The Eagles' secondary is going through a bit of a transition heading into the 2020 NFL season.
Gone is longtime safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose experience and leadership guided the unit through injuries and sometimes inconsistent play. Arriving are perennial Pro Bowler Darius Slay, a versatile piece in Philadelphia native Will Parks, and nickel cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. The Eagles also selected K'Von Wallace in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Jalen Mills is among many players returning to the unit but is also beginning anew with his move from cornerback to safety.
Part of Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz's job during Training Camp is figuring out how all of the new pieces can fit with the current ones and turn the Eagles into one of the league's top defensive backfields.
The feat will be easier said than done, as the pandemic prevented the unit from being together until Training Camp. Before camp, the feeling-out process that comes with a new-look secondary was done virtually.
But even with that setback, Schwartz believes the Eagles got the most out of their time. If anything, it actually helped because it meant the secondary got to have more meetings than usual. The increase in meetings certainly helped the likes of Mills, who will be playing safety on a full-time basis for the first time in his professional career.
"I think Jalen's in a little bit different position because he's not learning a new defense. He's learning a new position within the defense," Schwartz said.
But why was Mills chosen to change positions? Other than the fact that he played safety (as well as corner and slot) at LSU, Schwartz said Mills checked a lot of boxes when evaluating the move, including toughness, range, instincts, and vision.
"Jalen's a good leader for us," Schwartz said. "He's tough, he's brings an edge to our defense, and I think you might even see that a little bit more when he's inside right there at the safety position as opposed to being all the way out on the perimeter."
Mills' move to safety has created a bit of a ripple effect, as it has left an opening for the starting cornerback spot opposite Slay. Robey-Coleman is primarily a slot corner, so that leaves Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones, Avonte Maddox, Cre'Von LeBlanc, and Craig James as the candidates to take over the position. Fortunately for the Eagles, all of them have playing experience, even if that experience resulted from numerous injuries during the last couple of seasons.
Douglas has played in 46 games (18 starts) during his first three seasons. Jones has played in 22 games the last two seasons. Maddox has played outside, inside, and safety during his two seasons in Philadelphia and had success playing all three positions, according to Schwartz.
LeBlanc has played mostly inside, but has some experience playing outside during his time in Philly. Even James was thrust into action in 2019, accounting for a clutch pass breakup against the Green Bay Packers that led to a game-sealing interception.
With so much talent and so much experience, Schwartz has declared it an open competition for the spot.
Regardless of who is chosen, playing opposite of Slay, who was the Lions' second-round pick in 2013 when Schwartz was the head coach in Detroit, will require the ability to play in multiple areas of the field, as he is known to lock on to a receiver for an entire game.
"In order to do that, it's not just on Slay to know inside and outside, which we have real good comfort level with and feel like he can do that, but now it's going to put all of your corners, your safeties, and your nickels just a little bit more into ... they have to be a little bit more multidimensional," Schwartz said.
Schwartz told reporters Friday that Slay will continue to match up with the opponent's top receiver in 2020, but also said he is not sure how much it will happen. It depends on the opponent and the receiver.
"We're really excited about having him," Schwartz said about Slay. "I think it's going to add a different dimension to our secondary."
With Training Camp finally underway, the Eagles' secondary will have a little more than a month to endure this transition period before the season opener on September 13. However, it will have to do so without the luxury of preseason games and the chemistry that is so vital to a successful secondary will have to be built solely through practice.