Doug Pederson has stressed the need for better play by the secondary since he became coach of the Eagles. Pederson didn't just make that a casual goal. The Eagles worked aggressively this offseason to upgrade the talent on the back end. Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks were added in free agency. Nolan Carroll was re-signed. The Eagles drafted Blake Countess and Jalen Mills to add talent and versatility to the secondary. Arguably the biggest move was signing Rodney McLeod in free agency. He joins Malcolm Jenkins to give the team one of the best safety tandems in the league.
Making moves doesn't guarantee success. After all, the Eagles added Byron Maxwell, Walter Thurmond, Eric Rowe and JaCorey Shepherd to try and fix the secondary just a year ago. Maxwell didn't turn out to be as good as the team hoped. Thurmond was solid at safety. Rowe started five games and showed promise. Shepherd had a strong spring, but then tore his ACL in Training Camp. The Eagles allowed more than 280 passing yards a game. They gave up 36 passing touchdowns and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 92.8.
This year feels different.
Let's start with McLeod. The Eagles gave him a big deal to come to Philly. McLeod isn't just a good player; he's 26 years old and in the prime of his career. McLeod played in a scheme similar to what the Eagles will run so he's not a blind projection. He should be a good fit. The Eagles will be asking him to do things he's already done well.
The coaches have been very impressed with what they've seen from McLeod so far. There isn't any hitting or tackling, but those are McLeod's strengths so the coaches don't need to see that side of his game. They are impressed with his coverage skills and the fact he's in the right place at the right time. Safety is a position where diagnosing plays and getting to the right spot is critical. Because McLeod played in a similar scheme in St. Louis, learning the Eagles system has come easily for him.
The veteran who stood out more than anyone else this spring was McKelvin. Part of that was due to his outstanding play. It also helped that McKelvn was more active and more vocal than any other player on the field. Good cornerbacks are rarely shy and McKelvin does his best to keep that trend going. He made a lot of plays and brought a lot of energy to the field this spring. It certainly helped that he played for Jim Schwartz in Buffalo back in 2014. McKelvin doesn't have to learn the defense. He can just go play. So far, he's done a terrific job of that.
No one is going to mistake McKelvin for Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson or Darrelle Revis anytime soon, but he doesn't need to play at that level to help the Eagles. The defense needs a steady, reliable corner who can make some plays. A shutdown corner would be great, but those guys are hard to find. Just having a quality starter on the field every Sunday can make a big difference to the defense.
Ron Brooks had a terrific career at LSU, but has been more of a special teams standout since coming into the NFL. He played some on defense in Buffalo, but not a significant amount. His most productive season came in 2014 when he played for Schwartz in Buffalo. Maybe that system just fits him well. Brooks got a lot of reps on defense this spring. He ran with the starters a lot. Injuries helped him to get on the field, but Brooks took advantage of the situation and played well. Brooks is 27 years old so it is possible that his best football is still ahead of him. Sometimes a change of scenery can make a world of difference to a player.
The standout rookie from this spring was Jalen Mills. He played safety his final two years at LSU. The Eagles listed him at safety on the roster. For some reason, Mills went to corner this spring. I don't know if he pushed to play there or if the team wanted him there. Regardless, he was outstanding. There is talk of him now possibly pushing for a starting spot. I don't know if that is true, but I do know Mills hasn't been on the bench in a long time. He started all four years at LSU. He was a star in high school. This is a guy who is used to being on the field and playing at a high level.
Mills is physically gifted, but he's also a smart, instinctive player. You don't make a quick transition to the NFL just because you are the right size or have the right speed. You must understand the game and have a feel for things. Mills is playing beyond his years because these abilities. You can bet the coaches will really push him in Training Camp to find out if he in fact should be in consideration for a starting spot. You don't make seventh round picks starters as rookies very often. Then again, Mills isn't your typical seventh rounder. He was a big time player at a big time school. The Eagles may have gotten a major steal when they picked him.
We haven't heard nearly as much about Countess, who the Eagles took in the sixth round. He's playing safety and that is very challenging for a rookie. Pederson has praised Countess for his performance, but the rookie won't be stealing anyone's starting job. The Eagles will be thrilled if he shows he can be a solid special teams player and viable backup. Last year the Eagles were looking for a starter at safety. This time around the starters are set and the need is for good depth.
Now let's talk about the returning players. Many people penciled in Rowe as a starting corner. He might start, but he's been up and down so far this year. Rowe doesn't lack size, speed or talent, but he's adjusting to a new scheme and way of playing. The light hasn't fully gone on for him this year. The team still has high expectations for him and sees him as a key to long term success in the secondary. They aren't going to rush Rowe.
Carroll and Shepherd are both healthy and getting involved. Carroll is coming off arguably his best season. The Eagles brought him back to challenge for a starting spot on the outside or possibly in the slot. Last year Carroll battled Rowe, who was a rookie, for the starting gig. This year the competition will be tougher. Rowe is a year older and there are some other quality veterans in the mix. You also throw in Mills, who is playing at a high level right now. He's not your typical rookie. This is good competition. You want the players to push each other.
As for Shepherd, he was projected to play the slot last year. We'll have to wait for camp to see where the Eagles use him the most. He tore his ACL 10 months ago. Sometimes that injury can take a full year to recover, but he's young and seems to be right on schedule. Shepherd could be in the mix on the outside, but he looked so natural in the slot last year that the team could leave him there to try and bring out the best in him.
There are some other players who could be more of a factor in Training Camp. This is a crucial year for Ed Reynolds and Jaylen Watkins as they try to win roster spots. Denzel Rice was good enough to make the team as a rookie, but he's surrounded by better players this year. He needs to up his game. Aaron Grymes is trying to make the transition from the CFL to the NFL. He's been okay, but needs to do more to earn a roster spot.
It sure feels like the Eagles made good moves and added some quality pieces to the secondary this offseason, but the real proof won't come until the regular season. We need to see McKelvin, Mills and McLeod go up against Odell Beckham and Dez Bryant before we really know just how good the secondary is.