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How Much Better Is This Defense?

Is it possible that in an action-packed offseason for the Eagles, maybe the most valuable addition to the team, the player who might have the most significant immediate impact, has been overlooked? Rodney McLeod's entire football career has kind of gone that way.

Following a stellar career at Virginia where he first played cornerback and then safety, McLeod was ignored in the 2012 draft and signed with St. Louis as a rookie free agent. In a span of four seasons, McLeod became the best safety in the NFL that nobody knew.

Nobody, except the handful of teams that reached out to McLeod when free agency began in 2016 and wanted him to help solve one of the most difficult positions to fill in the NFL -- the safety spot. The Eagles made him a priority and signed McLeod to a five-year contract on the first day of free agency.

"He can do a lot of things to help this defense," coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He's a very intelligent player and he's aggressive and he plays fearless football. He's got the ability to cover, which gives us some flexibility in the back end of our defense. I think Philadelphia is really going to love the way he plays the game, the passion he brings to the field. He and Malcolm Jenkins will work well together."

Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell started at safety in 2008 when the Eagles made their run to the NFC Championship Game and they, of course, had great chemistry and production. Dawkins, a future Hall of Famer, moved all around Jim Johnson's defense while Mikell mainly stayed in the back end and helped in coverage and against the run. Then Dawkins left Philadelphia in free agency and the Eagles have never been able to fill the safety void. The parade has been ongoing: Sean Jones, Macho Harris, Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Patrick Chung, Earl Wolff, Jenkins, Walter Thurmond, Chris Maragos. Only Jenkins has been a long-term solution.

McLeod could be as well, if all goes according to plan.

"He fits in very well," Jenkins said. "He's learning the defense, just like we all are. Rodney is a tenacious guy. He's going to get to the football and he is going to help us in a lot of ways. I think we've played off of each other so far. It's early and there is a lot to learn, but I can tell he is picking things up quickly and he's going to be here and make an impact."

McLeod was the under-the-radar signing in free agency that, upon review, all of the analysts seemed to like. He has range in coverage and courage and technique in supporting the run. With Jenkins and McLeod, the Eagles think they have their safety tandem in place for the next handful of seasons.

So, starting at the back end and moving toward the line of scrimmage, just how much has the Eagles' defense improved? It remains to be seen, of course, but the Eagles have added some pieces that should make instant differences in the Schwartz-designed scheme that emphasizes up-the-field attacking and a variety of coverages. In addition to McLeod, the Eagles have loaded up in the secondary in the offseason, signing cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks as unrestricted free agents and retaining 2015 starting cornerback Nolan Carroll. They drafted Blake Countess and Jalen Mills. Eric Rowe returns as a starter, looking to become an elite cornerback. A bunch of kids are in the mix as well, including JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans, two 2015 draft picks, and Denzel Rice, who spent last season on the active roster and saw limited playing time.

At linebacker, newcomer Nigel Bradham figures to play the SAM position with Jordan Hicks inside and Mychal Kendricks on the weak side. Hicks, in his second season, has dedicated his offseason to returning to full health after his pectoral injury last year and to learning the defense.

"I understand what's going on and what my responsibility is," Hicks said. "I had a great mentor last year in DeMeco Ryans and he taught me how to prepare, how important the mental part of the game is. I'll be ready for this defense and to be the leader in the middle."

Up front, the Eagles are going full speed up the field. They will play the run on the way to the quarterback. It's going to be all about attacking the line of scrimmage.

"Basically," defensive end Brandon Graham said, "Jim just wants us to go out there and get the quarterback. I love it."

The Eagles have punch off the edge with Graham, Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry, while Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan, with some help from Beau Allen, Taylor Hart and perhaps newly added Mike Martin, offer push from the defensive tackle positions.

So, how much better is the defense? We're going to find out starting in September, but a combination of aggressive signings in free agency and some additions late in the draft, added to the talent remaining from last year's roster, gives Schwartz and his proven scheme some ammunition with which to work. 

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