat that neat piece of Eagles trivia this year.
Beyond Allen and Harris, the Eagles think seventh-round draft pick Kurt Coleman is a prospect. Coleman starred at Ohio State, and what he lacks in size -- he is listed as 5 feet 11, 195 pounds -- he makes up for with his tenacity and his ball skills. Coleman has a lot of catching up to do after missing all but the immediate post-draft camp while waiting for Ohio State to graduate its 2010 class.
The Eagles also added two rookies to the mix late in the spring after Jackson was injured, Ryan Hamilton and Brett Johnson, and both of those players are longshots at this point.
Youth will be served, then, one way or another. There is no "stop gap" thinking here. The Eagles want their safety of the present and the future to emerge in this training camp. Allen is first in line. He is a big, strong young man with a good head on his shoulders. He appears to have the foot speed to handle the sideline-to-sideline responsibilities the job requires.
The rest, we'll learn on a day-by-day basis in training camp, through the preseason and then when the real tests begin in September.
Harris wasn't the answer in 2009 as the Eagles tried to replace a legend. Neither was Demps, although he has a shot for redemption ahead. It is never easy to fill a hole created by an all-time great player, but the Eagles think that in Year 2 of the process they are ahead of where they were in Year 1. They are looking ahead, not back, and they see a bright, successful career for Allen, and they expect Demps to bounce back, and they think Coleman has a real chance.
The testing ground hardens in three weeks, a time when the Eagles will find out more about just how solid they are at free safety.